There’s an Eddie Izzard sketch where he talks about how difficult it is for people to process the actions of mass-murderers, and in particular the perpetrators of holocausts. If you kill someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. If you kill 10 people, you go to Texas and they execute you. If you kill 20 people, you go to a hospital and they look at you through a small window. But 100,000? How do you even start? Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed, at a conservative estimate, 1.5 million Cambodians, through execution, disease and starvation. Their enforcement of a twisted communist dream of nation of farmers and workers destroyed the culture and infrastructure of a nation in four years from 1975-1979. Four years.
Of course, blame can be extended in many directions, in particular at the French, Vietnamese, Americans, Chinese, and other Cambodians, but it remains the fact that a quarter of the population was killed in a tiny amount of time. And they were killed by bitterness, ignorance, fear and vicious stupidity. I strongly urge everyone to read ‘Survival In The Killing Fields’ by Haing Ngor (and Roger Warner). I devoured it in little over a day, and there is little like it to educate you to the mean tragedies of this story. Some of the wonderful little touches on this are that the Khmer Rouge were still in possession of a UN seat and treated as the official government until 1998, and Pol Pot was at large for much of this time. Cry and be angry.
We arrived efficiently in the capital, Phnom Penh and our pleasant hotel in the ex-pat area. Travelling by bus through the countryside from Vietnam, it had appeared certainly poorer than Vietnam, but the area of the capital we stayed in was modern and lovely. Nearby were a row of lovely restaurants, cafés and bars and n general the food has been excellent here. We visited the National Fine Arts museum and a couple of markets and other places around town – but our main visits were to Tuol Sleng – a former prison and site of many atrocities, now a genocide museum. In this convert school, 17,000 people were held and eventually sent for execution, only 7 survived. They were taken outside the city in trucks to mass execution sites, known as The Killing Fields. Here we visited a memorial stupa, where the skulls and remnants of the dead have been exhumed, cleaned and detailed into a grizzly tower, a harrowing sight. The place itself seems quite peaceful and pastoral now, but the monsoon rains bring fresh bones and scraps of clothing to the surface every year. The lake and trees seem cooling and sheltering, but the lake hides more bodies, and the trees were used, literally, to dash babies and small children against.
After a few days in Phnom Penh, we headed east, to Siem Reap and the famous temples.