Our first ‘proper’ weekend in Cambodia, and it seemed only fitting that we should spend it exploring the city we’ll be calling home for the next 2 months.
As it turned out, the rest of the group had had a similar idea, and it was decided early on we’d probably spend the weekend doing the Killing Fields and Geoncide Museum together.
I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for just how much of an emotional rollercoaster the weekend was going to be.
After our first week in the school, stepping out of the educational chaos of the school to the industrial chaos of the city felt like a welcome change.
There’s a little cinema near the riverside called The Empire, run by a lovely guy from Leeds, they show daily screenings of Survival in the Killing Fields.
We’d booked out the entire cinema to watch the movie, so there weren’t any concerns over seats, but Zac and I had arrived early (punctual as fuck as always, you can thank his anxiety for that).
I ordered a cider and began interrogating Kevin about the societal stigma surrounding the Pol Pot regime.
I was shocked to learn there’re still a lot of Pol Pot sympathisers, apparently largely the children of the regime and ‘hangers on’, who were brainwashed early on in to following his murderous campaign.
I asked him if it was ok to talk about it, to ask about the genocide – our experience so far has been largely shrouded in denial.
Teacher’s will say: “Things were better before…”or “It was cheaper before…but now…” And sort of suck their teeth and frown, but no one tells you what ‘before’ is.
Of course you can guess.
And when they motion their frustration with rubbish, or the country’s poor economic state, or the price of electricity, it’s always compared to ‘before’, but never specific – that’s left hanging, awkwardly.
Denial. Apparently many people still blame the Vietnamese.
He said if we could find survivors old enough, who could speak English, we’d probably get a more accurate view on the Pol Pot regime. A more accurate picture of ‘before’.
It was quite surreal, watching the film with a cider, in the city it’s based in, being overwhelmed with emotion and then immediately after eating dinner as a group, joking and laughing and requesting songs on YouTube as though it was normal, but then what are you supposed to do?
It was however great to catch up with everyone and compare notes on schools and classes.
Share concerns over teaching and try and steal some lesson plans and ideas from the other interns.
Zac spent a lot of time over dinner with Dan winding Nina and Molly up about music (namely Metallica vs Justin Bieber) but I was just glad to not be on the receiving end of a pro-metal rant.
We eventually moved on, but lost the others on the way to rooftop bar, having to divert to get cash out and forgetting where we’d come from, so decided to call it a night and headed back to our windowless $9 a night hotel.
an eerie morning walk.
An early start, after not getting much sleep, we headed to the Lovely Jubbly hostel to meet some of the girls for breakfast and join the others for our tour to Cheong Ek and Tuol Sleng.
Nina and Molly were the first to join us, with the others slowly waking up after what sounded like a champion night at the rooftop bar.
We’d hopped in with Lucy and Ewan, but our Tuk Tuk there was so noisy!
It was backfiring every few minutes, clattering along the bumpy roads to the killing field.
Lucy and I were clinging on for dear life, with dust and grime stinging our eyes and catching in our throats.
The boys couldn’t hear us over the sound of the moto and despite our jovial chit chatting, it felt a little eerie to have such a hellish drive there.
Another thing that struck me was how many people were living next to and around Cheong Ek. I’m not saying ‘don’t‘ – of course perhaps circumstance dictated otherwise, but surely if you have a choice of where to live you wouldn’t pick next to a mass grave.
Bizarrely, one of the Tuk Tuk drivers wanted a photo of himself with the group when we arrived, so we awkwardly posed for a snap, unsure of the etiquette for photos at the gate of the killing field – do we smile?
Is a photo even acceptable?
I’m still not quite sure whether it was for promotional material or if he simply wanted to remember which white people were his, but we posed anyway, too British to say otherwise.
Zac was on his high horse most of the day about respect, and not taking photos out of respect for the dead, whereas I was a little more divided on the matter.
We spent entire modules at Uni debating the preservation and presentation of historical sites, such as this one, shrouded in such loss and horror.
On the one hand, surely keeping them pristine acts as an homage to the regime, should we not tear Auschwitz down out of respect for the millions who were murdered?
But if we tear it down, are we then denying history? Are we preventing future generations seeing the horrors their not so distant ancestors were capable of, potentially allowing history to repeat itself?
I ‘get‘ both arguments.
For the most part, I think the dead should be laid to rest, but at the centre of Cheong Ek stands a Memorial Stupa with 17 ‘shelves’ full of skulls, each labelled with the method of murder, and then, on the bottom, just in case you weren’t sure, a picture of the aforementioned weapon.
To me, the stupa stands as a warning to future generations.
An eerie monument with a tangible reminder of the scale of the genocide in Cambodia.
There’s a line where respect for the dead and concern for the future cross, where religion and science are blurred (perhaps that’s all anthropology is), but the stupa is a catalogue of lives lost in a dilute form the great unwashed can understand.
What I’m saying is: take a photo of the skulls, take a photo of the killing tree and the boxes full of washed up rags from bodies long decayed and names long forgotten.
Show them in horror and profound understanding to your friends when you get home and don’t revere genocidal maniacs by not.
Ignorance is, to me, just as disrespectful.
the first casualty of war is innocence.
Ammunition was expensive and gunfire drew too much attention, so the executions were carried out with whatever they could get their hands on.
Most of the Khmer Rouge ‘soldiers’ were farmers, so they were handy with a hoe.
We had audio guides for the site, talking us around what’s left.
Many of the structures had been torn down, half out of anger, half out of desperation and need.
It just adds to the eeriness of the place.
Hoards of people silently moving through, engrossed in the story of horror.
It was completely quiet apart from the birds (and then around the lake the sound of people begging), but taken out of context, it’s a beautiful site.
Bright blue butterflies dance through the sky; lush and green, if not for the huge pits in the ground and the shrines, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were wandering around a Conkers-esque nature reserve.
Perhaps the hardest part for me was the killing tree.
As maternal as I am now, I dread to think what I’ll be like when I have kids.
They slaughtered pregnant women and babies alike, sometimes the children first, sometimes the mothers.
They grabbed the children by the ankles and swung them against the tree, smashing their soft skulls, then throwing their body in to the pit.
All the while propaganda music is playing to mask the sound of genocide.
And this is just one of the well known killing fields.
Who knows how many more there are across the country, how many mass graves remain, undiscovered.
It was tough.
I needed the coconut Zac bought me to rehydrate and take some time to digest everything I’d seen and learnt.