asia · cambodia

A Difficult Visit To The Killing Fields Of Cambodia

I can’t say Phnom Penh was the destination we were looking forward to the most on our whirlwind trip to Cambodia – but for many reasons, it’s an important place to mark on the map.

In fact, it’s one of the most difficult places I’ve ever visited, and not just for the lack of infrastructure or the stories of theft. Phnom Penh was a centre of mass genocide – something we hadn’t even learned at school, which made it all the more shocking as we went to find out more.

We arrived in Cambodia having heard story after story of people being mugged, people having their bags slashed from their shoulders by passing motorcyclists, people having everything taken from them during a tuk tuk ride. One girl we met had her bags stolen TWICE.

So when the morning bus was fully booked and we had to book the lunchtime one which would get in to Phnom Penh in the dark, we were more than a little apprehensive. To make things worse, we waited for hours at the car ferry crossing, and then 10 minutes outside the city we broke down outside a Cambodian wedding – which I’m not going to lie, I was tempted to crash!

Finally at 8pm we rocked up somewhere in the Cambodian capital, and thankfully we had just passed the road our hostel was on. As we stepped off the bus we were hounded by tuk tuks, but when we told them where we were going they laughed and sent us on our way. Phew.

And our hostel was AWESOME. After lugging our bags up 3 flights of stairs, that is. Our dorm was like a maze of 20 beds in different rooms but no doors between them. We were settled in the back of the dorm with 4 beds, and even though our room was next to the very lively bar, we didn’t hear a thing unless the main door was open!

And so began some great nights after very heart-wrenching and difficult days.

Our first day was spent with a visit to the notorious Killing Fields, some 15km outside of Phnom Penh. This is Asia’s version of Auschwitz, and although I’ve never visited, I honestly imagine this to be worse.

One of the only photos I dared to take – and it’s not even a close up, because… if you look closely at the inside, those are all SKULLS

The so-called “killing fields” (now called the Choeung Ek Genocide museum) is a burial ground that originated as a Chinese cemetery – until a quarter of the population was massacred under the Khmer Rouge regime. Here lies the biggest site for the killings, though there are many others all over Cambodia.

Every sign along the trail is a sombre account of what happened during those years in the 1970’s. People were brought here blindfolded, truckloads at a time, to be lined up and killed. Others would be kept in a barn until it was their turn. Women were raped and beaten. They even used cheap tools to do the job – anything they could find – because the people weren’t worth killing with anything valuable, and gun shots would attract too much attention.

Every sign made me want to cry (particularly the “do not step on any bones” ones…). The injustice these people suffered is beyond anything I’ve ever imagined. We don’t get taught about this in school – perhaps because it’s so horrific!

However, by far the hardest part of this place to contemplate is a tree covered in bracelets, known as “the killing tree”. Babies and children were killed against this tree, usually in front of their mothers before they were murdered themselves, and it’s the worst thing I can imagine.

And so I was glad to see the “music tree” nearby – it must be a little more cheerful, surely? Nope. This was used to play loud music to cover up any sounds of screaming that people nearby might find suspicious. Great.

And what was the point of this ruthless genocide? The Khmer Rouge came to power with the belief that everyone should have equal rights, which in a building economy where some people worked in the cities and others remained in poverty-stricken villages, gave leader Pol Pot the idea that these privileged people must be killed (I mean that’s a logical conclusion, right…?). This included doctors, teachers, business men and anyone with links to the previous government. With this going on behind the scenes, Pol Pot was so paranoid that everyone was in fact betraying him that he would then kill anyone as a traitor, just in case. Of course, if he’s going to kill someone, he’d better get their whole families killed too so that there is no chance of revenge.

It was insanity. The fact that this happened AND NOBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD KNEW ABOUT IT. I walked around wondering about what’s happening now, in places like Syria and Yemen. How the internet has given rise to the largest wealth of information that we’ve ever had access to, and yet we still sit by idly because it’s not happening to us? If this had happened in Cambodia now, would it have been different?

We were shocked to learn that the UN even continued to grant money to Pol Pot and his regime years after these events – even once the story had been outed. That someone could be responsible for the worst cruelty of humanity and be rewarded for it? That makes me sick to my stomach, even more than the fact no one knew any of this had happened until years later.

And yet look at Cambodia now. A quarter of their population disappeared in the space of a few years, down to 6 million people. Now, there are 15 million. And they are all happy. They all forgive Pol Pot for his horrific actions.

For a nation to have experienced true tragedy and still be at peace with themselves and everyone around them – that speaks volumes. And, despite everything I had been told (and sure, Cambodia isn’t perfect and you CAN be scammed or robbed), it really shows when you meet them.

