Cambodia's Killing Fields
James Dorsey takes you to the killing fields of Cambodia and describes what went on during the Khmer Rouge's brutal reign of terror'.
"The Khmer people are among the friendliest and kindest on earth..."
Cambodia is a land desperately trying to enter the modern world after nearly two thousand years of war.
While most people know something of it's history under the French occupation, American bombing, and terrorist reign of the Khmer Rouge that took the lives of almost 1.6 million Cambodians, very few are aware of the situation there today.
The Khmer people are among the friendliest and kindest on earth, living under impossible conditions. It was this optimism in the face of great adversity that caused me to dig beneath the surface and find out how people are coping today in this beautiful little country.
I have been there twice, once in 2004 and again in 2005. I was able to visit four of the six known killing fields and this is what I found.
Beginning in Phnom Penh, I visited the notorious Khmer Rouge interrogation camp known as Tuol Sleng, a former high school. Today it is a museum with manicured lawns and whispering palm trees. Under the leadership of Salath Sar, commonly known as Pol Pot, and his band of thugs, the Khmer Rouge, it was a haven of nightmares. Inside the entrance a large sign warns prisoners not to cry out while they are being lashed or given electric shock. The penalty for doing so is more torture. A scaffold dominates the courtyard where victims were suspended for days at a time to receive shock or simply hung by the neck.
One is free to wander through rows of tiny cells with blood stained walls, and to view thousands of photos as countless dead stare back with a look of resignation. Each prisoner was photographed and catalogued with a number upon arrival. Only seven are confirmed to have survived and walked away. My local guide was unable to enter with me for he began to tremble and cry at the entrance, so he sat in the car while I toured the building that claimed the lives of six of his family. The last room I entered was lined with shelves full of skulls.
Skulls are used to great effect throughout Cambodia. Rather than hiding the atrocities of their past, the Cambodians have chosen to put them center stage for all the world to see, learn from and remember.
Within two years of the Khmer Rouge assuming power, there were 21 interrogation camps across the country filled with people who were guilty of nothing more than being a teacher, artist, cleric, or simply for wearing glasses which to the Khmer Rouge was a sign of a bourgeois elitist. Anyone who was not a peasant was targeted for execution because their ambition was to create a totally agrarian society they could rule under their iron thumb.
The most famous of these camps is Choeung Ek outside the capitol of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is one of several rural settings where killing was practiced at the industrial level.
At first, people were simply lined up at mass graves and forced to dig their own graves then shot in the head, but this was expensive so later they were simply beaten to death.
Young children were thrown against trees or had their heads smashed in with large rocks.
It is this particular camp that gave rise to the name; "Killing Fields" and was memorialized in Sydney Schamberg's book by the same name, later becoming a motion picture. It is from this Killing Field that the world received the first shocking photos of thousands of skeletons, the first note from Pol Pot's symphony of death. It is but one of seven sites where genocide was carried out.
I spent several hours at Choeung Ek walking through the massive fields that resemble bomb craters but are actually the result of years of excavations trying to retrieve all the buried victims. From above, it looks like the area had been carpet bombed. Bones and bits of clothing poke out of the ground everywhere and signs ask visitors to kindly pick up any human remains they find and deposit them on a pile for future reinterment. I personally gathered several human remains and deposited them with a silent prayer. Cows roam these grounds freely today giving them a surreal pastoral feeling knowing what took place. After heavy rains, the topsoil runs off and the ground is white with new bones. Everywhere I looked, people were carrying bones and there were no dry eyes. The visitor is directly connected to the victim.
The centerpiece of Choeung Ek is a towering glass Stupa or shrine, filled with hundreds of skulls. These towers of the dead are found at the entrance of each and every killing field. No matter where you stand under the gaze of the victims, hollow eyes stare out, searching for an answer. To get to the Stupa one must pass through a sea of aggressive young beggars, grabbing and pulling at you for attention. These are the children of the skulls in front of you. With no where else to go, they live in cardboard lean-tos next to the parking area, hoping to capitalize on the guilt and pity of visitors.
Adding to the intensity of what one is seeing is the fact that most of these places are still saturated with land mines.
A non-governmental charitable organization known as the HALO TRUST is devoted to the removal of land mines on a global level. They estimate to have removed almost 1.6 million mines in Cambodia so far. While this number is impressive, it pales when you consider there are still almost 7 million mines left in place. The paths to all these historical places are lined with signs warning visitors to stay on the path.
