Landing in Phnom Penh was a blur. A surreal, overwhelming whirlwind of emotions. Crippled with a combination of insufficient sleep and a mild hangover, I timidly made my way outside the international airport in Cambodia, my brain offensively attempting to navigate sensory overload.
“Here we go,” I thought—or perhaps I was talking to myself out loud—thanks to a bottle of whisky the night before, the details are a little hazy. I half fell, half climbed my way into a carriage that was haphazardly hooked to the back of a motorcycle. Commonly known as a tuk-tuk, I bumped along the crowded streets of Phnom Penh with my travel companion in tow.
The smell is the first thing to hit you, and it hits hard. Your eyes start to water as a blend of fish sauce, hot garbage, sewage water, and blinding dust infiltrates your tuk-tuk from literally every direction. The streets are not just bustling, they’re a chaotic mess. Scooters zipping here, tuk-tuks skidding there, and all the while families of four or more are effortlessly piled on a single motorcycle, moving in and out of traffic as they brace the daily grind.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk thinking to myself, “this contraption is breaking all sorts of safety regulations by Canadian standards.” Naivety at its finest, ladies and gentlemen. A lesson learned, a subtle preface to a much larger and eventual understanding: one does not simply travel Cambodia. No, Cambodia, and all of her provocative characteristics, penetrates every fibre of your being. One does not just happen to explore Cambodia, rather Cambodia happens to you, and like any grand love affair, it’s best not to fight temptation.
The history of Cambodia is tragic, and the ramifications of such a history are arguably more disastrous than the tragedy itself.
On April 17th, 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, infamously known as the Khmer Rouge, seized control of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Ousting the presiding Lan Nol government, a deeply disturbed man by the name of Pol Pot declared Cambodia as a communist utopia. In his lunacy, he even took it upon himself to restart the calendar to year zero.
The atrocities inflicted by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were swift and horrifying, sparking a genocide that would continue to plague the small South East Asian country for another four years. In fact, an estimated 1.7 to two million Cambodians were brutally tortured and murdered under the Pol Pot regime.
Originating as a call for resistance against French colonization, and influenced by a newly independent, yet communist Vietnam, it was Pol Pot’s intention to rid Cambodia of class. Targeting the country’s educated population, the Khmer Rouge killed doctors, teachers, religious leaders, and opposing politicians. Riddled with suspicion and hatred, the regime went as far as to torture and kill individuals that appeared wealthy, and even those Cambodians who wore glasses, as it was seen as a sign of intelligence.
Currency and free-market entities were outlawed. Khmer culture was all together eradicated: personal identity abolished, religious freedom ripped away, ancient family and community based dynamics were unforgivingly disrupted.
Children, parents, the elderly, and anyone who might have been opposed to the Khmer Rouge were rounded up and sent to their deaths. Throughout the country, places of learning and of worship were systematically converted into insidious institutions of violence and torture. Those who were not sent to concentration camps were forced to work in Cambodia’s rice fields. Under fed, over worked, Pol Pot’s utopia was a living hell.
Found in what is now a bustling middle-class neighbourhood in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, or S-21, stands as a stark reminder of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Once a local high school, the regime used the facility as a detention camp, brutally torturing and murdering innocent Cambodians and foreigners. According to the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor, S-21 held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation. A startling 12 managed to survive.
Now serving as a genocidal museum, S-21 has reclaimed its position as an educational institution. Facts and photos of Pol Pot’s victims clutter the walls of former classrooms, and school-aged children, survivors, and tourists roam the halls in remembrance. Over the years S-21 has become a place of healing, and yet one is not quick to forget the wickedness of the Khmer Rouge, when faced with blood-stained floors and iron-bound bed frames.
Similar to landmines left behind from the Vietnamese-American war, the killing fields of Cambodia are littered throughout the country. Lying on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre serves as a heart-breaking testament to the cruelty our world is capable of. Thousands of terrified human beings were slaughtered amidst the open fields that once housed Buddhist temples and pagodas. Today, tourists solemnly wander through Pol Pot’s extermination camp, as a memorial Stupa housing more than 8,000 skulls lingers hauntingly in the foreground. Roped-off areas mark unearthed mass graves, and even today, bone fragments and pieces of clothing continue to surface following a heavy rain.
To experience Cambodia is to understand her tragic history, and yet like any country suffering from the wounds of dictatorship and sadistic atrocity, such a history is complex. The roots of animosity run deep and the pain is inherent. But to appreciate Cambodia is to recognize that amongst tragedy there is hope.
In 1979, Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge, prompting Pol Pot and his party members to flee the country. The cruelty of the Khmer Rouge had finally come to an end, but the painful legacy of Pol Pot would continue to cripple generations of Cambodians.
Left behind to pick up the pieces, the newly freed Cambodia lacked doctors, educated leaders, and a stable direction forward. Thousands of survivors suffering from crippling PTSD, undernourishment, and disease were left untreated. Families struggled within a virtually non-existent economy. The future seemed bleak, as political instability and a severe lack of infrastructure and education plagued the nation. Nearly 40 years later, this history has abetted systemic poverty and corruption throughout the country.
And yet despite everything, despite this history, Cambodians today are some of the friendliest individuals I have ever met. Kind, welcoming, and hardworking, Cambodians are a people of perseverance.
As I took in the sights, sounds, and smells of Cambodia, I witnessed a population in the midst of rebuilding their culture, their identity, their country. I gazed past the mounds of trash littering the poorly maintained roads and found tranquillity in the lush, life-sustaining rice paddies. It was in that fleeting moment that I realized pride is not a privilege; however, circumstance most certainly is. The Khmer Rouge destroyed a nation with unspeakable acts of violence. More than that, the ramifications of such a horrific dictatorship severely stunted access to opportunity for future generations, and yet against all odds, hope has not been abandoned in Cambodia.