Three pictures taken in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Three places that were difficult to visit, but too important not to miss. Let me share the stories behind them…
Sometimes tourism is more than just a holiday in a nice resort, cocktail with curly straw in hand. More than being brave and backpacking solo around Southeast Asia, posting lovely photos of exotic places on Instagram.
Travel educates you about the world in a way a textbook and the Internet can’t. And part of that education is learning about the history of a country or city to discover what shaped it into the place it is today.
That history can be rich and beautiful: the Roman Empire and its Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, the ancient mysteries of Stonehenge. Sometimes that history is troubled, but we still visit the places that hold those heartbreaking stories: Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, or the memorials at Hiroshima.
Modern history is often the most affecting because we are so strongly reminded that it could have been us, it could have been our loved ones, or that – horrifyingly possible – it could happen again.
History has been known to repeat itself.
One such place that I knew would be difficult to visit was Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is a city that has been on my travel destination wish list for years and, though I only knew a little about Cambodian history, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn about the ancient civilisation that built the magnificent city of Angkor, the French colony that became a playing piece in the Secret War, and the tragic consequences of Pol Pot’s leadership and the Khmer Rouge…
The Elephants at the Cambodian National Museum
I had just arrived from Siem Reap, where I had marveled at Angkor Wat and the dozens of other temples in the city of Angkor. On my first full day in Phnom Penh I still had images of those beautiful ruins in my mind and decided I would start my Phnom Penh sightseeing at the National Museum, home of many more relics of the same period.
I wasn’t ready for the heavy subject of the Khmer Rouge yet. I thought I would save the emotional sights for the following day, which included visits to Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields.
So, I started at the Cambodian National Museum. As you can see from the pictures, the museum is a stunning red terracotta building that was breathtaking enough just in itself. As I paid my entrance fee, I noticed the elephant statues in the grounds; part statue and part greenery. I assumed it was art. Elephants are native to Cambodia, and are a strong symbol for a country with so much majesty, grandeur and legacy.
After some initial exploring of the museum and its courtyards, I came across an exhibition entitled, ‘Cambodia and the First World War: The Underwater Heritage’. I’ll admit that I did a little double-take.
With five years in Hong Kong behind me as well as a fair bit of Southeast Asian travel, I am much more informed about the Asian side of the Second World War than I was before I set foot on the continent. But the First World War? I knew nothing about Asia’s involvement in it.
Back in the UK, I learnt a lot about the First and Second World Wars at school. About the home front, the fighting in France, and later the Nazi party and the Holocaust. All relevant subjects for a young British student to learn about, of course; I am part of a generation whose grandparents still remember the Second World War. Mine is maybe the last generation that will have living relatives who remember.
However, it was only after I moved to Asia that I discovered there was so much more to the world wars, beyond Europe. There are so many different stories, they can be overwhelming, but I always try and listen when I discover another perspective of this period that I haven’t heard before.
So what was Cambodia’s role in the First World War? At this exhibition, I learnt that France needed more men to fight in Europe and so called upon its colonies for recruits, offering attractive benefits for those who signed up. Over a thousand Cambodians volunteered. The soldiers were taken to France, though not all made it there and very few made it back. The exhibition talked about those who died in shipwrecks, the role of the colonies during the war and the importance of protecting underwater cultural heritage today.
One particular disaster that this exhibition focused on was the fate of the SS Mendi. Coming from South Africa, the ship had over 800 recruits from African colonies, many of them black South Africans. The ship had reached as far as Plymouth when it hit another ship, Darro, which was going too fast and not using its fog signals.
The Mendi sank and over 600 of the soldiers died, not because of lack of lifeboats, but because many did not know how to swim. They were afraid to leave their sinking ship. Disgustingly, Darro did not stay to help rescue survivors.
This reminded me of my own great grandfather, Reginald Bell, who died off the coast of Tripoli when the ship he was on hit a mine, during the Second World War. He was 28 years old, only a year older than I am now. 764 people were on the HMS Neptune when it sank, but only one man survived. Even after all these years, it has still not been revealed whether the ship hit an enemy or ally mine.
So many lives were lost during the world wars, and many of them from ‘accidents’, ‘mistakes’, and ‘blunders’. In this exhibition, there were also accounts of how colonial subjects were treated during the war. One small fact that stuck with me was how difficult it has been to find records of what happened to Cambodian soldiers because Cambodian, Vietnamese and other Asian soldiers were all listed as Chinese.
