Phnom Penh and the The Killing Fields

Cyclo Driver, Phnom Penh

As I write this, I'm sitting in a plane headed for Cambodia. Andy and I plan to stop first in Phnom Penh to witness the Killing Fields, then we will travel on to Angkor to explore the ruins.

A couple weeks before this trip, I fished out an old copy of National Geographic from 1960. Inside there were dozens of pictures of Angkor in that glorious old grainy film... the majestic Bayon heads, the incredible outline of Angkor Wat. However, I found myself drawn not to the pictures of the monuments, but to the pictures of the people. Children playing in the ruins. A boy holding a toddler on his hip. I couldn't help but wonder, "what happened to these people?" This article was printed 15 years before the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but these children were certainly affected. It is said that as many as two in seven Cambodians were murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. Did these children survive? Those magnificent ruins faded into a backdrop for me as I zeroed in on the children's eyes.

I cannot think of Cambodia without thinking of the Khmer Rouge. It is an unfortunate association. Cambodia has a fascinating history full of great kings and jungle temples. Thousands of years of civilization. But my impression of Cambodia has always been based on what happened over a period of less than four years.

Skulls of the victims of Tuol Sleng prison
April 17th, 1975 was declared by the Khmer Rouge as Day One - Year Zero. "Two thousand years of Cambodian history are now meaningless," they told the people of Cambodia. The capital, Phnom Penh, was emptied out. All city dwellers were evacuated to the fields. This was to be an agricultural utopia. Pol Pot's forces took a strangle-hold over the nation. Like a house with boarded windows and locked doors, Cambodia became a mystery to the rest of the world. Inside a systematic massacre was raging. People were shot if they wore glasses, if they spoke French, if they were educated. Sons bludgeoned their parents with shovels. Children starved to death. Finally in December of 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and quickly drove the Khmer Rouge into the jungles. Thousands of families had been wiped out. Skulls littered the rice fields. Blood seeped into the dirt. Vietnam called Cambodia "hell on earth."

It has been almost 20 years since Pol Pot disappeared into the north, but the country is still struggling. Bandits roam the forests, land mines are buried in the fields. King Sihanouk's popularity is strong, but new issues grow out of old horrors. The US government considers Cambodia a highly dangerous destination. Americans are advised against any non-essential travel to the country. So why am I going there? I've asked myself that countless times. Certainly it is largely to see Angkor. The ruins are reputed to be among the most incredible man-made structures in the world. But I know it's not just that. In a way, I am drawn to Cambodia in the same way a person is drawn to look at a man's scars when he rolls up his sleeves. But much more than morbid curiosity, I am amazed by this country's perseverance. I respect these survivors with my entirety. Day One - April 17th, 1975 - was my third birthday. This massacre, this perversion of humanity, occurred during my lifetime. While I ran around in sundresses and played with Star Wars people in the sandbox, Cambodia tore itself apart. I have come to witness Cambodia's memorials. To see the era after the aftermath. I want to find the face of survival. As far as I can express, those are my reasons.

All the same, I must admit I am worried about our safety. For weeks I have found myself muttering, "Please Lord, no bandits, no land mines, no kidnappers." Andy knew a woman who was killed by bandits three years ago. She was on a private visit to the Angkorian ruins of Banteay Srei when she and her husband were asmbushed. The coup this last July intensified my concerns, as have the recent reports of tourists being attacked on the streets at night. But I am willing to take the risk, because this is a trip I feel compelled to take. Besides I'm on the plane to Phnom Penh. There is no turning back now.

We arrived at Phnom Penh's Pochentong International Airport around 11 AM. We walked from the plane, across the pavement to the terminal. Another American, a man in his early 30's, snapped a picture of the airport from the outside. He turned to Andy and me and said, "got to get that shot." We waited in line for visas - a cold assembly line process - until our passports were stamped "Royaume de Cambodge" with thick black ink. We headed through the terminal to look for our pre-arranged guide. I was surprised to find the airport in such stellar condition, considering that the control tower and radar had been destroyed in the recent coup. By the main entrance, a crowd of young men offered taxis. We made hotel reservations at the terminal's hotel desk. Still no guide. Finally a young man stood in the crowd holding up a sign that read Susanne C and Andy C. He smiled kindly and directed us to the car. On the way through the parking lot, a teenager walked alongside me trying desperately to sell me a newspaper. The headline read "Verdict on Pol Pot" and the teenager kept saying "Pol Pot," and looking sadly up at me. I'm not sure what that verdict was all about. Pol Pot, the leader of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, was tried in some undisclosed jungle court several months ago. He's living out the rest of his miserable life in a mosquito infested hut with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. (Update: Pol Pot died in early 1998.)

