There’s no easy way to get around it – this was the most difficult day of my visit to Cambodia. So hard in fact, that it’s been a challenging one to write about.
The first excursion of my Cambodian tour, was a day in Phnom Penh with visits to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Having not read up on Cambodia’s history in detail before the trip, I had no idea just how haunting this day would be.
Tuol Sleng is a high school in Phnom Penh that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, during the Pol Pot regime, and converted to a prison and interrogation centre. The prison, known as S-21, detained up to 20,000 people between 1975-1978 and most of the prisoners were transported to The Killing Fields where they were horrifically slain and thrown into corpse-filled pits.
Inside the prison are a number of eerie concrete-walled rooms displaying boards covered on both sides with the haunting black and white portrait photographs of frightened prisoners – of ALL ages – including some photos of prisoners after being tortured and killed.
For me, visiting The Killing Fields was the most morbid part of the day. On arrival we were each given audio guides and headsets so we could walk around and explore the site in our own time. I understood how important it was to be there and be educated about Cambodia’s history. The mood of visitors was calm and respectful, reminding me of being in a library where you are compelled to be quiet.
Aside from a small museum which graphically details the macabre atrocities and a grim monument filled with recovered bones and clothing, the site is predominantly dry land with a few big trees, a lot of sunken pits, scant grass and the occasional piece of clothing poking out of the dirt.
Thousands of bodies were dumped in mass graves and chemicals were poured over the top to mask the smell and kill anyone who was still alive. In the middle of the field is a large tree where a radio would play loud music to drown out the moans of victims. What I found most gruesome is what’s known as the ‘killing tree’. Naked babies and toddlers were held by their legs and flung against this bloody tree, until they were bludgeoned to death, their small bodies then thrown into the neighbouring pit. The tree has grown since this torturous time and was covered in with hand-woven bracelets – peaceful offerings from visitors.
Our tour guide, whose whole family had firsthand experience with the Khmer Rouge, explained that the Pol Pot regime lasted for exactly 3 years, 8 months and 20 days – a period in time that is important to remember, recognise and respect all that the Cambodian people have been through and overcome.
Share your experiences – have you visited any emotionally difficult places in your travels?
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