We will burn the old grass and the new will grow.
-Khmer Rouge slogan under Pol Pot
What happens when a country's government goes off the rails and takes its citizens down with it? Or more specifically, what happens when a political party elbows its way into power, comes up with a half-baked plan to transform the country into an agrarian utopia, and goes about destroying thousands of years of rich history and culture while simultaneously exterminating a third of its population? To answer these questions, I took a brief trip to Cambodia and came away with a heavy heart knowing what the people suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, yet also inspired because of their resiliency, creativity, and hopefulness.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia's capital and largest city, situated on flat land along the Tonle Sap River. While it's the country's center for politics, economy, and culture, it's less dense and relaxed than I imagined, or at least compared to the insanity of Bangkok. While I only visited Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the road between them, I got the feeling that the country was forging a new identity for itself while also carrying the heavy burdens of a dark past; it was complicated. I saw signs of investment all over Phnom Penh, from trendy restaurants and boutique hotels to shiny banks and posh resorts. Of course, this world remains out of reach for most Cambodians who survive on very, very little.
Life wasn't always this difficult in Cambodia and at one point the country was considered the finest in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the Cambodian Civil War started in 1967 and involved neighboring Vietnam, instigating a massacre of Cambodia's Vietnamese population. Civilian deaths and other casualties of war went on until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge Regime emerged out of the chaos into power. The party's leader Pol Pot barbarously took action in reshaping Cambodia into an ultra-pure classless, agrarian-based communist society. Within weeks, cities were completely evacuated of people; no one was left behind, not the sick, elderly, pregnant, or young. These people were marched out to the country and separated from family, then forced to work in agriculture and live in labor camps. Tens of thousands died on the march, and millions more went on to die from being overworked, intellectual, a Buddhist, or weak. Foreign influences were banned, schools, hospitals, and factories were closed, religions and banking were abolished, and famine set in because few urban dwellers (nor the government, apparently) knew how to properly farm the land; the Khmer Rouge even set their own clock, with "year zero" starting in 1975. In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded and occupied Cambodia but the the cruel Khmer Rouge held a strong grip on society for a few more years. Ultimately, between two and three million Cambodians were killed during Pol Pot's Cambodian Genocide, almost a quarter of the country at the time. The genocide is one of the worst in history and the country still bears scars from the past, as evidenced in the country's high rate of corruption and poverty. In 1991, Cambodia finally kicked out Vietnam and became the constitutional monarchy it is today. Phew, that's a lot of action in the past fifty years. (Interesting podcast on what it was like to be a Cambodian child during the Khmer Rouge is here.)
A bit of online research suggested that while in Phnom Penh, I eat some 'happy' pizza, admire the temples, visit the Art Deco central market, and flag down a tuk tuk (really a motorcycle with an attached carriage; very resourceful if you ask me) for a trip to the killing fields and genocide museum. It was a busy couple of days, and hands down my favorite part was watching Cambodian life pass by as the driver and I crawled by in a tuk tuk. Mmm, Cambodia.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Also called S-21, Tuol Sleng was the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The memorial site's pamphlet says between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here, and only twelve have been confirmed as survivors. Twelve. That's downright chilling. Prisoners of Tuol Sleng were taken to the killing fields at Choeung Ek (see below). The grounds of the museum and memorial site ($3 for entrance, $3 for audio guide) served as Chao Ponhea Yat High School until 1975, or just months after the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodia Civil War. The five school buildings were quickly transformed into a drab, crowded, and dangerous place: buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes (Wikipedia). Walking through the concrete buildings in the oppressive Cambodian heat, I looked at the hundreds of head shots of imprisoned locals; while most faces stared numbly at the camera, it was the image of a woman gripping her baby and staring fearfully into the distance that really made me sad. She looked hungry and tired but ready to fight, much like all the the prisoners, but I imagine Cambodians learned quickly to control their impulses in the presence of the Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Fields
Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. Here, about 20,000 innocent people including foreigners were executed and murdered in this former orchard. The memorial site ($3 for entrance, $3 for audio guide) has carefully uncovered and preserved 129 mass graves and 8,000 human skulls. Most of the skulls are kept in the Memorial Stupa or Charnel, built in 1988 to honor the more than 3 million victims throughout the country. Colored dots on skulls indicate how victims died, with blunt force being the most common because it was cheaper. (Shudder.) It's important to note that the killing fields were just that: fields for killing. Trucks arrived at the field 2 to 3 times a month with each truck holding up to 30 "frightened, blinded, and silent prisoners." Prisoners were executed right away, although sometimes prisoners had to wait for their execution. No one was immune to the Khmer Rouge's swift and cruel punishment; children and babies even had a designated tree where they were beaten to the point of death. Yet in all this tragedy, I found the sign by the chemical substance room to be especially jarring: "DDT served two purposes: one, to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could raise the suspicion of people working nearby, and, two, to kill off victims buried alive." Yikes.
The Royal Palace
On a happier note, this landmark palace complex was built in 1866 and is still used today as the king of Cambodia's royal residence. I was surprised that entrance was a steep $13, but this seems to be standard for tourists at Asian temples. The architecture and design details at the Royal Palace were spectacular, though, especially the exotic flourishes unique to traditional Khmer art. And call it the happy pizza, but I was mostly intrigued by an architectural detail outside of the palace walls: the technicolor yellow honeycomb tiles lining the walkways, lending an eerie Yellow Brick Road-like quality to the park.
This Buddhist temple is the most important one in Phnom Penh, and it is the center of Cambodian Buddhism.
As the Khmer Rouge attempted to obliterate Cambodia's arts and history decades ago, killing off 90% of the country's artists, it has become incredibly important in recent years to preserve Cambodia's cultural traditions. Probably because of that curious thing Cambodian female dancers do by curling their hands backwards, I was immediately interested in seeing the dance and gladly paid $16 to attend the evening show. I went thinking it could be touristy, but I left impressed with these Cambodian's desires to preserve their culture under threat. The show features eight traditional dances with costumes and is at the National Museum of Cambodia (conveniently next to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts); shows are managed by the non-profit Cambodian Living Arts. And while patrons are treated to cool evening breezes in the open theater, I can't imagine how hot the dancers get under the bright lights and costumes. But seeing the joy and pride in the dancer's faces after the show, it's clear that they are performing from a deep desire in their heart, tropical heat be damned.