Finally, the exhibition revealed how France erected a monument in Phnom Penh in recognition and memory of the Cambodian soldiers who fought with them in the First World War. It was unveiled in 1925 and stood in Phnom Penh for 50 years before it was smashed by the Khmer Rouge as act of defiance against French Imperialism.
The pieces that remain – the bronze elephants – now stand outside the National Museum to honour those who gave their lives.
On my way out of the museum, my eye caught this quote:
“Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, although I have none with him?”
– Blaise Pascal
I know my family, the Cambodians mentioned in this exhibition and millions of others fought for freedom in the world wars; to protect their loved ones and their countries, and to ultimately defeat the evil in this world. Thanks to them I am safe. Thanks to them I have been able to live the life that I have. But I pray it never ever has to happen again.
So, despite my plan to save the ‘heavy’ subjects for the following day, I had shed a tear or two at the National Museum of Phnom Penh.
Tuol Sleng Prison Museum (S-21)
The next day, I rented a bike from my hostel to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. It was a hot day and I was getting frustrated with my map app, unsure whether I was even going in the right direction. All the roads looked the same and the traffic, typical of most Southeast Asian cities, seemed to defy all the rules.
I was close to giving up when I rounded a corner and saw the barbed wire. The entire building was covered in it and there was what I can only describe as a feeling of darkness surrounding the area. It was too quiet. I knew I was in the right place.
For some background, Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) was once a secondary school, but it was turned into one of over 200 prisons used by the Khmer Rouge or ‘Red Khmer’ between 1975 and 1979. This dark period in Cambodian history was a revolution led by leader Pol Pot of the Angka (in direct translation, simply ‘the organisation’), who attempted to turn Cambodia into a Communist utopia.
Under the Khmer Rouge, ‘old people’ (farmers and working class people) were revered and the ‘new people’ (city dwellers, intellectuals and others) were sent to the countryside to do hard labour – or worse – sent to one of these prisons to ‘confess their sins’. People were arrested for speaking another language, for having an education, or even just for wearing glasses.
20,000 people were taken to S-21 between 1975 and 1979. They were tortured in horrifying ways up to three times a day, starved, stripped and beaten until they wrote confessions of their dissent. If the confessions did not say what the torturers wanted, the torture continued. When the prisoner finally came up with something the torturers agreed on, the confession was signed and the prisoner was taken to the Killing Fields to be executed.
When Tuol Sleng Prison was discovered and liberated by the Vietnamese, it is said that only seven living prisoners remained. They were photographers, mechanics or painters who had been kept alive because of these skills. A few were children who had managed to keep out of sight. Once liberated, they ran between the classrooms crying and looking for their parents.
On my visit to S-21, I planned to stay for an hour or two, but I stayed for four. I listened to every single track on my audio guide.
At first, it felt like I was visiting a haunted house or the set of a horror film. It took a few minutes to sink in that what I was looking at was real. The photographs of bodies mutilated beyond recognition were real. The broken bed frames that torture subjects were tied to were real. The weapons used to inflict pain were real. The chains that bound the ankles of prisoners together, some small enough to accommodate small children’s feet, they were real too.
Every single prisoner who came to S-21 was documented and photographed. The Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy records before they fled the building, but the photographs remain. There are thousands of them. Haunting faces staring back from the past. You can see it in their eyes; they know what their fates will be. Men, women and children.
For Khmer Rouge survivors and family members trying to discover what happened to their loved ones during this period of history, they must look through every single photo in the archives individually until they find a face that they recognise.
There were also some prisoners who weren’t Cambodian. In my English audio guide, I heard the story of a New Zealander who accidentally ended up in Cambodia whilst on his dream trip sailing around the world. A traveller, like me. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kerry Hamill was tortured and accused of being a spy, signed false confessions and was almost definitely executed at the Killing Fields, though there is no way to identify his body. In his brother’s tearful testimony at the trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders, it was revealed how, under torture, Kerry had named Colonel Sanders of KFC as his superior officer, along with a ‘Major Ruse’ and an ‘S. Tar’ (Esther, the name of his mother). Even in his suffering, he retained a sense of humour and was determined to get the last word.
There were more stories: a woman so beautiful that a cadre loved her more than the Khmer Rouge, evidence for which were the love letters they sent to each other. They were both taken to S-21 and she was tortured for weeks, noticeably much longer than the majority of prisoners, on account of her beauty.