Our guide's name was Rith (pronounced rit). He was a young, attractive man with a blue polo style shirt and trim black hair. I liked him immediately. While driving to the hotel he asked what we wanted to see. Too embarrassed to say we were mainly interested in the genocide monuments, we waited for him to reel off the sites. We nodded when he got to Tuol Sleng (the Khmer Rouge prison) and the Killing Fields monument at Choeung Ek. We also agreed that we wanted to see the Silver Pagoda.

Driving through Phnom Penh was fascinating. It seems to be a city of children. Well over half the people we saw were under 17 years old. Paved main streets branch off into dirt roads. Concrete sits uprooted along the sidewalk. Motorcycles dart in and out of cars and cyclos as vendors push their carts. There are no functional street lights. People cross when they can. Traffic moves with subtle anarchy. (Still better than LA on a sunny day.) From behind the car window I could see naked babies, children with backpacks in school uniforms, young merchants balancing baskets on their heads. Teenage women ride side-saddle on mopeds, their long dark hair swept over one shoulder. A boy no more than nine years old drives two little girls on his moped. A woman washes her baby in the shadow of an old French colonial-style apartment. The city is teeming with life and youth. Over half the current population wasn't even alive during the Khmer Rouge's reign

The buildings look as though they could have once been grand and modern. But dust and decay coat much of their once glorious facades. Dogs lounge in the shade. Puppies play around the food stalls. It seems to be a city without a time period. It's not like going back in time, not as if technology just hasn't arrived yet. I've been to places like that... Varanasi, India, and to a certain extent, Venice, Italy. But Phnom Penh isn't like that. It was like too much time had passed, and a once prosperous city was worn out, frayed. But what I saw in the buildings I did not see in the people. Young children ran and laughed. Women on mopeds smiled shyly at me. The city I now call home, Washington, D.C., seemed sterile compared to Phnom Penh's action and youth. "Life goes on," the old saying goes. So it does.

Rith dropped us off at the hotel and said he'd be back at 2 PM to show us the city. He walked us up to the Hawaii Hotel's main desk and waited while we checked in.

"How old are you?" I asked.

"29," he smiled. "I was born in the year of the rooster."

He was born, then, in 1968. He was seven when the shit hit the fan here. I wish I could have asked him about his life, but that would be terribly inappropriate. He would offer the information if he wanted to, I figured. Everyone my age or older here is a survivor, a witness, a victim. My train of thought was broken when the hotel staff greeted us with pink papaya drinks. The air was heavy and humid, and those drinks were damn good.

The hotel was strangely empty. We were the only customers in this enormous dining room with straw woven chairs and glass chandeliers. It seemed so strange to be the only guests in this grand room. Outside the window, children played on the curb. Schoolboys walked by. Two other tourists, American men in their thirties, followed a guide to a car. All the foreigners here have the same look on their faces - a look that seems to say, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing in Cambodia, but it's pretty cool."

After lunch we figured we had some time to kill before Rith came back, so we headed out to the nearby Central Market. We dodged cars, crossed the streets, passed toddlers walking clumsily on the sidewalk, and stopped in front of the flower market. Young women sold flowers from buckets of bouquets. Awnings or sheets of cloth covered the stalls.

Central Market, Phnom Penh
The market was laid out like a starfish. A main domed building poured outside into rows of cloth covered stands. The outside merchants sold T-shirts, Khmer cloth, flowers. Amputees gathered around the stands. When they saw us, they immediately came over holding out their hats, asking for money. A uniformed amputee stretched out his hand. It was heartbreaking. One T-shirt at the stand where the amputees hung out said "I survived Cambodia." I thought that was horribly tasteless considering what had happened here in living memory. I can't imagine a tourist arrogant enough to think that his little trip to Cambodia was some kind of ordeal that merited such a T-shirt.

