Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields

Without knowing the history of Cambodia, you would never realize that there’s an entire generation of people missing. The capital city, Phnom Penh, is home to one of the most heart wrenching memorials in the world, colloquially translated as, The Killing Fields.

The Killing Fields Memorial Tower
The Killing Fields Memorial Tower

We cruised past the markets; past the cafes and business offices, the signs of a developing nation; past the street carts and parks and plazas. Several kilometers southwest of the city, we passed open sewers and new roads under construction, everything normal for a city in Cambodia.

The tuk-tuk turned into what appeared to be an orchard with a ticket booth. At the entrance, we were handed an audio device and headphones. I knew we were at The Killing Fields, but I was not prepared for what was next.

Turning on the audio device, I was greeted by a voice; a gentle Cambodian voice that immediately evoked melancholy and gravity. This voice was our guide through a horrifying history. Sign posts throughout the field guided our slow, somber walk along the pits and scattered memorials.

Clothing of the victims
Clothing of the victims

In high school, I learned about the atrocities of the 1940’s Holocaust incited by Hitler that killed about 6 million European Jews and minorities. Later, we discussed the genocide in modern day Darfur, which included the death of almost 500,000 people and the displacement of millions. But never once did anyone talk about the extermination of one-third of the entire population of Cambodia from 1975-1979.

During the end of what the United States calls the Vietnam War, a ferocious regime, the Khmer Rouge, rose to power in Cambodia. An ingenious leader best known as Pol Pot rallied the proletariat into action under an extremism of Marxist ideology. Intellectuals, the affluent, and those with opposing political power were forced into slave camps where starvation and disease dominated. Cities, including Phnom Penh, were pillaged and evacuated, while the countrymen, typically the poor and undereducated, were welcomed into the oppressive regime with the promise of safety and security.

Pits for the dead, still littered with clothing and bones
Pits for the dead, still littered with clothing and bones

I walked around the pits where bodies, mashed and mangled once lay. Pieces of their clothing and shards of bones still remain for the public to feel the weight of the calamity. I was viewing the deathbed of 17,000 out of 3 million murdered Cambodian men, women, and children.

A tree against which children were beaten to death
A tree against which children were beaten to death

A decorated tree still shows the scars of where children were bashed against its bark. From the audio player, the gentle voice, intelligent and sincere, left me hanging on every word.

The tour of The Killing Fields climaxed at the center memorial tower, where mounds of victims’ skulls are displayed to sink in the horror of a lost generation.

Skulls of victims, stacked up the tower
Skulls of victims, stacked up the tower

Upon leaving, the cheer had been lost on the day, replaced by profound conversations of social justice and global awareness. One conclusion we came to was that too few people know about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide of 3 million Cambodians. I can only hope that this post lends you a reason to investigate the injustices in the modern world, and just because the media or history books in your school don’t cover certain topics that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

Don’t forget to check out the more personal companion blog Strattanville Globetrotter and the picture-fueled extension of this blog, the Backpackin’ Ben Tumblr!

3 thoughts on “Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields

  1. I loved this post! I completely agree, when I walked away I felt astounded that we had never been taught about the Khmer Rouge in school, especially in Australia which is in the same region as Cambodia. But in contrast to its horrific history the people of Cambodia are some of the warmest I have ever met. Great Post!

    Like

    1. Wow even in Australia? It makes you wonder who dictates what “makes history” and what’s worth learning. I quite agree though – generally the Cambodian people are relaxed with heartwarming smiles.

      Like

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