If you've ever imagined ghosts rising from their grave to haunt a dark cemetery, you'd have a pretty accurate picture of Phnom Penh's Killing Fields. Through the nearly 4 year nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, two million people were starved to death, worked to death, forced to farm fields studded with hidden landmines, beaten to death with hammers, rifle butts, and against the trunks of trees. 20,000 of them were dumped at this site, one of 300 around the country. Reconstruction efforts designated this place a site of remembrance and mourning, gathered the remains of as many victims as could be recovered, and placed them in a memorial stupa in the center of the field, a former Chinese cemetery. Many of the bodies were buried too deep and scattered too far for recovery, and now, 31 years after the fall of Pol Pot and the KR army, when the rainy seasons churn the ground to mud, chips of bone and scraps of cloth sift from the earth and float to the surface, occasionally fragments of skulls still blindfolded in traditional red krama scarves.
The older generations (meaning anyone over 35, since the average age in Cambodia is 18), remembers the KR and the following years of war vividly. They recall their own humiliations and suffering, but none who we've met will discuss their feelings about the leadership: not only Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, but the village chiefs who facilitated violence and starvation, the teenaged children who conducted the interrogations and murders. "Cambodian people remember, but they do not say,"one man told me, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier until his parents were murdered. "We don't want to be angry, but we know which countries did this." Start with Richard Nixon, which orchestrated a coup and installed a corrupt, viciously anti-communist puppet who would allow the US military to carpet bomb Cambodia's eastern border, where Vietnamese troops were building bases. Consider Great Britain and France, who taught Cambodians how to lay land mines, still maiming farmers and children today. Blame also China, who traded guns for food with the Khmer Rouge at a time when Cambodians were starving to death, anticipating that the KR would use them against their ancient enemies, the Vietnamese. Cambodia is still awash in Kalashnikov machine guns. There's no one devil behind the atrocities, just the manipulations of superpowers fighting a proxy war over ideology.
I do want to share with you how amazing this country is: the people are humorous, giving, and show kindness without limit; the land is flat, covered in rice paddies and majestic, tall pagodas against a background of small hills, karsts, and mountains. Phnom Penh is a clean and sophisticated city with cafes, noodle stalls, silk shops, and a rich tradition of foreign communities and western ex-patriots who bring their own colors to the culture. But the crowds of street children and amputees keep prompting the same questions about the terrible history of the country. Instead of writing about our adventures, I'm going to try and share stories of some of the people we've met here, who've been generous with their time and every other resource they've had at their disposal.
Sokha Keo was the very first person we met in Cambodia, just about an hour after crossing the border from Thailand. We'd had a rough time crossing immigration: Julie had haggled down the price of our visa from $40 to $25, which I didn't think was even possible. The border guard wore no name tag and no shirt, and refused to give his name or any kind of receipt. It was a quick introduction to the corruption of public officials in Cambodia.
It was too late to reach Sihanoukville in the south, so we walked into town to seek out lunch. We had no Cambodian money, spoke none of the language, and had no hotel.
"Can I join you?" a man asked us from another table. "I am a student of English," he said, and proceeded to tell us about his teacher, an American who had left several years prior. Sokha recommended dishes for us to try, shared some food from his own plate, and said he would be happy to pay for our meal, though we rejected the last offer.
"Are you from Koh Kong," I asked him.
"No. I am born in Phnom Penh, but I am an orphan. My parents were killed, Khmer Rouge, so I come here to the orphanage in Koh Kong. Now I work at the social affairs and rehabilitation department."
"Oh," we said, not really sure how to respond, feeling uncomfortable, realizing that back home it's culturally taboo to ask questions about death.
"Do you want to come to my house?" he asked. We turned him down, feeling too green in Cambodia to know or trust people, but he gave us his number and asked us to drop in on him the next time we were in his town.
Receptionist at the Ankor Meas Hotel
We reached Phnom Penh the next day in the late afternoon. Reaching the capital city involved a 6 hour bus ride over smooth, new roads built by Chinese construction firms. We'd already checked in, and had spent the day exploring Phnom Penh: the Royal Palace, where the floors were covered in silver tiles, the National Museum, housing Hindu relics from Ankor Wat, and S-21, an old high school the Khmer Rouge converted to a detention and torture center where prisoners were kept immediately before transfer for execution at the Killing Fields. Now we were back at the hotel, chatting with the woman at the front desk.
"Are you from Phnom Penh?" I asked, wondering if she might recommend other cities in Cambodia.
