After the roller coaster ride of ground transportation in Laos, we decided to bite the cost of two plane tickets and fly to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capitol. We descended into a heavy and oppressive layer of humidity and pollution that hovered over the city, an atmosphere that matched the mood of our experience while we were there. We wanted to visit Phnom Penh to better understand Cambodia’s catastrophic genocide, and we knew it was going to be a difficult transition from the fun, thrills and frills of our prior destinations.
From 1974 to 1979, led by their Communist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to create a pure utopian agrarian society, senselessly executing anyone perceived to be a threat, and seeing and imagining threats in almost everyone. People who were educated, of foreign heritage, who spoke another language, who wore glasses posed a threat. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, architects, politicians, police officers, singers and actors were all menaces to the Khmer Rouge’s vision of a classless society of peasant farmers, so they were blindfolded and brought to the killing fields to face their brutal deaths.
Today, Tuk tuk drivers, cab drivers and travel agents all loudly advertise tours to the killing field just outside of Phnom Penh, where mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered. As we wandered the paths around meadows where earth sinks in like craters, and grass now grows from the murder and burial sites of so many Cambodians, it was impossible to take in the magnitude of something so gruesome – and this was just one of thousands of unsanctioned graveyards that scatter the rural beauty of Cambodia’s countryside.
Approximately 17,000 Cambodian’s were executed in killing fields like the one we visited, and a total death toll of two million is estimated during the four year Khmer Rouge takeover. One in four people were killed, and anyone over the age of 40 has painful memories of that time. We asked our sweet tuk tuk driver, Mr. Lee, how old he was when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and he said he was 16. He was torn away from his family to be sent away to a boys labor camp, and to this day, he does not know if his family is alive or dead, but he keeps looking, hoping that maybe even after 38 years he will find them. His uncle was killed in the killing fields that he takes tourists, like us, to every day. The effects of the genocide on the people and the economy are still omnipresent. A history so tragic cannot be escaped, but there is light in the eyes and warmth in the hearts of every Cambodian we met. They are looking forward, not dwelling in the past, but trying to make a better future for their children and their children’s children.