Our second day in Phnom Penh was spent at the equally difficult Tuol Sleng prison, where we met one of just seven survivors, Chum Mey. Most of his “inmates” were taken to the killing fields, if they even lasted that long.

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We therefore used our evenings to drown our sorrows, and sadly after all the stories we’d heard, we felt confined to the hostel. This turned out to be no bad thing – the bar was a lot of fun and we met awesome people.

We’ll hold fond memories of the Mad Monkey for a while yet, along with their “bazuka” shots which were like jagerbombs but with two shot glasses in the big glass! One of cointreau, the other of vodka, you do one shot to let the other fall in and then down the lot. The point of this exercise – as well as getting drunk – was to score points for your country. Unsurprisingly, England were winning 318 to 172 with only two days to go… but we did our part for Scotland.

Read more: An Incredible Week in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat and Meditating With a Monk

We also played an epic game of jenga with an awesome Geordie we’ve become good friends with. Ash managed to get thrashed by one of the Cambodian bar staff at foosball. And we never did get round to partaking in beer pong because it was always packed! Ah well, there were always the rounds of bazuka shots…

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We did, despite our reservations, manage to explore the city a little during the day – a walk up to the grand palace via the independence monument gave us a brighter insight to the country than the genocide museums, and I loved seeing monks everywhere, whizzing by in tuk tuks or standing outside the palace saying hello. But we weren’t really feeling the city as a whole, and on our third day, it was time to head down to the coast.

Sihanoukville is another place we’d heard bad things about. “Don’t go to Serendipity beach,” everyone would say. “You’ll get mugged or spiked. Go to Otres instead.”

In our fantastic wisdom, Ash had booked us a great looking hostel which turned out to be the best part of 3 miles out of town – in the opposite direction of Otres. We were up on Victory Hill, and as it turns out, it didn’t matter one bit for us. We needed some downtime after almost five weeks of solid travel.

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Our hostel was perfect for this – not the most amazing rooms we’ve seen, and some IDIOT kept literally stealing the air con remote, but it had a swimming pool! It had cheap drinks! It had good, cheap food! And it was £3 a night each. (Comparatively we saw dorm beds in party hostels for $14 down by Serendipity.)

We had three nights here, and it was just what we needed. Our area was full of expats and the restaurants that go with the community, but the closest beach wasn’t great, and we decided to walk into town so we could at least have a day on the main beach. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get to Otres after all, but you know what? We loved Serendipity.

Maybe it’s because it was just getting into low season, but the beach wasn’t at all crowded and we were approached maybe twice by vendors, for fruit and massages. Even the bracelet kids who I’d heard so much about were nowhere to be seen – I saw one in a bar we stopped in, but that was it.

I swam in the sea, wrote in my journal, and we chilled in one bar for hours when we noticed a sign up asking for Western staff. We got chatting to a girl from Jersey (funnily enough we met another Jersey girl in Saigon and then saw her again in Phnom Penh!) who had signed up to work for two weeks, and nine months later, here she still was!

If we hadn’t got plans to be in Bangkok for Songkran, we would have absolutely done it. We are still thinking of going back one day – if that bar isn’t looking, twenty more are. It seems like such a fun experience, and their job entails pouring drinks for people, and encouraging people to play beer pong. Any time off, you’re on a beautiful beach with free drinks.

And ignore all the rumours, she said. She’s had no problems on the beach. Or maybe she’s just lucky.

So that was our time in Sihanoukville. Catching up with ourselves by the pool and the beach, and making plans for “next time we come back”.

[edit] Sadly, since we’ve left, Sihanoukville has turned into a Chinese casino playground. There is literally no reason to go there any more, except to get to Koh Rong Samloem which we absolutely should have done, in hindsight. I’m glad I got to see Sihanoukville before it died, but it’s sad seeing what it’s become.

And anyway, we were off to Siem Reap to explore some ancient temples. I realise I’ve probably painted a negative picture of Cambodia in this post – but I promise you we LOVED Siem Reap and really ended Cambodia on a high!

Plus, I really think it’s important to visit places like Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields to understand the history and how the country has changed and formed to become what it is now – how the people have changed. I’m really glad we visited and I recommend you do too, if you get the chance.

Read more about our incredible Asia trip with these posts!

Loving Northern Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay & Ninh Binh
Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… And Very Touristy
Buses, Boats and Bikes in Saigon
Songkran in Bangkok: One of the Craziest Festivals in the World
One Of The Best Weeks Of Our Lives Volunteering At Elephant Nature Park
A Surprising Paradise on Koh Phangan and How Not to Survive the Full Moon Party
Koh Tao: Our Favourite Thai Island
And Then We Fell In Love With Koh Lanta
Krabi, Railay and the Most Beautiful Beach in the World, and Climbing 1200 Steps to a Temple

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