If coming to Saigon taught me that my knowledge of the Vietnam War was lacking, my time in Phnom Penh revealed my complete ignorance towards the Cambodian Genocide.
Two of the city’s main tourist destinations include the S-21 Museum and the Killing Fields. Both reflect the communist Khmer Rouge ruling over the country from 1975 -1979. In a nutshell, the party, lead by Pol Pot (who came from a wealthy family and was educated in Paris,) aimed to create a classless rural nation of farmers. Realising that educated upperclassmen would most likely oppose being forced into manual farming labour, Pol Pot ordered the execution of anyone in a professional field, who spoke a foreign language or who wore glasses, along with their entire extended family. This was done under the slogan “to spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss”. Aside from the fact that the saying is absolutely disgusting, the fact that a communist leader created a slogan that mentions “profit” also reeks with irony.
Anyone cursed with this fate underwent their sentence in 2 sections: first, a trip to Security Office 21 (S-21), then on to Choeung Ek (the killing fields).
S-21 was a former high school, which, under the Khmer Rouge, became transformed into a prison as schools of any type were banned. Here, prisoners were held and tortured on school gym equipment with lashes, partial drownings and electric shocks. Prisoners underwent this on a regular basis until they were moved to their final destination of Choeung Ek.
Prisoners were then loaded onto trucks in the middle of the night and sent to Choeung Ek where they were beat and bludgeoned to death (bullets were too expensive to be a viable alternative) and thrown into a mass grave. The free available audio tour (which comes in several languages) leads you around a series of these gravesites, the largest one containing over 450 bodies. Teeth, bones and rags of clothing are still being found today, many washing up to the surface after the rainy season.
The full experience was a lot to take in on a single day, and helped put some of my own issues into perspective. It may not have been the most fun part of my trip, but it’s not something I would have missed, providing a deeper insight into the past culture and history of now such friendly and proud people.