Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)
To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda.
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy.
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields.
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me.
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”
Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed.
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died.
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.