We found Phnom Penh to be a charmer: tons of wide and clean green spaces, precisely executed temples, palaces, and monuments (none of which we toured!), a pretty riverfront, eco-friendly boutiques, and tons of restaurants, cafes, and bars to satisfy a wide range of tastes. We cannot emphasize how clean the sidewalks and parks were; we're convinced the city tries to keep unemployment down by hiring an excessive number of street-cleaners. But this beautiful city, like the rest of the country, has an ugly past.
A year ago, we knew little of Cambodia. But as our arrival to this country approached, we read up on its brutal history and watched The Killing Fields to learn more about the genocide that occurred here in the 1970s. From 1970 to 1975, the country was in civil war, but in 1975, the revolutionary Khmer Rouge won the war, and were greeted as heroes and liberators as they entered Phnom Penh. Soon after, the Cambodian people realized just who was now in charge. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, wanted to create an agrarian peasant society, entirely independent of other countries for its survival. Anyone who was educated and therefore feared as a threat to the regime was suspected of being a traitor, including doctors, lawyers, professors, and former government employees. City-dwellers were driven from their homes en masse and sent to labor camps in the country where men, women, and children were forced to work hellishly long days on the rice fields and fed one or two meager meals of thin porridge per day.
Everyone was given the same haircut, the same clothes to wear. Individuality was forbidden, families were broken apart, and kids were often sent to child labor or soldier training camps away from their parents. The weak and sick were regarded as useless to the regime and were disposed of accordingly. There was no medicine or real medical care, and many died from starvation, dehydration, or dysentary. It is estimated that 1.5-2 million people, or 1/4 to 1/3 of the entire population, died during the 44-month period-- from hunger, sickness, or outright murdered by the regime. This brutal period came to an end in 1978 when the Vietnamese army invaded in response to the Khmer Rouge overstepping their borders.
During our stay in Phnom Penh, other than the usual walking around, hitting the market, and sampling the local food, we visited two very insightful and moving places: the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. The former, also called S-21, is a school-turned-prison where the Pol Pot regime kept and tortured thousands of political prisoners. The exhibits are simple and haunting. Walking in and out of the small rooms, each formerly a classroom and later a prison cell, you see the torture devices used, the tiny cells where prisoners were kept, and exhibits showing hundreds of photographs of prisoners (mug shots and documentation of torture). When the prison officials were ready to kill their prisoners, they sent them off to one of the dozens of "killing fields" around the country. Most of the S-21 prisoners were sent to be killed at Choeung Ek, about 15 km from the city center. Today, this area has been turned into a memorial, with a huge skull- and bone-filled stupa, as well as an incredibly moving and informative audio tour around the area.
Where hundreds of bodies once laid in piles, there are now depressions in the ground where bone fragments resurface during particularly heavy rainfall. There are displays holding piles of the executed prisoners' clothing. The regime was so brutal that in order to save precious bullets, they bludgeoned their victims to death with whatever types of weapons they happened to have-- axes, sticks, hammers. There are also exhibits about the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and their ongoing legal trials, which only started in 2007 and will probably not end before they die of natural causes, given their ages.
It is unthinkable that this kind of mass genocide occurred so recently, and it was a stark awakening to learn of the horrific events that we knew little of before visiting Cambodia. How could the Khmer Rouge be willing to kill millions of their countrymen in order to establish the type of society they believed in, and how could they think that it was worth the devastating effect on the country's people? Learning about this part of Cambodian history filled us with awe at how far the Khmer people have come in rebuilding their country, their society, and their families. If you're interested in learning more about this part of Cambodian history, we recommend watching The Killing Fields, a movie based the true story of an American and a Cambodian journalist during this time, and the autobiography First They Killed My Father, a Cambodian woman's moving tale of her family's experience during the Khmer Rouge's reign.