The familiar "deaths head" logo appears everywhere you go as a marker for the line where a cleared area ends and an active mine field begins. Cambodia Mine Action Committee, (CMAC) signs dot the jungle trails like picket fences.
I am embarrassed to learn that out of more than fifty countries who have signed treaties banning the use of land mines, my own country refuses to sign.
If the land mine signs fail to get one's attention, the bands of local musicians that are found on the path to every temple and killing field will. Some are missing a hand or foot, many are blind, but all are victims. They play traditional music on instruments they make themselves. The government has made no concessions to these victims. Those fortunate enough to have prosthetics do so out of the charity of other countries. Many have crudely carved legs or make do with a wooden stump. Many wear eye patches looking like old- time pirates. They are not beggars, and are proud of their ability to make a living in spite of their handicaps.
Just outside of Choeung Ek, my guide took me to a spot where only a week prior to my arrival he found himself standing on top of a mine during a picnic with his family.
Fortunately it was an anti-tank mine and he did not weigh enough to detonate it, but this is a reminder of the frailty of human endeavor. He was standing in a "Cleared" zone at the time.
Near the ancient pagoda of Phnom Suntouk, deep in the jungle, I was taken to a cave. The neatly trimmed path was lined with signs warning of both landmines and cobras. We walked down numerous steps into a cool grotto overhung with vines and ferns to find a large reclining Buddha. This statue is about twenty feet long, painted gold and it is smiling. The first site of it stunned me for I remembered seeing it in a photo published in numerous magazines in the late 1970's. That same photo got worldwide attention when it was featured in Stanley Karnow's wonderful book, "Vietnam, a History".
About two hundred feet above the Buddha, light shines through a small opening from the trail high above the cave. It was through this opening that the Khmer Rouge tossed hundreds of screaming victims to their death on the stone floor below. Today, the cave floor is clean but in the corner there is a large wooden case lined with skulls and a slate listing the names of the known dead.
While most of these "Killing Fields' were located in rural areas, to hide them from public knowledge, one is very prominent in the heart of Siem Reap city. This town is the entry point from which thousands of tourists enter the giant temple complex of Angkor Wat each day. Angkor Wat is rapidly approaching the popularity of China's Great Wall in the number of visitors it attracts, yet just blocks from the 5 star hotels and neon signs is one of Cambodia's most brutal death camps.
There is irony that this place of death should today have an almost carnival atmosphere with throngs of happy tourists passing so close by, yet few of them know of it's existence. It is not in the itinerary of any tour group, but enclosed by the walls of a quiet monastery and sheltered by swaying palm trees.
Som Rouong Kmong began as a teaching seminary for young men entering monkhood. Under the Khmer Rouge, the monks were first to die, followed by 30,000 additional victims in less than a year. I was shown a tiny mud shack containing piles of human bones. Today's monks are the caretakers of these bones. One monk showed me his drinking cup. It was the skull of his own brother and he told me he uses it every day as a reminder. Under the skull-filled stupa at Som Roung Kmong there is a sign telling of the slaughter of these people and asking for donations to build a proper memorial. This shrine does not have enough money to inter all the bones so they sit in piles.
At Som Rouong Kmong I was priveleged to meet an elderly monk named Pan. When I approached to take his picture he was shy but friendly. He realized I was genuinely interested in events of the past, and reluctantly began to tell his story. He had been a monk for 40 years. Under the Khmer rouge, he was sent to a "reeducation camp," where he was severely beaten.
He told me he saw monks suspended by their thumbs for hours at a time while others were made to copulate with nuns in public places with a gun to their head. Monks were taken to crowded locations and forced to sing obscene songs while government soldiers urinated on them. Pan began to cry while telling me this, but he never wavered. The words kept coming and I felt he needed to talk about this if only to a stranger.
He spent four years in this camp, holding on to his faith by the most slender strands of human will. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 he managed to escape during the confusion to the countryside. It was here that he found work harvesting rice and working as a field hand.
He encountered other monks while doing this whom had been through similar circumstances. He was always afraid to reveal his true identity and only after the fall of the Khmer Rouge was he able to return to a city. Once he did, he was treated as a revered elder because under Pol Pot, most of the Buddhist monasteries and libraries were destroyed. It would be up to monks like Pan to insure the continued line of Theraveda Buddhism if it was going to succeed.
While telling me this he showed no self pity, it was all matter of fact. I sense that Pan has found some peace now and he told me to tell others his story if I wanted to; not for any personal reasons but to help insure the past does not repeat itself.
