On Feeling History in Phnom Penh

by Ekua on April 15, 2013 in Cambodia

I hadn’t really wanted to go to Phnom Penh as much as I felt compelled to go. Like many other visitors, exploring Cambodia’s recent history was the main reason why I thought it was important to stop in the capital city.

As a young child when I was unable to grasp the complexities of the world, in my mind I’d sort many of the countries I heard snippets about into two categories. Along with places like Nicaragua and Colombia, Cambodia landed in the “bad” category of countries, but I knew little about why that name sounded so chilling.

In school, I would eventually study the Vietnam War, but that was the main focus of the Southeast Asia region in the classroom. Looking back, it almost seemed like Vietnam was an island in the region, isolated and chosen to study because of America’s fairly recent, controversial, and highly publicized interference there. I didn’t find out then how much damage America’s involvement had done well beyond Vietnam’s borders and how the destruction it caused in Cambodia provided an opening for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to step in.

Eventually I learned a little more about the genocide led by Pol Pot that had taken place in Cambodia not too long before I was born, but I still remained largely ignorant about the country until I began to look into traveling there. I was curious about why this place I’d always negatively categorized seemed to be an increasingly popular destination. That prompted me to look into not only why people were drawn to it, but why I had felt repelled from it.

It’s not just the act of visiting places and absorbing the history that travel can be an education. In the act of simply wanting to travel, in wanderlust, in taking an interest in places beyond your surroundings, there is so much that can drive you to educate yourself beyond the reaches of government-implemented education standards and university requirements.


When we arrived in Phnom Penh, the the rush of people and tuk tuks and motorcycles carrying families of five or six was a shock to my system after the dreamy traveler wonderland of Siem Reap and Angkor. We were back in reality. We took an evening to settle into Phnom Penh’s faster pace, and the following morning, a group of us visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

Once a high school, Tuol Sleng became a secret prison referred to as “S-21” during Pol Pot’s regime. The torture and killing that had taken place there still hung heavy in the atmosphere and the experience I had at the site was as poignant as one would expect. We saw the torture rooms, the barbed wire surrounding a building to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide, and the haunting photographs of both the victims of the Khmer Rouge and members of the Khmer Rouge.

The experience I was not prepared for happened as I exited to get back on the bus. The moment I stepped outside the gates of the museum, beggars ran up to me and surrounded me, their eyes full of desperation. One of them had a badly burned and disfigured face and the others were missing limbs. They were most likely victims of landmine explosions, a legacy of previous decades’ turmoil that continues to destroy lives throughout Southeast Asia.

All at once, the history that was still at a distance became the naked, unfiltered present. And the shock and sadness I felt were insignificant compared to reality of these men who had been relegated to making a living off the destruction of their bodies and of their country.

Later, we visited the Killing Fields, where we entered the memorial stupa piled high with the skulls and clothing of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge who were buried in the mass graves there. The signs describing what happened in each section were written bluntly, conveying the unthinkable cruelty with which the victims were treated. Every so often, I’d step on something sticking out of the dirt and realize that it was a piece of clothing from a victim buried in a mass grave.

Again, there was an unexpected experience as I was leaving. I followed the sound of young voices and saw that right next to Killing Fields on the other side of a fence was a school where children were playing during their recess. It had become increasingly clear that life had had to go on with history not behind Cambodia, but right beside it, and in front of me was a very visual display of that.

After visiting these sites, I realized I had not come to simply learn about the history of Cambodia, but to feel and face it. And the effects of the Khmer Rouge era were still very much alive. We could see it in the stark poverty of the countryside, in the eagerness of the beggars and vendors, in the brain drain, and sometimes even behind the pervasive keen sense of humor that had endeared us to Cambodia.

Visiting these two sites was a disheartening way to spend a day in Phnom Penh, but an essential part of going to Cambodia. History was no longer filtered through the sterility of newspapers, history books, or television. Lives lost were no longer numbers to shake my head at, but the faces and bones of real people. History was tangible, bare and ready to be taken into the heart with its lessons carried into the future.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina April 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

Such an interesting post, glad you had that experience and shared it. I’m always a little disconcerted to hear about people who go someplace like Rwanda to see gorillas and don’t take the time to learn about the atrocities and pay their respects at memorials. It’s a different kind of tourism, but one that means so much to me. I met people at the tunnel museum in Sarajevo who’d used the tunnel during the war, and it floored me. And of course seeing concentration camps is another life-changing event. I think of it as part of understanding a place, history, and people. Important even if unpleasant.


Andi of My Beautiful Adventures April 16, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience this horrific sight in person… It’s so important though that we visit these places!


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