Cambodia, a perplexing place – one day you’re watching the sunrise over the “8th wonder of the world”. The next, you’re standing in the middle of the killing fields shocked by the evil humans are capable of.
After a month on the beaches of Goa I can handle sightseeing again. So we fly to the tourist town of Siem Reap, and set ourselves up with a 3 day pass for SE Asia’s most popular tourist attraction – the Angkor Temples. As we join the pre-dawn hordes for our kodak moment, and the sun reveals the world’s largest religious building (Angkor Wat), I can’t help thinking – could do with a licker paint. But as the day wears on I’m impressed by the scale and complexity of it all – it beats Bramber Castle.
There were more to the Angkor temples than I’d realised (a dozen or more sites and they’re kilometres apart), so a tuk tuk man saves us the legwork. Angkor Wat is the largest and in the best condition, but for me it wasn’t the most interesting. I preferred looking at the smiling faces at the Bayon (Angkor Thom) and the tree-infested Ta Prohm – the location for Tomb Raider (2001)… Preah Khan and the carvings at Banteay Srei are also worth a butchers.
Traipsing round temples is hard work, so the next day we swerve them completely and head up the Kulen Mountains for a stroll round a monastery and picnic by a waterfall. On the way back we stop at another one of Jolie’s old haunts – the landmine museum. Apparently there are still 3-6 million unexploded land mines in Cambodia – I’m sticking to the beaten track.
After wrapping up the temples on day 3 we take a minibus to the capital – Phnom Penh, and visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison (S21). Where we learn about a completely different side to this nation’s history.
— The history in a nutshell*: The Khmer Rouge and their deranged leader Pol Pot came to power in 1975 and in the 4 years that followed brutally murdered (or caused the death) of between 1-3 million Cambodians (25% of the population).
Pot’s vision was a society of self-sufficient peasants living off the land. So he sealed off the country from the outside world and began a campaign of “purification”. This meant systematically executing anyone seen as a threat to the revolution. Often for bizarre ideological reasons, such as having an education (or wearing glasses)… If only they’d extended that logic to include themselves (Pot and many of the KR leaders were university educated in France and held jobs such as professors and monks prior to taking power). —
It was a quiet day of contemplation spent wandering the sites and listening to some of the most horrific stories imaginable (via the audio guide). Probably the most shocking was the killing tree (a tree they used to kill babies and small children)… The KR had a slogan “when you dig up the grass, you must remove the roots” and would murder the extended family of dissenters and intellectuals to eliminate the revenge factor.
It was hard to hear, but necessary to know.
What I found almost as shocking was that even after the regime ended in 1979, and Pot and his men were living as jungle hideouts. They continued to be recognised as Cambodia’s ruling government, retained their place at the UN, and received substantial aid from Western governments. This support lasted until 1993. Pol Pot died in 1998 (aged 73) and was never tried for his crimes.**
So, Cambodia turned out to be a history lesson. I had wanted to understand what makes communism turn genocidal, but I left with more questions than answers.
Why did the Khmer people turn on themselves so brutally? Did it have anything to do with the Angkorian civilisation’s fall from greatness (as some historians claim)? Why were the UN and the West so oblivious**? Where are the lower ranking members of the regime now (there must be thousands of them)? How do they sleep?
The following words resonate now more than ever.
The more I see, the more I know.
The more I know, the less I understand…
– Paul Weller (Changingman)
*For more on the history and stories from the audio guide, check out these 2 blog posts:
**Trials against some of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge began in 2006 at the ECCC.