We walked into the domed marketplace. It was enormous. Sunlight shot through slits in the high ceiling and fell on the mazes of merchant stalls. Watches, radios, gems, clothes - you name it. Wooden reliefs of Angkor Wat sold next to underwear. Middle age women tried on bras over their clothes. A boy maybe 10 or 12 years old came up to us. His brown shirt was torn and ripped, and he was speaking in very broken English and French. I couldn't quite understand what he was saying, but he clearly wanted money. I wasn't carrying anything under a five dollar bill, and Andy argued that we only had five singles, and we needed them since it was a weekend and we couldn't cash our traveler's checks. I know in theory that you are not supposed to give money to children, but I wished I had a buck on me anyway. He tailed us through the market, following not more than an arms-length away. Most of the time he walked right next to my elbow. We had become involved in a tragic game of dodging and hiding. We walked faster. We slowed down. We tried to weave into the maze of cloth stands. He never missed a turn. Finally, I realized that every time we went near the police sitting at the entrance, he had to back away. So we stood at a stand there and pretended to be interested in the gems.

"What's this?" Andy pointed to a large fang.

"Tiger's tooth," the woman answered and laid it on top of the glass in front of him.

Finally, when the boy wasn't looking, we dodged into the outside market stalls. The market really is a maze of people, cloth and stands, and after a few turns we knew we had lost him. A young girl smiled at Andy and pointed to her cloth. He smiled back and said no thank you. She laughed shyly and waved good-bye. Andy bought some scarves, but after maybe twenty minutes we decided to leave the market. The boy and the amputees reminded us that we were not invisible observers here.

At 2 PM we met Rith and the driver in the hotel lobby, and headed out to our first stop, the Silver Pagoda. Housed in a gated courtyard near the palace, the Silver Pagoda and its adjoining grounds are incredible. Sweeping roofs, panel paintings of the Ramayana, lion statues, and stone nagas create a majestic display. Even more incredible is the fact that these structures, the Emerald Buddha and the solid gold, diamond studded Buddha survived the Khmer Rouge.

The Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh
I walked around aimlessly for a while just taking in the enormity of it. Inside the Wat Preah Keo (Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha) is even more impressive than the grounds that surround it. The structure is called the Silver Pagoda because the floor is covered with 5,000 silver tiles weighing one kilogram each. It was built under King Norodom in 1892 and was apparently inspired by Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. At the far end of the pagoda is a gold painted platform where the Emerald Buddha is seated. It is actually made out of Baccarat crystal. In front of the Emerald Buddha's platform is a life-sized standing Buddha made out of solid gold. 700 diamond pieces dot the statue - as a tika on its forehead, as the eyes, as a string necklace. I still can't believe the Khmer Rouge didn't melt it down, sell it or destroy it. Supposedly they left it intact to inform the world that "all is well in Cambodia."

The grounds, like our hotel, were strangely empty, especially since we'd just come from Bangkok where the wats were so choked with tourists that you couldn't avoid getting twenty of them in every photo. Suddenly a group of school children arrived - boys and girls about junior high age in blue and white uniforms. They pointed at us, smiled, waved and finally approached us with a camera. They wanted to take our picture. We happily agreed and the kids gathered around us for a shot. After their photo we asked them to pose for us. It was a wonderful experience. They were so cute and excited. I guess they don't see many tourists anymore.

Outside as we waited for the car, an amputee limped up to us asking for money. In the distance ten foot pictures of Sihanouk and his wife were plastered onto stone fences. The Cambodian flag - blue and red with an outline of Angkor Wat - flapped in the wind.

Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng isn't very far from downtown, but once we left the main street, the dirt roads were bumpy and punctured with pot holes. More children, dogs and vendors lined the streets. A sign on the white gate read, in English and Khmer, "Tuol Sleng - Museum of Genocide." Children peddled bikes too big for their bodies around the gate. An old woman stood next to her fruit stand. Boys played tag. We drove past the sign and into the prison.

Over 17,000 people were brought here during the Khmer Rouge's reign. Seven people survived. In this gentle setting that used to be a high school, victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and murdered. Men missing legs came up to us as we got out of the car. We paid the entry fee of two US dollars and met our guide, a middle aged woman named Phalla (pronounced Pala).

The campus consisted of four buildings congregated around a grass courtyard. The bright sunlight revealed where paint had chipped off the walls. A thin, lanky man swept off the fourteen graves in front of the first building. In these graves lay the last fourteen people killed at Tuol Sleng. A monk in saffron robes and black rimmed glasses followed in the tour behind us.

