Welcome to Khmer Rouge Land!

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

The next day we were up early and set off as pillion passengers on two motor scooters. Our first stop was S-21, or Tuol Sleng, as it’s also known, which was the Khmer Rouge detention center where those who were suspected of opposing the regime were sent. We pulled off one of the main boulevards down dusty side streets and found ourselves looking over a barbed wire wall at a run down three-story school. The barbed wire and the eerie silence—even the beggars didn’t congregate outside Tuol Sleng— were the only indicators of what lay inside.

Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge set up a detention center here in May 1976, and it has been open as a genocide museum since 1980.  During its life as a prison and torture center more than 10,000 adults and anywhere up to 2,000 children were processed through it, spending their final days being degraded and tortured before being taken to the Killing Fields outside town to be murdered and interred in mass graves.

The details of what happened there are horrific, a reminder of what happens when a regime dehumanizes its subjects. As we entered we passed the classrooms on the ground floor, which were used as interrogation rooms.  The doors are locked, but looking through the windows we could see the steel framed beds, car batteries, and iron clubs that were used to dole out punishment to “enemies of the Khmer state.”

On the upper levels, as we walked through the tiny brick cells where more important prisoners were held, the crooked walls seemed to close in on me. I was overcome with claustrophobia, fear and the desire to cry at the uselessness of it all. I’d never experienced claustrophobia before. I wanted to flee and gulp down fresh air under the blue sky.

Despite this I was drawn back in. I wanted to see everything that S-21 had to offer. I wanted to try to understand what had gone wrong here.

But at the same time I felt uneasy. Here I was, a relatively wealthy Westerner visiting a third world country still suffering from the consequences of the very events whose notorious landmarks I was visiting as a tourist.

By the time we got to the three rooms whose walls were lined with photos of the victims I was numb. Looking at the faces of thousands of Cambodian men,  women and children I searched for something that might tell me their story.  The Khmer Rouge had been meticulous in keeping records of their acts,  including these photos of each of their victims, which now act as a chilling reminder that real people suffered and died here.

We emerged after an hour to find Nan patiently waiting to take us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It was a beautiful winter’s day as we turned off the highway and onto an unpaved country road. Cambodia’s winter is the dry season but the surrounding fields still looked verdant.

The midday sun was hot on our backs as we climbed off the bikes and walked up to the small group of bored-looking Cambodians playing cards at the entrance.

The center piece of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is a Buddhist stupa filled with skulls, bones and possessions of victims exhumed from some of the 129 mass graves. This is where the Khmer Rouge executed those who had been held at Tuol Sleng. Most were shot but many were bludgeoned to death to save bullets. The site is littered with small depressions in the ground indicating the site of graves that are marked with little signs saying “Mass Grave” and detail how many bodies were found in each hole.

Although the bodies of over 9,000 people were found in the 129 graves, the site is much smaller than I expected. Physically, there’s not much to see at the Killing Fields. The area is covered with grass and kept neat and tidy.  Although the guide book had warned us, it was still a shock to see the clothing and shards peeping through the grass at the edge of the graves.

The backpacker vanguard currently flocks to Cambodia in favor of more sanitized destinations such as Thailand. Part of the attraction is that the violence associated with the Khmer Rouge has only recently played itself out—there’s even talk of making the KR’s last hideout on the Thai border into a tourist attraction.

Nan’s main concern with this legacy seemed to be that he could make $5 or $6 each morning by bringing willing travelers to see the sites. What they meant to him on a personal or political level it was impossible to say. In fact in conversation, Nan, like the majority of Cambodians, steered away from discussion of politics, instead preferring the South East Asian standards such as why Sandra and I didn’t have children. Nan already had one and another was on the way.

Again and again I found myself trying to wrap my mind around the fact that S-21 and the Killing Fields had become another day trip on the South East Asia traveler circuit. Maybe travelers don’t want to wait for events to become dusty and distant before they take their tours. Maybe life in the West has become so sanitized that we want to experience a taste of lawlessness and violence. If I’m honest, that was certainly part of Cambodia’s attraction for me.

That kind of tourism clearly has an impact on the locals. My unease with the situation was undoubtedly caused by an internal debate over the rights and wrongs of that influence. As a visiting westerner I had the luxury of having that debate with myself. Nan and the other locals making a living on Cambodia’s backpacker trail have made an uneasy peace with their country’s nightmare tourist attraction.

I knew one thing was for sure. I didn’t have the stomach for visiting a firing range after what we’d seen at the Killing Fields and the torture chamber. Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, which is only now emerging from 30 years of war, the locals are filling a market demand generated by travelers like myself. I can’t blame them. But on this occasion I didn’t feel like smiling and going along with my guide. Instead, we headed off in silence down the dusty roads to the Russian Market.

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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