While the rest of the world was recovering from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, a sinister regime had quietly risen to power in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, 25% of the population was murdered in what has become the most defining period in the country’s history.
This genocide isn’t as widely recognized as the Holocaust or other historical massacres, so I traveled to the capital city of Phnom Penh to visit the killing sites, stand among the remnants of those who perished, and learn about Cambodia’s dark past.
The Khmer Rouge, led by their dictator Pol Pot, targeted everyone from intellectuals to religious minorities to foreign nationalities, with the goal of ethnic cleansing and restoring the country to an extreme socialist society. They executed their plan by invading each city and relocating the people to work as slaves, to interrogation camps, or killing fields where they’d eventually be subjected to torture and death.
Just outside of the city lies the most visited mass grave site, Choeung Ek. Two days after arriving in Cambodia I visited this historical plot of land, walking the grounds while listening to narrations from locals and stories from survivors.
There’s a peaceful yet eerie silence at Choeung Ek as you walk to each marker, carefully stepping over bones and pieces of clothing that still continue to surface after forty years.
These remnants are excavated and collected every so often, locked in glass displays for visitors to examine. In the center of the field a memorial has been built which houses over 5,000 skulls, bones and clothing recovered from the surrounding graves.
Visitors slowly and silently walk the grounds with headphones playing an audio guided tour. Bodies of water and shady trees surround the site, creating a peaceful and somber setting to sit and take it all in, as you imagine yourself in this same spot four decades ago and how devastatingly different it was. Colorful bracelets hang from the grave sites of mothers and children and people are praying and crying and hugging on the steps of the memorial.
There have been countless times on this trip where all I can do is silently observe and try to process what’s going on around me. Sometimes it’s due to chaos and confusion, others its from sheer beauty and awe, and then there’s moments like this, where it’s difficult to believe that something this unspeakable took place right where you are standing. And that to this day, it continues to happen across the world.
After the Killing Fields I visited S-21, a former high school which was converted to a prison during the genocide. It was used as an interrogation site by the Khmer Rouge where as many as 20,000 victims were tortured and killed.
There are no photos allowed inside, but the original architecture has remained intact with crumbling brick prison cells, metal beds used for torture, and rooms filled with thousands of photographs of every victim who entered the prison—from small children to the elderly. The black and white head shots have been enlarged to life size, and you can’t help but pause and stare into their eyes and wonder what was going through their minds the moment that photo was snapped. Did they know it would be their last?
Out of a handful of survivors there are a few alive to this day, and one of them was actually there, meeting with visitors and selling a book about his experience. I can’t imagine how it must feel to return to the spot where your family was taken from you and destroyed. Even without any connections to the event, there was a sick feeling in my gut and a numbness in my body walking around the prison.
Every Cambodian alive today has been affected by the genocide in one form or another, yet I haven’t heard a single mention of it or reference to it from the locals. There’s no visible sadness or anger in their eyes, unlike what I experienced in Vietnam. Devastation has a tendency to put things into perspective, and the most beautiful things are born out of tragedy. I’ve experienced this on a much smaller scale in my own life and seeing it manifested here on the other end of the world is another affirmation of how connected we all are as humans.
It’s no coincidence that the change in tone of my posts were following my days spent immersed in education on the Vietnam War and Cambodian Genocide. It’s one thing to read about it in history books from across the world, but to experience it first hand, talk to those whose lives were changed by it forever and feel the energy of the destruction left behind… it changes you. If you’ve never been to this part of the world, I’d highly recommend it.
Let’s talk about Phnom Penh for a second. It was my first impression of Cambodia after leaving Vietnam, and my reviews are mixed. The biggest disparity between it and nearby countries is the overall landscape. It’s flat, polluted, trash everywhere, very poor living conditions. Definitely the most extreme third world setting compared to surrounding countries.
Other observations include a lot more cars and tuk tuks and less motorbikes (compared to Vietnam), more creative/interesting methods of transportation (i.e. cows strapped to mopeds), and with these signs on every block I’m pretty sure the entire country is sponsored by Angkor beer…
The neighborhood my hostel was in was a pleasant surprise. Unlike Vietnam where most everything is unrecognizable family run businesses, there were legitimate establishments with indoor (air conditioned) seating, plenty of convenience stores, coffee shops that served more than two ounces at a time, and even several Burger King and KFC’s (not that I would go there, but still). It felt much more westernized than anywhere I’d been so far.
