Visiting Cambodia has been a dream since I was 12 years old and best friends with Alex. I spent many weekends at Alex's house and her parents became second parents to me. Alex's mother seemed crazily exotic and told many stories of her life in Cambodia, until exiled by the Khmer Rouge when she was just 21.
Two decades later she had still been unable to return to her country, but she made sure her half-Cambodian daughter knew about her heritage and I learned too.
Young children who were killed against this tree so they "wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' death".
It was the typical morbid fascination of a teenager that inspired me to read 'The Killing Fields' at an age when I was far too young to really understand what had happened. Even now I remember thinking of the book more as a horror story than an account of real life events. Too over the top to be true.
Alex told me that her mother couldn't read the book because the real life stories featured many of her friends. The real Killing Fields have been...
somewhere I have wanted to visit ever since.
Years later and it's visa run time in Vietnam - a long weekend in Phnom Penh is an 8 hour journey away. An overheated, uncomfortable bus ride across the border, an overpriced cyclo ride later and I'm at a hotel. Phnom Penh is everything I thought S.E.Asia would be. Forget about the capitalist western-style cities I've visited, this is a capital with character, french influences ever-present but with a unique traditional flavour, and it seems I can walk every street in just one day. Tourist touts are on every street corner - where do I want to go, what do I want to see, 'best best cheap price'. [OK, same as Thailand then].
My private cyclo driver picks me up early the next morning; we weave through the city and out into the countryside. It's a well trodden path - more cyclos carrying western tourists than other traffic on this main road. All following the signs for The Killing Fields. The entrance is a rather normal looking gate to what was formerly an orchard, my guidebook tells me to buy the audio guide, my guidebook was right. This isn't a place for talking, but for reflection and silence. Learning more about what happened here it strikes me that the area is extremely small. Too small for murder on such a scale.
Even now I remember thinking of the book more as a horror story than an account of real life events.
'It happened, therefore it can happen again'. [Primo Levi]
Dominating the subdued landscape is Wat Choeung Ek. A flower seller sits outside so tourists can buy and pay respects to the victims. Of the estimated 20,000 victims of genocide the Wat contains 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex, and laid out over 17 levels of glass shelves. A colour coded sticker is placed on many of the remains - the colour indicating how the victim died. Clubbed over the head, throat cut by long thick leaves ...
bullets were too expensive. Most were murdered by hand. This is a place of remembrance that needs to be seen to be believed. Also on display were hundreds of bones - sorted and placed according to body part. Too many victims were buried in mass graves to make identification possible. Records were destroyed. Entire families simply disappeared.
Walking around there are two particular memories that will stay with me for life. The audio tour warns to watch out for bone fragments and items of clothing. When it rains remains of the victims are washed to the surface of the ground and every few months staff collect the pieces for further display. It's likely you will step on some; I did. Glass cabinets along the walkway contain the collected fragments of former life. Around one corner is a tree decorated with ribbons and friendship bracelets - a tree of colour in a silent place. The gestures from tourists worldwide in respect of the babies and young children who were killed against this tree so they "wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' death". How did they die? Picked up by laughing soldiers and had their head smashed against the tree trunk. Their executioner laughing so he too wouldn't be accused of lacking sympathy for the regime and becoming a target.
My guidebook tells me to buy the audio guide,
Papau New Guinea