One of the survivors told of how, once the camp had been liberated, he and his family were on the road when the Vietnamese troops who were transporting them were attacked. The family was split up. His wife and child were up ahead and he was following behind. In the dark, his wife shouted back at him to run because she was about to be killed. He heard his baby crying in the darkness but had no way to go back to find him.
Upstairs in one of the buildings, there was an exhibition about forced marriage during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Many of the women interviewed spoke about rape, abuse and the relief at being able to finally talk about their experiences. The majority stayed with their husbands after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, often for the sake of their children.
As I came to the end of my visit, something that I couldn’t believe – that the narrator on my audio guide reiterated – was that all of this took place only 30 years after the Holocaust.
During my visit to Tuol Sleng, I wasn’t as tearful as I expected – I was angry. How could this have happened? How could a genocide like this have been allowed to happen again, so soon after one of the worst genocides in history? Could people really be so cruel? How can history keep repeating itself?
If you ever get the chance to visit Phnom Penh, please don’t skip this museum. Yes, it will be somber experience, but something as awful as this should be remembered. The bravery of these people deserves to be remembered.
In the courtyard, at the end of the museum tour, the narrator explained that one of the survivors of S-21 now works in the bookshop on the premises, having written a book about his experiences. I literally stopped in my tracks. He looked so… normal. I wanted to shake his hand, give him a hug and buy his book, but I couldn’t bring myself to even walk in his direction without feeling the pricks of tears in my eyes.
Choeung Ek Museum: The Killing Fields
Ok, so Tuol Sleng was heavy. Really heavy. As I cycled 10 kilometres out of town to the Killing Fields, I considered the stories I had listened to.
I arrived at Choeung Ek later in the afternoon than I had planned, having spent longer than I thought I would at Tuol Sleng. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for another session of heartbreak, but what I found was entirely different.
The grass was green, vibrant. The lakes and pools surrounding the museum grounds were quiet and serene. Birds sang. Children played football in the streets outside. It was peaceful.
In the centre of the museum grounds stood a tall memorial structure, but my audio guide told me to come back to it at the end of my visit.
The mass graves of the Killing Fields have long since been excavated and exhumed, though the ditches still remain and every few months the curators of the museum collect new fragments of bone, teeth and clothing that come up to the surface, even after all these years.
My audio guide told me how prisoners at S-21 were told they were being moved to a new home after they had signed their confessions, so as not to alarm them. They were blindfolded and transported in trucks in the dead of night. Once they arrived, they were registered to make sure no one had escaped during the journey.
To save bullets, which were expensive, victims were killed with a blow to the head. Then, their throats were cut and chemicals were scattered on top of the bodies to ensure that no one survived. No one did. Pro-communist music was blasted from loudspeakers attached to trees to cover the screams.
In one part of the museum, there was a box of clothing; just a small sample of what has been collected. At the top of the pile was a tiny pair of purple shorts. They were around the right size for a child of two or three years old. There were details about the women’s graves; how most of the bodies were found naked. There was a tree next to one of the pits. I can’t even bear to write down here what it was used for.
Everywhere, colourful bracelets are placed in memory of those that died, along with messages of peace. There are traditional money offerings for the deceased scattered on the ground and the smell of incense is in the air.
I was the last person on the grounds of Choeung Ek that day at 5.30pm. The security guards gestured to me that the museum was closing. My last stop was the memorial. I took off my shoes and walked up to the entrance. Inside, the memorial houses 9,000 skulls and other bones of just some of the victims killed here.
The sun set, birds chirped and crickets hummed. It was glad that the place had become tranquil. That the people there were finally at peace.
I’ll never forget my visit to Phnom Penh and to these three places in particular.
So, why am I writing about all these horrors, to shock you? Maybe. I hope you feel as shocked as I did and I want to remember how these places made me feel. I thought about splitting up this post, cutting some of it, leaving parts out that were too ‘depressing’ or ‘gory’. Or even discarding it all together. But I haven’t. With subjects like these, I don’t think euphemism is appropriate; it’s disrespectful. I think the truth matters.
What I’m trying to say is, there are some pretty messed up things going on in the world today. There are some things going on beyond my control that break my heart. And now, more than ever, it’s important to consider history and remember.
And those somber places your guidebook recommends, but you’re not sure about because they might be too tough to visit? Visit them. Get upset. Even if it’s difficult. Especially if it’s difficult. Feel sad, if only for a day. The memories and the knowledge will stay with you. Remember those that suffered and record their stories in your mind. Share them with others. Spread the word. Pass it on. Continue to educate yourself and others about the world and its complicated history.
So that history will not repeat itself.