Appeared in the December 2014 issue as “Bare-Bones Truths”. Updated in March 2016.
A human skull lay in front of me. It had a broken jawbone and was missing several teeth; I winced when I noticed the cracked cranium. The woman next to me, however, had a much more visceral reaction. She was standing perfectly still in front of the memorial of human bones, and her eyes were moist. She looked Cambodian and, unlike me, was probably reliving the most horrifying period in her country’s history.
We were in a killing cave on Phnom Sampeau Mountain near the town of Battambang in western Cambodia. At the time, I knew very little beyond the fact that it was one of the spots where the Khmer Rouge army had dumped the bodies of thousands of people they had murdered during the four-year-long massacre that began in 1975. The expression on the Cambodian lady’s face told me that there was a lot I didn’t know and that I ought to learn more. A few hours later, I settled into a comfortable chair in my guest house looking for e-books that might help me learn about Cambodia’s bloody past. I turned to First, They Killed my Father, written by a young survivor named Loung Ung.
Immersed in the book, I cancelled dinner plans so that I could finish reading it. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge or, as they officially called themselves, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, assumed power. One of their goals was to transform Cambodia into a classless, agrarian society. Free markets were abolished, schools were turned into re-education camps, and most of the cities were evacuated, during which thousands of citizens died. Ung was just five years old when her family and everyone around her were forced to leave the capital Phnom Penh, and move to the countryside.
Life in the rural areas was made extremely hard for the migrants. The “base people” or original inhabitants of the farms had it slightly easier, but not by much. Civilians were forced to work unbearably long hours and given little more than a bowlful of soup a day. Children were sent to youth camps, families separated, and people summarily killed if they so much as whispered their disenchantment with the regime. Over four years the Khmer Rouge, led by their leader Pol Pot, systematically executed nearly two million people—about 20 per cent of the Cambodian population.
I spent my six-hour bus journey to Phnom Penh finishing the book, and then watched The Killing Fields (1984) that very evening to get a layperson’s understanding of the genocide’s political context. The British film, inspired by the relationship between an American and a Cambodian journalist, is set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge genocide. It brings alive both the actual situation in Cambodia, and how the world saw it. Even though The Killing Fields was made 30 years ago, it is so popular that it is still shown in small cinemas and cafés all over the country.
The next morning, I took a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The city of Phnom Penh, designed by French colonialists, is full of energy even at 7 a.m.: Baguette vendors adorn the corners, three-wheeled cyclos transport uniformed children to school, and stalls selling nom banh chok, a wholesome rice noodle soup served with meat and sprouts, spread an enticing aroma. It’s hard to imagine that most of the Phnom Penh’s beautiful buildings were bombed just 40 years ago. The city looks quite new now, but remnants of its old architecture can still be found near the National Museum, Central Market, and Post Office Square.
The four grey buildings of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be a high-school complex that was converted into a secret prison. The dreaded S-21 was used to interrogate and execute thousands. The two-storeyed buildings were covered with barbed wire and the rooms inside were used as torture chambers. The prison was discovered soon after Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, when two Vietnamese photojournalists followed the stench of rotting flesh. They took several photos of the bodies inside: Some of these now hang in the rooms in which they were shot. Torture equipment is on display too. The rooms have been left just as they were found. Some still have blood-stained walls. Visitors can touch the shackles that held hundreds of brutalised bodies.
Around 20,000 people are believed to have been incarcerated at S-21 before being executed in the killing fields nearby. Every detainee was photographed before they entered the prison and thousands of these images are also displayed at the museum. I saw mugshots of people of all ages, some as young as five. Some look scared and some have traces of a smile. Only 14 of the captives survived.
One of these survivors is Bou Meng, who was sitting behind a desk in the compound. He was talking to visitors about his experiences, having his photo taken with them, and selling his autobiography. At first, I felt uncomfortable that he was making a living out of this hellish experience, but I was curious to meet him. He spoke very basic English, so when I asked him if he enjoyed sitting there, he just smiled widely and told me to buy his book. I did and quickly scanned the first few pages to discover that Meng is a painter who was brought to S-21 along with his wife and children for unknown reasons. He was brutally tortured for many days, and never managed to see his family again. But he was chosen to paint portraits of Pol Pot, and that’s the only reason he is still alive.
Meng had testified against former prison chief, Comrade Duch, responsible for persecuting and murdering more than 12,000 people. Duch earned a life sentence 35 years after he committed these atrocious crimes, but I learn that there are hundreds of Khmer Rouge leaders and workers who have not received any punishment. Cambodian dignitaries have requested the United Nations to help bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice. It was only in 2005 that the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) came into being. The trials have been so slow that only three people have been convicted to date, two of whom were only sentenced in August this year.
Soon, I left to go to Choeung Ek Killing Fields. As my tuk-tuk driver navigated the narrow dusty roads, I contemplated this chilling information: I was going to see one of the 150 execution centres around the country. They were called killing fields because they were exactly that: Large plots of land in remote areas where thousands were massacred and buried. The only “fault” of several of these prisoners was that they were educated. Entire families, including children, were put to death since the Khmer Rouge suspected that the young ones might exact revenge when they grew up.
In the killing fields, I was literally walking on human remains. I did not expect everything to be so visible. I had to skip over any large pieces of white material that I suspected to be bone. It drove home how recent this genocide was. A warning sign indicated that bones keep surfacing, especially after a rain shower, and asked visitors to avoid touching them. The staff collects them every day.
