Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cambodia: A Walk Through Their Tragic Past

After 3.5 weeks in Vietnam we were ready for a new country, a new landscape, and a new experience. Cambodia was definitely all of the above. Upon arriving in Phnom Penh we were immediately impressed with the level of English spoken and the friendliness of everyone, especially the tuk tuk drivers. They smiled amiably as we negotiated prices, and gave a friendly laugh at the low prices we were going for. It was just so pleasant.

We were in Cambodia for only 9 full days and spending time in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so we had to make the most of our time. Cambodia is most famous for the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but Phnom Penh was a worthy destination as well. The city was dirtier and grungier than other cities we had been to. We were staying in a hotel a bit outside the center which had the advantage of tuk tuk rides thought the streets of the city that we would have otherwise missed had we stayed closer to the tourist heart. And there was a lot to observe. Like a ridiculous number of Lexus SUVs. Posh, high end shopping streets. A stark contrast between the rich and poor.

Cambodia's recent history is marred by the mass genocide that took place in from 1975-1979 under the hands of the Khmer Rouge. During this time an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed by execution and starvation. The rest of the world was seemingly unaware of this reign of terror and the UN even recognized the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia giving them seats at the UN in New York, which they maintained for over a decade after the killings stopped.

Just outside of Phnom Penh the Choeung Ek killing fields has been created as a memorial to the millions who died during the Khmer Rouge. The memorial is set up very well. Headsets come with admission ($5) and visitors are guided by the numbered signs through what was once a horrific execution camp. This creates a very peaceful setting as there is very little talking and people experience everything at their own pace. The tour is thorough, with background on the Khmer Rouge, the camp, and stories from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. It is a sad testament to the ability of humans to hate.

More than 120 mass graves were discovered at the killing field, and 80 were exhumed. Fragments of bones continue to surface with new rains, so it's not uncommon to see them while walking around the grounds.
While it is not an uplifting experience, it is well worth the visit.

Traveling with kids? Before going to the killing fields with children consider the age appropriateness of bringing them. For small children, it is not a playground and not appropriate for children to be running around on a sacred site that still holds the remains of those killed under the Khmer Rouge. We brought an iPod touch for Simon so that he would remain quiet and happy while were there and that worked fine. For older children, parents simply have to consider how much they want their children to hear and see about the genocide that took place there.

Further reading: There are many books out there about the Khmer Rouge written by survivors, scholars, and journalists about what happened during and after the Khmer Rouge. I read and can highly recommend the following two memoirs and plan on reading more when we get back.

First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung

Lucky Child, Loung Ung


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