"No, I'm from Kampong Thom," she said. "I moved here after the war."
"What do you remember from the war," I asked. "Do you remember the Khmer Rouge?"
"Always, poom-poom," she said, imitating the sound of machine gun fire. "Sometimes we eating, 'poom-poom', we have to drop everything and hide. We working, washing clothes, 'poom-poom,' we have to leave and run."
The woman was roughly our age, and I came to understand later that she wasn't referring to the Khmer Rouge, but to the years following their defeat--once the Vietnamese had invaded, chased Pol Pot into the jungle, and attempted to turn Cambodia into a colony. For nearly a decade, guerrilla battalions of KR soldiers held control of land in the south and east, making incursions into the cities to murder civilians.
After visiting the ruins of Ankor Wat in Siem Reap, Julie had an idea to get as far away from the tourist circuit as we possibly could. In Kratie, roughly four hours south and east of Siem Reap, we could spot endangered Irrawady River Dolphins swimming in the Mekong, then take a boat to a small river island and stay with a family.
The home we found belonged to a slightly older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sreung had grown children who lived nearby and visited often, though none of them spoke any English. Mrs. Sreung had a point book through which we were able to communicate that we could stay for $6 a night and request meals, though I vigorously underlined the picture showing that I had trouble with entrails, and ignored the illustration of dried stingray.
Mr. Sreung returned home from work every day at around 7pm, and initially showed very little interest in us. When Julie and I attempted to teach him dominoes, he tried to teach us a Khmer card game. None of us could really follow the rules, which seemed a cross of blackjack and poker, and Mr. Sreung opened up a bit, revealing he was diabetic, and that he knew some French.
"I was working for the French," I think he said (though he might've also said he lived in France, or was going to France).
"Oh, so it was good for you to be away when the Khmer Rouge came."
"No, no," he said. "All the time, working. Always working." He got up and went to his kitchen, returned with a small amount of rice that fit in the center of his palm. "This was for one person, for one day. All we had to eat." He got up and went to the kitchen again, returning this time with a small bowl filled with rice, enough for a single pot. "And this," he said, "was a ration for 40 people."
Mr. Thriy was our guide to Bokor Hill Station, a resort for wealthy French colonialists abandoned in the 1950's, then used by Pol Pot as an army base and prison.
"Don't worry about the guide," he said, pointing to a shy official in flip flops, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. "There is no crime in the jungle; he only carries the gun if we run into the wildlife. Like in Bokor, there is still the black bear."
"Also," he said, "I know many books explain about the landmine, but don't mind about the landmine here, because I was army, and I know when we put the landmine, we only use them against the army, then when we leave, we pick them up again."
"What army were you in?" we asked him later.
"Khmer Rouge army," he said. He had joined when he was 21, when the KR was a collection of loosely assembled bands of rural villagers reacting to American bombing in the east and President Lon Nol's suppression of communist sympathizers in the cities. A year after Pol Pot came to power in 1975, he learned the Khmer Rouge had killed both his parents. He deserted the army and lived alone in the jungle, eating wild potatoes, fish, and any game he could catch. "If I heard a person talking, I would run away," he said. "I still knew how to talk, but my mouth couldn't make a sound."
After two years of living in the forest, Mr. Thriy was captured by Vietnamese soldiers, who had invaded to fight KR attacks against border villages. "They tied me to a tree. I thought they were going to kill me, but I talked to them, and they could understand me, slowly, so then I became a soldier for the Vietnamese army." Fighting against the Khmer Rouge in a later battle, he had stepped on a landmine. "But a small one, a plastic one, so no problem. I'm moving so fast, I can't stop, but I knew what to do: jump on my side and tuck my leg." The explosion shattered his shin, which wasn't repaired until years later. Now, at age 53, he takes tour groups on mountain treks to Bokor Hill Station, close to where he fought the Khmer Rouge.
These are only a few of the stories we've heard from people over the last month, traveling Cambodia west to east and back to the Thai border. We love this country--enough to overstay our month-long visa and deal with the hassle of corrupt border officials--and if any of you were considering a trip to Thailand, I'd recommend Cambodia first.
If you're interested in learning more about the Khmer Rouge, I strongly recommend Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. It's a complicated history, and the author explains it much better than I can.
Thanks for keeping up with us over the last few months. We're working on a statistics and retrospective entry that should be up soon. We leave the Southeast Asian peninsula on January 28th for Bhutan.
Mark and Juliah