A Day With Ghosts: Visiting the Cambodian Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields

[Warning: this post contains photos of human remains.]

Last we left off, Ricky and I had arrived at our hostel and, with the aid of our extremely helpful concierge, had hired a tuktuk driver for the day. Ten o’clock on the dot we were down the stairs and being introduced to the man who would be our personal chauffeur for the day.

Never got a photo of the tuktuk we took (pun not intended), but here’s what one in Cambodia looks like for reference. Photo from Flickr.

“My name is Mr. Kenny,” he told us jovially. “Where you going?”

He brought out a battered laminated map and list of tourist destinations and after some deliberation we decided on the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, and the Russian Market.

Despite the seeming depressing combination, we’d been heartily recommended the Killing Fields by everyone who had priorly visited Cambodia and Mr. Kenny suggested the Genocide Museum before we headed there. He also had convinced us to go to the Russian Market rather than the Central Market since it was far better, so we agreed on a price for the day ($33, though you can bargain for $20-30), and puttered off in his tuktuk to the first destination.

Map of Phnom Penh with various tourist attractions. Photo from Hot Pot City Maps.

I suppose it’s important I confess first how little I knew about Cambodian history, even the Khmer Rouge. In fact all I really knew was that the Khmer Rouge was a topic touched upon with shaken heads and clicked tongues when contemplating what a horrible thing it was. But exactly what was horrible about it – and exactly how many people died (not to mention how) – were details lost to me in the murmurs of hearsay history.

Our first two tourist destinations were to be, therefore, incredibly sobering experiences.

After telling Mr. Kenny we’d be back in about an hour, we bought our entry tickets and an English information booklet and began to wander the premises of the Genocide Museum, also known as Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 (S-21). S-21 is a preserved site once used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate those they suspected to be “traitors” by means of torture. These arrests were based on all but fallacious reasoning, often preempted by nothing more than paranoia – although under torture prisoners would all confess whatever they thought S-21 guards wanted to hear.

Prisoners were kept in cells barely big enough to roll over in.

Prisoner cell doors, now flung open for us to see the conditions of living.
Prisoner cell doors, now flung open for us to see the conditions of living.

Thousands of people were taken to security prisons like these, but very few ever came out again. Whether they died during interrogation (very common) or were executed en masse at the nearby Killing Fields, the survival rate was almost negligible. I think this particular prison listed a total of 3-5 survivors. Their stories were posted on large panels in one of the exhibits.

Cell of one of the few survivors. Photo by Ricky.
Cell of one of the few survivors. Photo by Ricky.

What makes it particularly eerie is the fact that the building complex used to be a high school. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge though, classrooms were converted into torture chambers, the schoolyard had a gallows erected for torture and extreme interrogation, and the fronts of all the buildings were wrapped with barbed wire so prisoners wouldn’t jump from the upper levels to commit suicide.

Barbed wire building facades.
Barbed wire building facades.

The buildings were decrepit, crumbling and dusty. There were stains on the floor – some from rust, some from water, and some, as were indicated by signs, from pools of blood that once seeped into the tiles.

Though the place was packed with people, it was near silent as we all took in the plexiglass tubs of discarded clothing stripped from new prisoners, the rooms full of black and white mugshots forcibly taken for the Khmer Rouge’s record keeping, and the rooms bare except for one or two metal bed frames fitted with shackles which were used for interrogation.

Portraits of prisoners who died during interrogation.
Portraits of prisoners who died during interrogation.

“Interrogation” often included putting stinging insects and scorpions on prisoners, clamping red-hot pincers to the nipples, submerging them in water, and even forcing prisoners to torture each other. One man reminisces on how he was made to whip a child, and when he could no longer do it he was further tortured.

Clothes taken from prisoners on arrival.
Clothes taken from prisoners on arrival.
Rooms were full of these photographs making up hundreds if not thousands of faces of the dead.
Rooms were full of these photographs making up hundreds if not thousands of faces of the dead.
The extent of people captured, tortured, and killed was simply unimaginable even with all of them staring you in the face.
The extent of people captured, tortured, and killed was simply unimaginable even with all of them staring you in the face.
Torture room with metal bed where the prisoner would be shackled.
Torture room with metal bed where the prisoner would be shackled.

