The Killing Fields

Friday, August 7, 2015

We went to Cambodia last weekend and I gotta say that it was one of my favorite countries I've ever been to. That was probably the first time where I left a country feeling so sad like I needed to experience so much more of it than I had time to. It was also probably the most impoverished country I've ever seen as well.

We flew to Bangkok Wednesday night and then our flight to Cambodia didn't leave until about 7 AM the next morning so we figured we'd save a few baht and just sleep in the airport. Geniuses.

Of the many many flights I've been on in my life I'll never forget the flight to Bangkok! It's just a quick 45 minutes from our city, but we hit a little bit of turbulence.  So much turbulence that I was thinking...okay if we crash all those people who joked about me dying in Thailand are gonna feel pretty bad forever. You know who you are. There was the cutest Thai girl next to me.  When the plane would drop for a second or shake really bad we'd both grab the arm rest at the same time effectively holding hands and just look at each other and half laugh/half cry. Finally we were about to land and just as we were about to touch down the pilot pulls back up and heads right back into the sky. I wanted to cry when I realized we were heading up instead of slowing down. He looped around the sky and 30 minutes later we successfully made a terrifying landing. Still alive!

We walked around the airport looking for somewhere to set up camp for the night and couldn't really find any seats that looked semi like couches so....these blue chairs are what we slept on. I used my backpack as a pillow and my sweater as a blanket but I quickly realized that the Bangkok airport is FREEZING if you're just laying there. Plus the lights were as bright as the sun so I finally put my sweatshirt over my face to shield my eyes and wrapped my towel around me for a blanket. Plus flip flops and messy bun on top of my head so....keeping up the American stereotype efforts in Asia. Then some jerk thought he should clean the floor with one of those loud machines (what are those called?) at 3 am so sleep was absolutely out of the question for me.

Finally we made it to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia! There's us in our cute little tuk tuk.

The value of the Cambodian riel against the dollar is incredibly low. They actually use dollars in Cambodia and their currency is just used as change for anything less than a dollar.  $4,000 riel = $1!!!

When I first got to Cambodia we bought breakfast and I got a few 100 riel bills back so I was looking at it to see how much it was...100 riel equals 2 cents so I was looking pretty rich but...yeah. Unbelievable. Dollars is the unofficial currency in Cambodia although they do use riel in the countrysides. Even the ATMs will disperse dollars. And also you can't even exchange riel outside of Cambodia one wants it.

The country didn't even have money until the 1950's and then when the Khmer Rouge (I'll talk about them in a sec) took control over the country in the 1970's. They abolished the riel and even bombed the national bank and there wasn't any currency at all. So anyone that did have money soon realized it was worthless. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 they reintroduced the riel but since there was no currency they just gave money to the people to encourage them to use it.  After another period of war the United Nations finally came in during the 1990's and brought dollars into the country so now dollars are used because anyone over 30 has lived in a period of time where their riel suddenly was worthless and dollars seem more reliable.

While in Phnom Pehn we went to the killing fields.  I had learned about it before and knew basically what it was, but got a much closer up look here. To make a long story short, Pol Pot was a military leader who lead the murder of 1/3 of the country in just 4 years. Anyone that was a threat to his position was killed. It's really only comparable to Hitler and his evils. Phnom Pehn was completely captured so that's where the most famous "killing fields" are but there was similar mass murders all throughout the country. 

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake." - Pol Pot

That was his philosophy. He leveled the playing field of the country by murdering anyone with any education at all. Teachers, doctors, business owners. Anyone with glasses was considered educated. Anyone who spoke a foreign language or held a passport was murdered. Anyone with soft hands was murdered. Anyone who wouldn't do the killing was killed. There wasn't much distinction between who should be killed...if there was any question they just were.

So the killing fields is just an area where they brought people in by the truckfuls to be killed, just like the concentration camps in Europe. You can walk around the killing fields listening to an audio speaker telling you the history of the area and what you're seeing. This pit below was one of the mass graves. 

This was a big tree that was very famous in the area just because of the brutality. Any children that were brought it were killed here. Just in general they didn't use guns because bullets were too expensive so they just used their own strength and anything that could be used as a weapon. They would essentially just beat small children to death by swinging them against the tree. When the Vietnamese invaded and this place was found at the end of all this they found blood and brain matter all over and around the tree.

They hung a loudspeaker on this tree that would play a song that was meant to be loud enough to drown out the sounds of screams as they were bringing people into the camps....because they didn't know they were here to be killed. They played the song for us and it was the creepiest thing I've ever heard knowing what it was covering up.

This little wooden house was put up afterwards as a tribute to any lost souls. 

They really didn't dig the graves deep at all so bodies were just laying in very shallow graves. Any remember since they didn't just shoot them they beat them so often bones and teeth would just go flying. They said that even to this day they have groundskeepers that go around the area every few months cleaning up bones and things that surface after the rains.  They say they feel it's like the souls that remain and just can't get out. So, when you walk around the pathways you will see bones and teeth all over that just haven't been cleaned up yet.

This was just a big sanctuary that they built and packed floor to ceiling with skulls. They also had notes of how the person was killed because they can tell by the damage done to their skull. 

Incredibly sad and incredibly emotional. As part of the audio that we listened to there was a section where people who survived told their stories. I can't and don't even want to repeat that part. 

I have no idea why I'm so fortunate that I've been able to visit so many parts of the world where incredibly tragic things like this have happened and that I've never been on the receiving end of the war like that. Visiting Auschwitz was such a personal and emotional experience for me but it also felt like such a distant thing too.  This happened so recently that I can't even really comprehend that. Walking around Cambodia you look at anyone over 30 years old and you're like okay how come you were so lucky to survive? And who did you know that was killed?

I just had immediate love for Cambodia. It is very impoverished. The most tragic of histories. And the people still smile and wave as us tourists come walking through their lives. Love them. 

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