Pol Pot, the despotic leader of the Khmer Rouge, was killed in the jungle by his own lieutenants in 1998 for "betraying the revolution," but most of the leadership of this band of thugs is alive and well today.
Only recently was a United Nations team put in place to negotiate with the Cambodian government for the possibility of setting up a war crimes tribunal. If this happens, it will be due to international public opinion because within the country itself there is little support for such a move.
Pen Samithy publishes the Rasmei Kampuchea, Cambodia's largest daily Khmer -language circulation newspaper. According to him, local people do not want to hear about the past. He is quoted in his own paper as saying, "No one wants to read about the UN plans for a trial. The circulation will drop if we write stories about the Khmer Rouge." According to Samithy, young Cambodians today are aware of what happened here but choose not to believe it.
Many people I talked to personally would not comment on the Khmer Rouge. Most made it clear they are not happy under the current government but look over their shoulder while doing so. Even under the new monarchy, Cambodians are not allowed to travel abroad. Since they have never known true freedom, they accept what comes each day and remain hopeful for the future.
Don't forget to check out James Dorsey's new book, highlighted in our 'Americas' travel issue in the Journey Beyond Travel Adventure Magazine. Plus, we've got a book contest where you can have the opportunity to win a signed copy of Tears, Fears & Adventure from the author!
How to get there: There are no direct flights into Cambodia from the United States. You can get there on most major carriers by flying into any number of Asian cities such as Hanoi, Saigon, (Ho Chi Minh City) or Bangkok. I recommend flying on China Airlines as they are the cheapest and most on time of all. Current airfare to Saigon from Los Angeles is $865. From Saigon, it is $110 dollars to fly into Siem Reap or Phnom Penh on Vietnam Airlines.
CHINA AIRLINES: website, www.china-airlines.com
Toll Free phone: (800) 227-5118
Vietnam Airlines: Ho Chi Minh City Phone # 84-4832-0320, Hanoi # 84-8832-0320 for reservations and information.
Where to Stay: You will need a visa to enter Cambodia. This is available from the Consulate in Washington D.C. (website: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone # (202) 726-7742 or through local tourist agencies in Vietnam. It costs $20 U. S. Not many tourists are entering Cambodia yet. Hotels are plentiful and cheap by Western standards and reservations are probably not required unless you wish to stay at the very best places. Cambodia's 5 star hotels are every bit as nice as Western hotels but for far less money.
For the budget traveler, I recommend you simply hire a Tuk-Tuk driver (Motorized rickshaw) at the airport and tell him how much money you want to spend. You will probably be pleasantly surprised with where you end up. Most room prices are not per person but for the entire room, regardless of how many people use it. They are generally very clean and have all the amenities for about $20 per night.
To get around, the Tuk-Tuk cannot be beat. They are everywhere and cost about $1 to take you anywhere. Other than that thousands of young men on motorbikes wait on the streets to do the same job. You can hire them for a couple dollars per day. Most of them are totally honest and friendly.
Some recommendations in between are.
Phnom Penh: The Cambodiana. This is a 300-room resort right on the Mekong River near the heart of Phnom Penh. Rooms run from $45-$235 per night so there is something for everyone. 313 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Phone (855) 23-218189, fax: (8550 23-426-392. Swimming pool and restaurant on site.
Siem Reap: Angkor Star Hotel: phone (855 63) 766 999, E-mail: email@example.com website: www.starhtl.com. Clean modern rooms start at $60 per night. There is an on site restaurant and a large pool.
Tuk-Tuk driver in Siem Reap: Danny, he will pick you up and take you anywhere you want to go, even to the airport. He's soft-spoken and a very honest person. He knows all the best hotels in Siem Reap and will take you anywhere. Send him an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or give him a call: (855)(012) 36-95-07
Local Guide: Bout Sokkhoeun. I have hired him twice for periods of two weeks. He will meet you anywhere in the country and take you anyplace. He speaks perfect English and is 100% trustworthy. He knows Cambodian history inside and out. I cannot say enough about this man. E-mail: email@example.com, tel: (855) 12 925 070 or (855) 012 925 070. He charges about $30 a day for services outside of Siem Reap and $20 a day in the city. You can also get a car and driver for about $25 a day.
When you leave. There is an airport departure tax at both the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh airports of $25 U.S. If you transit through Vietnam you pay no airport fee.