Sometimes there were completely empty rooms, which by design or not gave the feeling of the emptiness now inhabited by a building which committed genocide against so many of its own people. Statistics say that up to two million people were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign, which was equivalent to between a quarter and a third of Cambodia’s total population.

As a museum, S-21 was very informative and did what it set out to do. Though it sent shivers down your spine, nothing gives a better history lesson than walking through the punched-in door frames in a place of such past violence and suffering. It really brought the depth and scale of it to life.

Doors cut into walls between containment cell rooms.
Doors cut into walls between containment cell rooms.

As if to drive the point home, in one of the last exhibits there were some human remains in glass cases, the skulls of victims as undeniable truth of the atrocities that took place there.

Skulls from victims in S-21.
Skulls from victims in S-21.

Upon leaving, we stopped by the gift shop. A bookseller’s table caught my eye and I began flicking through some on the history of Cambodia, determined to correct my ignorance about the Khmer Rouge.

“This one very popular,” said the man running the stall, holding out a book called First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung. I put down the dry as dust history text I’d been paging through and impulse bought Loung Ung’s book instead.

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. Photo from Publishers Weekly.

I can’t say how glad I am that I made that purchase. Loung Ung narrates the book in the voice of her five-year-old self, the age she was when she experienced the Khmer Rouge takeover. In it she describes with blunt honesty the horrors she witnessed and was subjected to, and the tragedy that struck her family as they died at the hands of communist soldiers or succumbed to the starvation and disease that was a result of the regime.

At the bookshop near our hostel that I mentioned in my previous post, I also bought the sequel to it, Lucky Child in which she describes her life as a refugee in America after she has escaped from Cambodia.

Lucky Child by Loung Ung. Photo from Claire-Thinking’s blog.

For anyone who wants to learn about history from a more literary point of view, this is incomparable and I super recommend it (go buy them!!).

At this point though, I still had a limited idea of what the Killing Fields were or the extent of the Khmer Rouge’s terror inflicted on the people. But we did have a sense of foreboding as we headed towards the Killing Fields.

We met Mr. Kenny outside the Genocide Museum and he puttered us through open countryside until we turned off into a dusty parking area. Again, we said we’d be about an hour and then lined up to get our tickets.

Included with our $6 entry fee was a headset for an audio tour (these were offered in English, Khmer, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and basically any language you’d need). A sign requested we be quiet as we walked through the fields. Indeed everyone was very quiet.

Woman listening, quiet and sober, to her audio player.
Woman listening, quiet and sober, to her audio player.

Number signs indicated when to play the different recordings as we stepped lightly along the gravel paths.

Here were the Killing Fields, the recordings said, a place where truckloads of prisoners suspected of treachery against the Khmer Rouge regime were brought – mostly from S-21 – then executed and dumped into mass graves.

Starving prisoners blindfolded as they are readied for execution.
Starving prisoners blindfolded as they are readied for execution.

Because bullets were expensive though, the soldiers didn’t want to waste them on the prisoners. Instead they performed the executions using hammers, axes, and other sharp or blunt objects to hack at the skull and neck. Often when they were finished, they then would separate the head from the body because they believed that if the two were buried separately the spirit wouldn’t find peace.

Many of the actual buildings that had been there to house either prisoners or soldiers had since been destroyed, but there were often sign boards in their place to recreate an idea of the premises back when it was in use.

Sign board describing a torn down building.
Sign board describing a torn down building.

As the paths and our audio guides led us onwards, we crossed into the actual Killing Fields marked by a tree line.

Tree line marks the border of the Killing Fields.
Tree line marks the border of the Killing Fields.

Sunken depressions covered in grass and wildflowers waved gently in the breeze – all that’s left now of the mass graves that once were bloated mounds belching the foul gases of decomposition. These were mostly exhumed, but during the rainy season when the mud shifts, sometimes teeth, bones, and ragged scraps of clothing are still found. Visitors are asked to alert the staff should they come across any so as to preserve the dignity of the dead.