Every visitor to this memorial site is given an audio guide. There are several mass graves around the area, including one where the bodies of women and children were found. Next to it is a chankiri or “killing tree”. Its wide trunk was used to smash the heads of children before they were thrown into a pit nearby.
I walked towards the large stupa, hoping it would calm me. Instead, inside the stupa, I found a 17-storey glass case filled with human bones. The skulls are arranged according to the age of the victims. Since bullets were expensive, most victims had their skulls smashed with whatever was available. A round hole in a skull usually means an iron rod was used to murder the person, while a wide cut indicates the use of an axe.
When I thought about how recent and widespread these massacres were, I realised that every living Cambodian over the age of 40 is either a victim or a perpetrator of this brutality. According to Meng’s autobiography, people who lost their families could well be living in the same neighbourhood as the people who slaughtered thousands. Everyone has a story.
I thought about the Cambodian woman at Battambang who unknowingly inspired me to learn so much about this country’s vicious history. Until then, I’d been travelling around Cambodia appreciating its architecture without connecting with its history or the tragedy of its recent past. Before leaving the cave that day, I had seen her sitting in front of a golden statue of Buddha. I still wonder what her story is. I hope she finds her peace.
Cambodia has the largest number of live landmines still hidden in the ground. The Cambodian Landmine Museum and School, on the outskirts of Siem Reap, has several well-organised rooms with easy-to-understand exhibits about the phenomenon. Aki Ra, the museum owner, was ten years old when he was forced to join the Khmer Rouge. During this time, he laid thousands of mines, as did hundreds of other child soldiers. After the war, he used his knowledge to become one of the country’s most efficient deminers. The museum houses thousands of explosives he has defused. It was created to educate visitors about the blight of the minefields. With the money he receives, he also runs a school for children hurt by the landmines. Despite these positive measures, the immediate future is a little bleak: The de-mining process is slow and expensive, and the blasts are unlikely to stop destroying families for several years to come.
First, They Killed my Father (2000) is a detailed account by Loung Ung, a young survivor of the regime. It describes in detail, the torment millions of innocent Cambodians experienced when the Khmer Rouge kicked them out of their homes.
A Cambodian Prison Portrait (1998) by Vann Nath is a short but chilling memoir of the year he spent in the S-21 prison.
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (2005) by Philip Short is a well-written analysis of all the world events and circumstances that resulted in the tragedy in Cambodia.
Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1979) is an hour-long documentary by John Pilger that details the American bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge.
Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields (1997) is a compilation of heartbreaking memories of children who survived the genocide. The book is compiled by Dith Pran, the photojournalist who was the subject of the film The Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields (1984) is a movie based on the life of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran. They were both in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge first came in. Schanberg managed to escape the country but Pran had to stay on. The film is a gripping account of their friendship.
The Kingdom of Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia. It is located on the Gulf of Thailand, sharing a border with Vietnam in the east and Thailand in the northwest.
Cambodia has two international airports at Siem Reap in the north and Phnom Penh in the south. There are no direct flights from India, so Bangkok is the most convenient connection. It is also easy to enter the country by surface transport from Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.
Indian travellers to Cambodia can get a visa-on-arrival. It costs $30/₹1,994 for a 30-day visa and the process (at the airport or land border) is simple. Carry a passport-sized photo and the fee in USD as that is the only accepted currency. It is also possible to get an e-visa before arrival from evisa.mfaic.gov.kh for an extra charge. You will need to attach a scanned passport photo to the online form, a valid credit card, and the visa will be emailed within three working days.
Battambang is 330 km/6 hours northwest of Phnom Penh. Tourist buses that connect the two cities are air-conditioned, comfortable, and some even have Wi-Fi. Minivans are also popular because they are cheaper and quicker, but can make for a scary ride (buses are frequent; duration 6-7 hours). From Battambang, moto-taxis to Phnom Sampeau Mountain are easily available for the roundtrip.
In Phnom Penh, moto-taxis or tuk-tuks are easily available for visits to nearby spots. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located within the city, while the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are 17 km/40 minutes south of the city. It is convenient to hire a tuk-tuk for half a day to visit these sights. It is difficult for tourists to rent self-drive cars, but it’s possible to rent a motorbike.
The Cambodian Riel is used only for small expenses. For everything else, carry USD. Even most ATMs in Cambodia dispense USD.
Budget: Lovely Jubbly Place is a youth hostel with clean rooms, large beds, a nice bar, and friendly English speaking staff (+855-23985400; lovelyjubblyplace.com; dorm beds;$7/₹465; doubles $20₹1,329). Velkommen Backpackers is a riverside hostel with clean and comfortable rooms. There’s good food and cheap drinks at the bar(+855-7775 7701; www.velkommenbackpackers.com dorm beds $6/₹400; doubles $16/ ₹1,063)
Comfort: Blue Lime has a small entrance that hides plush and colourful interiors. There’s a pool surrounded by tropical plants that is a luxury on sweltering afternoons (+855-2322 2260; bluelime.asia; doubles $50/₹3,324). La Maison D’Ambre is a modern hotel near the market with different themes for each room. Most rooms have attached kitchenettes (+855-2322 2780; www.lamaisondambre.com; doubles $100/₹6,648).
Luxury: Raffles Hotel Le Royal is a 90-year-old luxury hotel that featured in The Killing Fields because it was used as a refuge for foreign journalists. It retains a colonial charm in its design and decor while still providing all modern amenities expected of a five-star hotel. The property’s gardens are particularly beautiful (+855-2398 1888; www.raffles.com/phnom-penh doubles $230/₹15,290).
Appeared in the December 2014 issue as “Bare-Bones Truths”. Updated in March 2016.