Cambodia Round 2: Phnom Penh

After 4 days in Siem Reap I was ready to move on. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh awaited me. The ‘Pearl of Asia’. All that stood between me and that city was a 6 hour minivan ride through the countryside. I sat in the middle seat, between 2 individuals who smelled of old spaghettios and urine, in a van with no AC. Things were not great. I did not have a fun time. Eventually I arrived in the big city of dreams.

Phnom Penh was different than any city I’ve been to. It’s a city that seems to be at the crossroads between the past and the present. The shanty towns and shacks along the river are less than a km from the financial centers and government buildings. The streets are littered with trash and covered in dust, but it has its charms. The loud markets are vibrant and bustling with merchants selling everything under the sun. The people are friendly and smiling. The city seems to have a rapid pulse. This is a miracle in itself when you think about what happened in Cambodia 40 years. I would spend most of my time in Phnom Penh learning more about the atrocities that took place during those years of despair and sorrow. It was a time for personal reflection. A time to appreciate the resiliency of the Cambodians and strength within people in general.

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The two points of interest in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields and the Genocide museum. I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, and decided to take on these attractions on my own. I knew it was going to be a heavy day and I preferred to be solo.  I knew what I was in for. I had studied the Cambodian genocide at University while obtaining my unbelievably useless degree in International Relations. It was surreal to actually be walking the streets where one in every four citizens were killed between the years 1975-1979. It seems as though this part of history is left out of the high school history books back home. Perhaps its just another piece of SE Asian history we’re not too proud to have been a part of. Americans seem apt to want to forget our unsavory actions.

During the Vietnam war, the United States began to secretly bomb eastern Cambodia. Northern Vietnamese forces were using routes through Laos and Cambodia to supply Southern Vietnamese resistance with troops and weapons. Between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped over 2.3 million tons of bombs in ‘neutral’ Cambodia, killing thousands and displacing millions more. To put that in perspective, the United States SECRETLY dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did during all of WWII. Most of these bombing sorties targeted ‘unknown’ targets (aka; indiscriminate carpet bombing) During this time, communist party of Cambodia gained power under its leader Pol Pot. Known as the Khmer Rouge, the party would capitalize on the desperation of the rural people and take control of Cambodia in 1975. Immediately his party undertook a project of mass social engineering. The cities were emptied and millions were marched into the countryside. The vision of the Khmer Rouge was to create a perfect communist state, completely free of class identity. The people would only be peasants and workers; ‘The old people.’ In a single step, the government would do away with the ‘bourgeois’ who they saw as oppressors; ‘The new people.’ All citizens were forced to become farmers and laborers. The goal was to create a completely self-sufficient state, and the regime imposed impossible quotas. The entire population was worked to the bone. For 4 years the Cambodian people would face mass executions, starvation, widespread disease, and continuous hardship. All opposition to the regime was eliminated. Anyone seen as one of the ‘new people’ (estimated to be around 2.5million) faced the most severe oppression. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and bankers were all executed. If you wore glasses, knew foreign languages, or even quoted poetry you could be executed. In total, more than 2 million lives were lost under the Khmer Rouge in just 4 years, roughly 25% of the total population at the time.

The Killing fields were sites where mass executions took place under Pol Pot’s regime. The most famous was Choeung Ek, just outside of the capitol. Thousands were killed here. No guns were used as the ammunition was considered to be too precious. My trip to the site took about 2 and a half hours. I listened to the audio guide and heard the tragic stories of that horrific place. The light rain that fell seemed fitting for such a harrowing site. You could see the pits where the bodies were thrown. When it rains, bone fragments still bubble to the surface of these mass graves. In the middle of the field lies a Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the surrounding field. It sits as a stark reminder of the violence and terror during those years. The beauty of the stupa helps to honor the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.


From the killing fields I traveled to Tuol Sleng detention center in the city. This is the official genocide museum of Phnom Penh. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a detention center was set up at a local high school in the city. It became known as Security Prison 21 (S21). Within its walls, the truest horrors of the Cambodia genocide took place. Over 20,000 entered the dreary concrete prison. There they would languish for weeks or months. The torture they endured was indescribable. They were forced to ‘confess’ to crimes that did not exist and implicate their accomplices. Many confessions were given just to end the torture. While touring the prison and listening to the stories, I was truly moved. It’s nearly unfathomable to think that humans could do such things to other humans. S21 was one of many such detention centers set up around the country. Of the 20,000 who were imprisoned there between 1975 – 1979 only 7 are known to have survived.

Overall, it was a powerful day. I can’t imagine the people of Cambodia ever anticipated the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocide is a grim reminder that worlds can change overnight. It was a reminder that humans are capable of incredible barbarity. It was a reminder that there is still evil in the world that needs to be kept at bay. However, while reflecting on my day while riding back to my hostel, I looked at the people in the streets. The markets were busy. Children were playing and laughing in the streets. Cars were whizzing by and men in suits were sipping beers at a local cafe. Cambodia had prevailed. After only four decades the capital city was vibrant once more. Scarred for sure. But the country was healing. What I learned in Phnom Penn was that even when there is incredible evil in the world, the resiliency of the human spirit will always overcome. Even when the whole world seems to burn because the hatred of a few, the love of the many will always rise and rebuild.