Cambodia is a beautiful place and it’s easy to relax in to a backpacker life of soft tourism i.e. good food, excellent local beer and nice weather. All paid for with the mighty US$, with change of less than $1 given in local currency. It is not too hard to work in 3 currencies at once. US$ for paying, Riel for change and £ for the true cost. Angkor Wat is yet to come, so there is time in Phnom Penh to learn about the terrible and recent history of this country.
With some awareness of what was to come 3 of us visited s-21, a high school which was turned into a prison and place of torture under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70’s.
The people I visited this run down grey building with walked around in silence. It didn’t need words.
Don’t read further if you’re likely to be upset by more about this. I’ll be back on cheery travel blogging soon, but it’s impossible to ignore this.
The walls are covered with thousands of mug shot style photos of people brutalised and killed here or bused out to the killing fields for execution. Men, women, children. From all walks of life, forced under torture to confess to something, anything.
In the photos you can see fear, resignation, defiance, strength and hate from people who must have known what was going to happen to them. Barbed wire still hangs where it was once used to corral people and according to one sign “stop them committing suicide”.
Afterwards we took a tuk-tuk out of the city to the village of Choeung Ek where the actual killing fields are. This is just one of many sites in Cambodia where mass graves for thousands of people have been uncovered. Trucks took thousands of people from s-21 to here where they were executed immediately or held for a final period when the executioners couldn’t keep up. The descriptions on the signs and the photos and paintings in the museum are graphically descriptive.
The large Buddhist stupa (the only picture I felt it was ok to take) was built as a memorial to those who died and contains the skulls of over 8000 victims.
This country is trying very hard to build a new future and is acutely aware of its recent past. I think tourists like me, lapping up the sun, beer and great food should also learn about what happened here – within the living memory of our tuk-tuk driver. To do this, trips to these terrible places are essential.
That said – I don’t think they need to also offer day trips to shooting ranges where “you can fire AK47!”. I guess if they are offered, someone must be buying. Indeed when I was back home it sounded like a fun “boys” day out. But seriously, after just a few hours learning about the atrocities visited upon the Khmer people I can’t think of anything less appropriate.
The BBC website is covering the trials of some of Pol Pot’s key collaborators at the moment.