Welcome to Khmer Rouge Land!

Travel Stories: John Collins explores the theme park economy centered on Cambodia's Killing Fields

03.05.04 | 8:42 PM ET

cambodiaPhoto by Sandra Whitney.

As we walked back toward the motorbikes, Nan turned to me and smiled.

“We go to the shooting range now?” he asked.

“No, thanks. I think we’ll just go to the Russian Market,” I replied.

“But you can fire an AK-47 or an M-16—only one dollar a bullet,” Nan insisted.

“Really, I think we’ll just go to the market,” I smiled.

“For $20 they’ll let you fire a rocket launcher,” Nan countered.

“I think my wife would prefer to buy some souvenirs of Cambodia.”

Nan shrugged, barked something in Khmer at his fellow moto driver, then remounted his Honda Dream scooter and waited for me to jump on the back.

I could tell from the puzzled looks and muttered Khmer he exchanged with his partner that our Cambodian guide thought I was definitely strange, maybe even a little suspect in the virility stakes, for not wanting to fire an AK-47.

But Sandra and I had just spent the morning seeing the devastating damage that guns can do to men, women and children, and I had little desire to fire one myself, even if it was just a dollar a bullet. From Nan’s point of view, all the backpackers went to the shooting range—just after the concentration camp and the mass graves—so why should I be any different?

Welcome to Khmer Rouge Land, the Killing Fields theme park that is backpacker travel in Cambodia today.

Like the majority of travelers who visit Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, we had decided to explore the country’s turbulent recent history, the murderous period between 1975 and 1978 when between one and two million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. The scale and barbarity of the Khmer Rouge’s actions is almost unparalleled.

They force marched one million people out of Phnom Penh, abolished currency and education overnight and started on a harebrained scheme to create an agrarian communist culture. At the same time,  intellectuals, teachers, gays, and ethnic minorities were rounded up,  tortured and executed. Even wearing glasses, believed to be a telltale sign of an intellectual, meant a trip to the torture chamber.

Being a child of the seventies, I remember school appeals to help Kampuchea (as it was then officially known) as thousands starved as a result of a famine brought about by the KR’s disastrous policies. Back then I had only a vague concept of a faraway Asian country where the kids were a lot less fortunate than myself and my classmates in Ireland.

It was only in the nineties, with the death of Pol Pot and ongoing arguments over whether to bring the KR leaders to justice, that I began to appreciate the tragic history of a nation that suffered over 30 years of continuous strife from which it is still reeling.

While traveling in Cambodia, I told many people back home that Cambodia made Thailand look like Disneyland. But if Thailand is Disneyland, then Cambodia is something from the dark side of Walt’s psyche. The contrast was particularly stark as we walked across the border between the two countries at Poipet. On the Thai side there were paved roads, a wide selection of Western commodities in the shops and smooth-talking, slickly dressed touts trying to part unsuspecting backpackers from their cash. A few hundred yards away the road became a pitted dirt track, the shops were roadside shacks and limbless beggars vied for change.

When we arrived in the capital by boat, the riverbank was crowded with about 50 motorbike drivers for hire, all loudly touting for business. We were heading for Simons’ Place, one of the many guesthouses located in the backpacker ghetto of narrow alleyways on the banks of the Boeng Kak lake. It had been recommended for its helpful staff and lakeside location.

As we disembarked into the melee I spotted a tall guy in his late twenties at the back of the group holding up a sign saying “Simon’s Place.” I made a beeline for him and before we knew it we were being whisked off on the back of two small Honda motorbikes.  Without even realizing it we’d been “adopted” by Nan. If we needed anything or wanted to go anywhere in Phnom Penh, he was our man and questions to any of the other moto drivers hanging around the guest house would be directed to him. With his excellent English and shy smile, he was always willing to suggest activities and was very concerned at any suggestion that we’d want to walk anywhere.

That night on the open terrace, as the sun became a shrinking blood red orb over the shimmering waters of Boeng Kak, I sat with other travelers from Wales, Canada, Germany and England having the usual getting-to-know-you conversations about our travels. Nan and the other Khmers that worked in the guesthouse were also sitting around when someone slipped the ultimate Cambodia movie, “The Killing Fields,” into the communal video disk player.  As the camera panned over a typical rural Cambodia scene, with its distinctive tall palm trees, Nan mouthed the words “Cambodia” in time with the narrator. Clearly he’d seen this movie many times.

I felt uncomfortable watching such a powerful and disturbing movie in this setting. There we were, privileged travelers from the West,  “roughing it” in South East Asia, watching an English-made film about a tragic time in this country’s history, with Khmer people who had put it on for our entertainment. Somehow I couldn’t see as hard hitting a movie about terrorism in Northern Ireland being shown in a Belfast hostel. As the movie progressed to the Cambodian hero’s unwitting discovery of the Killing Fields, when he found himself knee deep in corpses in a paddy field, I became more uncomfortable. But I realized that for the Cambodians showing this movie was part of their economic reality and not an indication that they were numbed to the events of the past. Backpackers want to feel immersed in the local culture rather than cocooned in their safe tourist hotels, even if that’s not reality. What could be more “authentic” than sitting in a Phnom Penh guest house watching a pirated copy of The Killing Fields for the second night in a row? We were no exception.

Afterwards, Nan politely motioned me over and with a wide smile asked me if there was any plant or tree in Ireland that was as distinctively Irish as the Cambodian palm trees featured in the opening sequence. I fluffed the answer as I tried to understand if for him this was the most noteworthy incident in a movie that painted some of his fellow countrymen as genocidal killers. Noting my interest in the Khmer Rouge era, he suggested that the next day he could bring us on a tour of S-21 and the Killing Fields. We accepted, looking forward to seeing them with a local who might be able to give us some insight into what happened there.

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John Collins is a Dublin, Ireland-based freelance journalist. He has written on a variety of topics, from business and travel to music and technology.

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