Depressions in the ground behind signboard.
Depressions in the ground behind signboard.

Some graves were specially marked off with bamboo posts and thatched roofs as if to provide a home to the spirits still restless beneath the earth. A beautiful touch were the bracelets left on the fences as tribute.

These were all brilliantly colourful – perhaps because the Khmer Rouge outlawed bright clothing since they saw it as a corrupting influence from Western Capitalism, or perhaps just because those leaving them behind hope to bring some solace to the restless souls.

Mass grave of 450 victims.
Mass grave of 450 victims.
Mass grave with bracelets thrown over in lieu of flowers of remembrance.
Mass grave with bracelets thrown over in lieu of flowers of remembrance.
Bracelets for the dead hung on fence posts.
Bracelets for the dead hung on fence posts.

Part of our tour had us walk along a strip of fence line dividing us from a pond of the Killing Fields and a farming territory beyond. The audio guide suggested we listen to stories of survivors from the Killing Fields as well as a piece of music written by Cambodian composer Him Sophy called “A Memory From Darkness” about the horrors that happened there.

Having such a peaceful and beautiful background with this overlaid soundtrack made for a particularly harrowing experience.

Barbed wire fence enclosing the Killing Fields. Photo by Ricky.
Barbed wire fence enclosing the Killing Fields. Photo by Ricky.
Lush fields seen through chain link fence of the Killing Fields.
Lush fields seen through chain link fence of the Killing Fields.

For a while we sat along the perimeter and watched a rooster scratching at the dirt and let the tragedy of it all wash over us.

Bold rooster romping around the graves.
Bold rooster romping around the graves.

Although I wouldn’t learn this until I later read Loung Ung’s books, the Khmer Rouge, predominantly led by Pol Pot, first took power in 1975 and held the country in its iron fist until 1979. During those four years, they managed to devastate the people, first by evacuating the capital, Phnom Penh, and by subsequently imprisoning people within their own villages-turned-work-camps.

In order to do anything – leave town, acquire food, visit a relative – one had to get a permission slip from the village leader. As a communist government, food and goods were to be distributed by the government only. People were not allowed to grow their own crops and could only consume what was distributed – which was usually watery rice soup and little else (Cambodia’s food rations were often traded to China in exchange for weapons). Many died of starvation. Those that didn’t suffered lasting effects of malnutrition for the years to come.

And then there were those who were called upon for traveling to “reeducation camps”. They were told that these were centres where they would learn the ways in which Capitalism had corrupted them and why communism was the true way, but few believed these lies. Those called on were taken to the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields was the end of the line.

While in the beginning there were perhaps a few dozen executions per month, hundreds of prisoners were brought per day by the end of the regime. There were so many prisoners in fact that there was a waiting list and sometimes days went by before they were able to get around to slaughtering them all.

It took a while before the tales from the survivors and the music came to and end. Ricky and I murmured to each other that we should probably keep walking so we took it slow back along the path.

There we came upon tanks of bones stacked together. On the tops of some were other fragments of bones and teeth.

Bones collected and preserved in a tank.
Bones collected and preserved in a tank.
Molar of a victim uncovered in the exhuming of the graves.
Molar of a victim uncovered in the exhuming of the graves.

As we continued, we noted signs that requested we not wander off the path because there were human remains often protruding from the soil. Though most had been removed, some such as in the photo below were left as a reminder of the graves through which we were walking.

Bone fragments and fabric scraps beside the path. Left in memorial of the horrors.
Bone fragments and fabric scraps beside the path. Left in memorial of the horrors. Photo by Ricky.
Grassy grave now growing wildflowers.
Grassy grave now growing wildflowers.

Nearing the end of the tour we came upon another mass grave. Even more than the others, however, this one and a nearby tree were absolutely covered in bracelets. Coming closer, we were able to read a sign: here was a grave of hundreds of women and children, it said, many of whom had been raped and then murdered by having their skulls smashed against this very tree. It is for this reason that it was dubbed “The Killing Tree”.

Now hung with memorial weavings, it used to have strands of hair, bone, and brains caught in the bark. This was how exhumers happened to discover this particular gravesite.

