When westerners think of Cambodia, they may think of Lara Croft Tomb Raider or Maddox and Pax Jolie-Pitt or Angkor Wat or the Killing Fields–depending on their experience or interest.
I knew I would visit the amazing as well as the tough. Many thoughts flooded my mind as I prepared to visit the places where the horrors of the Pol Pot regime took place: as a child I could not sleep after watching a movie based on a literal interpretation of Revelations–the apocryphal book of the Bible (my childish version of a horror movie)–I worked with a killing field survivor at World Vision for awhile who told me the story of her son’s death, tears falling like it had happened recently–I was in Asia for part of the time the Cambodian genocide was happening. In fact, my mom told me Cambodia wasn’t open to Americans at the time.
We arrived at the Killing Field and I had pictured it as a sprawling rice patty. No, it is about an acre or two of pitted earth with trees and a pond. A giant stupa (Buddhist commemorative monument) greets you after you purchase your ticket and grab your headphones for the walking tour.
Through your headphones, a gentle male voice leads you on a silent path of small National park-like wooden signs and benches. Dusty impressions are fenced off by low chain fences. In the dry season the grass is crunchy and brown.
“In the rain, clothes and bones resurface. The staff continues to collect them. You will see some displayed in a glass box further on the tour…At this time, you may want to pause, find a place to sit and listen to the stories of survivors…”
Very little remains of the horror except the haunted memory of the screams and moans. The tree where colorful bracelets hang in memory of the children who lost their lives against the rough bumpy bark of its trunk. And the stupa, constructed with flying Garudas (a large mythical bird) and snakes in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It houses 10 stories of skulls–souls lost at the hands of their countrymen to satisfy the insane desires of a maniacal leader.
Hellish and incomprehensible. The imagined panic and terror are impossible to imagine fully. Yet to hold these scenes in your head while standing in an otherwise unremarkable patch of land nearly gives you a headache.
Later we visit the ominous school turned interrogation center S-21 where the torture is illustrated next to the instruments and brick cells. It takes your breath away leaving you with a heavy heart in the form of a lost appetite.
From the 3rd floor of the S-21 building through the barbed wire installed to keep “desperate prisoners from jumping and committing suicide” you can see townspeople on bikes and out hanging laundry. The juxtaposition of the past and present is not easy to hold in your head.
But then you remember the present. Syria. North Korea. Afghanistan. The past and present. Yesterday and today.