Phnom Penh was my first stop on my 2 month trip to Cambodia and I can say with confidence that I won’t be returning in a hurry. The city is grey, dirty and crowded. Dilapidated buildings, scowling locals and heavily littered streets are enveloped by an oppressive smog that never gets easier to deal with.
I’ve met other travellers who feel completely different to me, people who have taken up teaching jobs or who help out in backpacker hostels and absolutely adore Phnom Penh. Each to their own but I just don’t get it. However, I firmly believe that Phnom Penh should be every traveller’s first port of call when they arrive in Cambodia and here’s why: Phnom Penh is home to the S-21 prison museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, or ‘Killing Fields’ as they are more commonly known.
‘Dark Tourism’ sometimes gets a bad name: travel writers muse whether or not it is morally right to visit scenes of mass death and destruction, insinuating that it is exploitative to visit such places. While I do understand their argument, I cannot disagree more. I feel as though every visitor to Cambodia owes it to the country to educate themselves about the horrors that took place there not so long ago, and textbooks can only take you so far: sometimes you have to visit a place for yourself in order to fully comprehend what went on there.
My trip began with a visit to The Killing Fields. After paying the $6 entry fee, my friend and I donned our headphones and allowed our audio tour of The Killing Fields to commence. As expected, our exchanges dwindled and we fell silent as we made our way around the fields, our moods becoming increasingly sombre as we learned about the babies whose heads were smashed against the infamous ‘killing tree,’ the people who were brutally murdered just because they had soft hands or wore glasses, the bones that still litter the floors on which you walk and the music that was blasted to drown out the screams of those being tortured and killed.
We walked past loose teeth and fragments of clothing, listened to former members of the regime confess to having the blood of thousands on their hands, and cast our eyes upon thousands of skulls that have been collected and preserved out of respect to the dead.
Next stop was the S-21 museum, a former school that was converted into a prison when the Khmer Rouge came into power. Of 20,000 people who passed through the prison, only 12 survived because they possessed skills deemed useful by the prison guards, such as the ability to repair broken machinery. The rest were starved, tortured and forced to sign false confessions before they were brutally murdered by the prison guards. Photographs of their ordeals are on display in what used to be the cells and their blood stains remain on the floors and cell walls.
Visitors are free to wander through the classrooms-cum-cells and see the beds with chains on, mugshots of the inmates and lengthy false confessions that prisoners were made to sign. The faces of the young boys and girls that passed through the S-21 prison will haunt me forever.
Visiting the S-21 museum and The Killing Fields were truly sobering experiences that will stay with me forever and I cannot emphasise enough how important I think it is for everybody, no matter how much time you have in Cambodia, to see these places for themselves.
What struck me the most was that the worst of the horrors occurred less than 40 years ago. Think about it: every single Khmer person over the age of 40 lived through this and has the memories of it. The annoying tuk-tuk driver? He remembers. The friendly massage lady? She remembers. The middle-aged woman serving you street food? She remembers.
One in four Khmer people were killed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. One in four. That’s 25% of the entire population. Almost every family was affected. Cambodia, once miles more developed than its neighbouring countries, now falls far behind and struggles to provide even basic healthcare and the saddest thing? Nobody knows.
Here in the west we are all too familiar with the atrocities that the Nazis committed. We know a great deal about Stalin’s crimes against humanity. We wear poppies and vow ‘Never Again’ to let these things happen, blissfully unaware of the fact that we did let it happen again. Our governments turned a blind eye to the mass slaughter of people as gentle as the Khmers. We told traumatised refugees that they were lying.
Our ignorance silenced a nation.
That is why you – yes, you – have a duty to visit these places. A duty to touch the bones of children and elderly people that suffered because your government was too pig-headed to intervene. You do not have a choice. You have a duty.