The first building housed prisoners on two floors. They were chained to metal bed frames. No mattresses, only hard metal. On the walls, hanging above each bed, were photographs of the dead found in each room after the Vietnamese wrestled the city from the Khmer Rouge. In one cell, a photograph showed a naked body, wretchedly twisted, handcuffed and shackled. He had been killed with a shovel. White bits of cheekbone were exposed. A pool of blood gathered under his bed. This was the very room where he was found. The room where he was tortured and murdered. I looked around the cell. In his anguish, that prisoner must have focused on the bits of dust encrusted in the walls. He must have seen how the plaster had fallen off the walls in fist-sized chunks. He must have seen those spots where the paint changes hue on the ceiling. This room had been a tomb for the living, and I was surprised somehow by the amount of light. The window was covered with a series of slates which allowed strips of sunlight to pour through. Past the window slates I could see a little girl on a tricycle, riding just outside the prison. I could see green trees, houses, people working in their backyards. I turned around and looked out towards the outside hallway. A monk in the small tour group behind us was standing at the cell window looking in. He had his hand up to his mouth. The prison cell reflected in his thick glasses.

Our guide Phalla pointed out a sign hanging in the hallway. It had been translated into English. This sign greeted the prisoners of Tuol Sleng. It stated such prison rules as "The prisoner will not cry or yell out while receiving lashes." Each line of horror was stated as a matter of fact.

The next building was even more haunting. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their work. Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival. Some were photographed in their rooms, chained to their beds, but most of the prisoners were forced to sit on a thin wooden chair with a rod stemming out from the back that directed where their head should be. This collection of photos is the victims' last testament. A woman, hair cropped holding a baby stares out from one photo. A boy with his mouth bloodied and swollen, blood smeared up his cheek. A young man with his arms pulled behind him stares into the camera. His eyes bulge with terror. Every shot is black and white, making them seem ever the more like evidence. Rows upon rows of evidence. Walls and walls of evidence. Some of the victims smiled innocently into the lens. Shards of sunlight poured across the pictures. The few foreigners who died at Tuol Sleng also have a place on the wall. An Australian businessman who missed his chance when the world evacuated from Phnom Penh. A westerner with a scraggly beard and wide horrified eyes. One photo struck me the hardest. A boy no more than twelve years old with cuts on his cheeks and around his eyes. A heavy metal chain hung around his neck like a leash. Tight jaw, dark eyes.

I cannot understand what happened here. How could this happen? How could anyone torture these children, these women with babies, these young men? I know the history. I have heard the Khmer Rouge rhetoric about creating a utopia. Andy and I had discussed the theories. Brainwashing created a world in which a person was a cog in the system. The individual soul was disregarded. Murder was commonplace, systematic and nonchalant. But I still cannot understand how a person could bludgeon that little boy in the photograph to death with a shovel. In the same way, I cannot understand how the Nazis could have murdered so many millions of men, women and children. Again I know the history, the rhetoric. But such mass cruelty is beyond my comprehension.

I believe that a certain amount of violence is innate in man, but I also believe that what happened here was not innate. This was a perversion of humanity, a malignancy on mankind. The prisoners here were hung from the high school's gymnastics bars and dropped to the ground. Their fingernails were torn out while their hands were clamped between two pieces of wood. They were held underwater, electrocuted, lashed. The Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, the Spanish Inquisition... I still believe that humanity thrives in spite of these horrors, not that humanity thrives on them.

We walked past the walls of photos to another room. Phalla pointed to two more rows of photos showing boys about thirteen or fourteen years old in cloth caps.

"These were the interrogators," she stated. "Interrogators, killers, same thing."

Thirteen year old killers? These were the guards? The ones who tortured mothers and children with such ruthlessness? They had been brainwashed, I know. They were, in a way, victims too. But that doesn't mean that I feel any sympathy for them. Next to the pictures of the boys were pictures of the young female cooks.

In the next building over, rooms were divided into small brick cages. Inside, I couldn't stretch out both arms the cages were so small. Prisoners here were starved until their ribs showed through their skin. They were shackled and left to await torture or disposal.

"Why didn't they escape, some people ask me," Phalla said. "Why didn't they try?"

Clearly, the brick walls were pretty flimsy and a good knock could topple them.

"They were too weak," she continued, "to push down the walls."

After a beat she began again. " I lost my own family during the Khmer Rouge. My husband was killed with a bamboo stick. My daughter was starved to death. My brother was killed with a shovel..."

She listed off the members of her family and their violent deaths. Some light crept into the room illuminating the thick gobs of concrete between the bricks, the holes in the plaster walls that served as doors, the wooden slates over the windows.

"I wanted to commit suicide." Phalla's voice was low. "But I did not." The whites of her eyes were faintly pink, but I could tell she was past crying. Now she was telling us her story to share her pain, her country's anguish and to make sure that her family somehow lived on.

"You understand, lady?" She kept asking me, in case I didn't understand her accent.