I can’t say enough about the locals. It’s the people that make the country and shape your experiences, but never has that been more true than here. Their friendliness and smiles are contagious. They go out of their way to learn about you, and the children run out into the streets, waving and saying “Hello!” in perfect English. In fact, so many of them are fluent which makes communication easier here than anywhere else. The people here are truly beautiful, inside and out.
Visiting Kampot was a very last minute decision. The plan was to stay in Koh Rong (a larger island nearby) but I decided I’d had enough island time and was hearing nice things about Kampot, so we paid a taxi (aka a local guy in a Honda Accord) $30 for the two hour drive there.
Our hostel was newish and clean with a pool and hot water and wifi, and there were more than five people to talk to so my spirits were much higher than on Koh Rong Samloem. My friend and I paid a tuk tuk driver $15 to take us on a tour through the countryside the following day, and that was when my view of Cambodia completely changed.
The town of Kampot itself is rather small and shares some of the same characteristics as the other Cambodian cities (dirty, crowded, etc) but as soon as we entered the countryside it was entirely different. While riding through the local villages it felt like I’d stumbled opon a place frozen in time.
Fields of grass extend for miles, framed by mountains in the distance and dotted with palm trees and simple, hand built houses. There are pet cows tied up like dogs and children splashing in swimming holes and flying kites.
For a mere $15, I spent the day living inside of a real life post card—a seemingly undiscovered utopia preserved for decades. I’ve visited world famous national parks, cities, temples, mountains and islands where millions of people flock to witness their beauty… but here in the countryside in the middle of Cambodia I found my own little slice of heaven. It may not have stunning architecture or landscape, but there’s something pure and beautiful about simplicity. On this day, I fell in love with Cambodia.
We followed a dirt road to the side of a mountain where we were greeted by local kids who helped us out of the tuk tuk and told us they’d take us inside a cave.
The girl introduced herself as Lady Gaga and led us across a river on a makeshift bridge into the cave entrance. There was an impressive ancient temple inside, built centuries ago underneath tall stalactite formations. We used the light from our phones to climb through cramped, dark passageways and our sweet guides spoke perfectly eloquent English as they explained the history of the cave and told us about their family and country.
We tipped them a few dollars for their help and got back into our tuk tuk, where we ended up at a secret lake lined with straw bungalows and hammocks.
There we feasted on local fried rice and relaxed under the shade. I could have stayed there forever, but there was more to see so we had our driver take us to the small beach town of Kep. We stopped at the local crab market before heading to the shore, where I floated in the warm clear bath water with a view of Vietnam in the distance.
We made it back just in time for sunset, where we boarded a large wooden boat and set off down the Kampot River. We passed groups of fishing boats and bungalows and bars suspended over the water as the sun illuminated the haze while setting behind the mountains. I sipped on a fresh coconut and surveyed the beautiful land, falling more in love with Cambodia every second.
As the sky rotated through shades of orange and purple, a bright full moon rose in the east while storm clouds appeared in the south, competing for attention with flashes of lightning.
The boat fell silent as we absorbed the sights of the evening, knowing we were all witnessing something special. Nightfall came and the colorful sunset gave way to stars and an increasingly active lightning show. Our boat moved closer to the river bank where fireflies flickered in the trees and all around us, eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from the passengers.
Not to be outdone, the lightning storm put on a show that rivaled the best I’ve seen in Florida, with bright and intricate bolts of electricity filling the sky every minute. I laid on the boat deck and stared out into space, feeling so fortunate to be here in this moment. Knowing that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
A reader described it perfectly when she said Vietnam is full of adventure and beauty, but Cambodia has soul. It’s a palpable feeling—an warmth that radiates through the sun and stars and visible in the eyes of its people.
I can’t help but think that the spirits of those lives that were taken in the genocide—those 2-3 million souls—continue to live on today within the souls of the survivors and the generations that followed. Their energy lives on in the land and sea and the air we breathe. There’s an unspoken magic about this place—a sense of home that I haven’t felt in any other country. From tragedy comes beauty.
I left Kampot nearly a week ago and have only continued to fall in love with this country. I’m off to continue making some of my best memories… adventures from Siem Reap, coming next.