Tree against which executions were performed by bashing the brains out of women and children prisoners.
The Killing Tree against which executions were performed by bashing the brains out of women and children prisoners.
Bracelets hung on tree with tiny sprig growing.
Bracelets hung on tree with tiny sprig growing.

A “spirit house” was also set up nearby – a structure much like a birdhouse, except for this was meant to be for the restless, wandering souls who could not find peace either because of the violence with which their lives were taken or because their heads were separated from their bodies and they couldn’t enter the afterlife without them.

Spirit house adorned lovingly with bracelets.
Spirit house adorned lovingly with bracelets.

Nearby was also another tree – much larger than the Killing Tree, this one was called the Magic Tree. During occupation, it was fitted with speakers and other audio equipment so that the Khmer Rouge could blast classical music to drown out the screams and other sounds of executions.

“Imagine how it must have been,” the audio guide said, “hearing that music and knowing what was happening.”

Magic Tree.
Magic Tree.

Just beyond this tree we sat for a few moments at a stone bench to listen to an explanation about the last place on our short pilgrimage: a memorial temple made to house as many bones of the victims as it could accommodate.

Sitting to rest a while whilst listening to audio recording.
Sitting to rest a while whilst listening to audio recording.
Temple for the dead.
Temple for the dead.

This multi-storey grave is as much a tribute to the dead as it is a reminder of horrors past. Separating skulls from femurs from tibias, each level of the temple gathers together the bones which you can observe through plexiglass all the way to a cathedral ceiling.

We made our way to the temple front and bought incense and a flower to leave as tribute before entering. The air was perfumed with sandalwood and chrysanthemums as the wind wafted gentle as a sigh.

Lit incense as respect for the dead.
Lit incense as respect for the dead.

Inside was a very tight squeeze, maybe two feet of maneuvering room around the square display on each side.

Ricky and I weren’t certain whether or not it was good etiquette to take photos, but as there had been no signs indicating otherwise, we wanted to at least attempt to share the magnitude of the experience we had and enlighten others where we had been previously ignorant.

Skulls piled against the glass. Each were colour coded with small stickers to indicate how they had been murdered: with blunt objects, sharp ones, etc.
Skulls piled against the glass. Each were colour coded with small stickers to indicate how they had been murdered: with blunt objects, sharp ones, etc.
Multi-storeyed memorial.
Multi-storeyed memorial.

Finally, immensely sobered and feeling much like someone had walloped us in the head with the tangible hand of sorrow, we made our way back to Mr. Kenny.

For anyone interested in looking into the history of Cambodia, I really recommend it; as a country still recovering from this startlingly recent genocide, I feel as though its history is not very commonly known because it’s a country that isn’t very commonly traveled. Those that do go mostly stop by Angkor Wat and go to the beach, and while these are certainly awesome things to do in this country, I can’t say how glad I am that Ricky and I took the advice of others and went on this particular tour. Certainly if you spend any time in Phnom Penh, it’s a great day trip.

If you’re looking for a quick history of S-21, Ricky’s written a great blog post on the subject which you can read here.

As for information on it, as I said before, Loung Ung’s books First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child were both incredible reads.

Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child. Photo from LoungUng.com.

And in regards to our adventures that day, they were far from over, but for the sake of reserving this post for speaking of Cambodia’s ghosts, I’ll end off here and talk about how Phnom Penh’s markets compared to Ho Chi Minh’s on Monday.

If you have any questions about the Genocide Museum or Killing Fields, shoot them below – I’d be happy to answer/help in any way I can.

Until next time!


4 thoughts on “A Day With Ghosts: Visiting the Cambodian Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields

  1. Truly a difficult read…though I anticipated it would be, knowing the history. I never knew the full extent of it. After reading this I proceeded to research more. The Dark Side of humanity. Understanding this background gives you new comprehension when you look at your surroundings.

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  2. It is very much like going to Auschwitz, or to a Holocaust Museum. People NEED to know that these atrocities happen so that they grasp what mankind is capable of. Otherwise they naively assume it will never come to this in any war, any circumstances. Because they are unaware it happens time and time again. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke).

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