I understood what she was saying, but not why, not how. I didn't understand like she did anyway. I had come to witness the aftermath, and I found it, twenty years later, still imprinted on her face and in her eyes.

Outside a group of boys played volleyball. The net was strung up between the back of a barrack and a palm tree. Two puppies tumbled around in the courtyard. Of course to them, nothing happened here. A young boy rode a bicycle up to the door. Andy bent down and took his picture. The child gripped the handlebars and smiled broadly.

"My nephew," Phalla smiled.

The building was covered with barbed wire so that the prisoners didn't kill themselves by jumping to their deaths before "confessing." They were not given spoons in case they used them to slit their wrists.

The fourth and final building housed paintings by one of the seven survivors of Tuol Sleng. The three by five foot paintings showed guards ripping out people's fingernails, prisoners being whipped by five guards. One painting showed a blindfolded, half starved man being carried like a hog at a luau. Another painting showed a man, thin and bent, sitting in one of the brick cells with a shackle around his ankle. Phalla explained that was a self portrait. In the next room hung instruments of torture, and down the hallway, was a bust of Pol Pot. The nose had been hacked off, it looked like, with an ax.

The final room displayed a map of Cambodia that covered the whole wall, 10 feet high maybe, ten feet across. The map was made of human skulls. Skulls of the victims. Red lines, to represent blood, drew the Mekong River and Tonle Sap.

Phalla walked us outside. We thanked her, not really knowing what to say. Andy asked if we could take a picture of her, and after she agreed, we each took one photo. When I snapped the picture she wasn't smiling, but her jaw was strong and tight and her chin was pointed slightly upwards. I thought to myself, even if the picture doesn't come out, I will never forget that profile.

The Killing Fields

After Tuol Sleng, we drove in silence out of town to the Killing Fields Memorial of Choeung Ek. Paved roads ended at the edge of Phnom Penh. Our journey was dirt roads the rest of the way. The driver had to maneuver around barrel-sized potholes. Raised houses with corrugated metal roof tops lined the roads. Some roofs were actually made of palm leaves, though most were wood and metal. Dogs played under the shade of a drop cloth awning, while children held kite strings and played tag in their school clothes. A young man with his shirt off stood on the balcony of his wooden stilted home. A bright pink towel, hanging on the railing next to him, blew in the wind. We crossed a bridge and saw the homes standing right up alongside the river. Every once in a while, I could see the vast expanses of rice paddies and distant palm trees. It was just as I had imagined.

After about thirty minutes we arrived at the Killing Fields Memorial. We paid the very small fee (one or two US dollars each), then walked up to the three story high memorial pagoda. Inside piles upon piles of skulls are stacked according to age and gender. "Female, 14 to 17" read one card. We were close enough to touch them, although I felt that would be disrespectful. Pile of bones. Thousands of lives. The towering pagoda shelters more than 8000 skulls. When the interrogators at Tuol Sleng were done with their victims they told them they were going to be sent home. Instead they were taken here and killed.

Behind the memorial pagoda are the mass graves. Pits of bones with grass and dirt thrown over them. Andy brushed his hand through the dirt. A bone came up under his fingers. He quickly covered it back up. Across the pits I could see the river. On the other side of the stupa, rice fields yawned and stretched under the setting sun. It is incredible that this peaceful, quiet place was a killing field. Rith, our guide, walked around with his hands in his pockets. Women watched two boys picking fruit out of the upper branches of a vine covered tree. I took a picture of three children who were playing just outside the gate.

We drove back the way we came. A little boy waved, and I waved back. He ran alongside the car for several strides just to smile and say hello. The sun slid past the palm trees and down into the rice paddies. Again we sat in silence.

Rith and the driver dropped us off at the hotel. He gave us his business card, so we could write to him. It turns out he is a conservation specialist at the Silver Pagoda. We thanked him about half a dozen times, said good-bye to the driver and went inside.

While Andy showered, I stood on the balcony outside our room watching the traffic on the street below. The city has not yet recovered, but there is an overwhelming sense of hope. Phnom Penh is a city of survivors and their children. They have not pushed the horrors of the past aside. They acknowledge the past; they live alongside their memorials; they set up shop and play tag in the shadow of Tuol Sleng... and they carry on with hope and grace.

I hardly slept at all that night. Every time I closed my eyes I saw images of Tuol Sleng. When the alarm went off at 4:50 AM, I was already awake. That morning we left Phnom Penh and set out to experience the grandeur of Angkor.