i’m not going to pretend we knew anything about cambodia’s politics or history before it was added to our travel itinerary. but once our travel research began, we quickly realized it would be naive to march into cambodia’s borders without an understanding of their recent, and tumultuous, history. and by history, we’re talking about the late 1970’s / early 80’s.
so on our way to cambodia, we both read the book, “they killed my father first,” a story written by a surviver of the khmer rouge era of cambodia.
cliff notes: in april of 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into the streets of Cambodia’s capital claiming that the United States was coming to bomb the city and everyone must flee immediately. residents were told they’d be able to return within three days, so taking personal belongings was not necessary.
this was all a giant lie and the beginning of four years of terror and genocide in Cambodia that resulted in 2.5 million deaths.
led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge era of Cambodia tore families apart, ruthlessly killed anyone with an education (all lawyers, doctors, teachers, high school students, people who wore glasses, military personnel, etc.) and enslaved the remaining village men, women and children into harsh labor camps. in addition to those who were brutally killed by soldiers, millions died of starvation, disease and land mines*.
this didn’t end until late 1979.
*there are still millions of unidentified land mines in cambodia that continue to kill innocent farmers each week. we met an american who’s husband is currently working in cambodia to help identity and extract these land mines. tons of admirable work.
if you’re interested in learning more, “they killed my father first,” is a tragic, heart-warming and educational book written from the eyes of a child who survived the terror to tell about it. we both enjoyed it.
the book opens with the author’s note:
“this is a story of survival: my own and my family’s. though these events constitute my experience, my story mirror that of millions of cambodians. if you had been living in cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”
after just days in cambodia, we quickly realized how true this was.
one of the first things we noticed was how young everyone was – we didn’t see many middle-aged or elderly people. sad. and as we were continually blown away by the smiles, laughs and welcoming hugs, we realized it was genuine because these people had lived through the worst. things really aren’t that bad.
as we started talking with locals, their stories came out and the author was right – everyone’s was in the same vein. mothers, fathers and siblings all killed by the khmer rouge. their childhood memories of being starved to near-death and forced to work day and night in the rice fields (they couldn’t eat the rice – it was all being sent to China in exchange for more weapons).
in just our two shorts weeks in cambodia, we grew a soft spot for the resilant country and its beautiful people. it was the most emotional, educational and impactful experience to-date.
this is bowrain (when you meet him, he’ll tell you to remember his name as “rainbow” backwards). we spent an entire day with him in battambang where we visited “the killing caves,” a place where soldiers would blindfold people, line them up along the edge and kill them using stones or other blunt objects before pushing them into the hole. these killing strategies were implemented throughout the country to avoid “wasting expensive bullets.” bowrain survived the khmer rouge era, but his older brother had a high school education and therefore was not as fortunate.
bowrain quietly brought up the khmer rouge era over lunch and we took the bait. he was touched by how much we knew about his country and that we were genuinely interested in learning more about its past and present. it was crazy how closely his stories mirrored those from the book we’d just read. the three of us talked a lot about khmer rouge, and the current state of politics as cambodia struggles to be a legit democracy.
the steep walk down to the killing caves of battambang.
the capital of cambodia, phnom penh, is where much of the khmer rouge history is memorialized. early one morning we were lucky to bump into “cambodia pete,” more of a tour guide than a tuk tuk driver and spent the day whizzing around the city with him. pete, who lost the majority of his family (father, two brothers & sister) during the khmer rouge was one of the child laborers in charge of picking up cow shit for 12 hours a day. pete was one of the sweetest men we’ve ever met. a heart of gold, he took great care of us all day. made sure we had masks for the dust, bought us watermelon for snacks and shared intimate stories of his country’s – and his family’s – tattered past.
in pete’s tuk tuk we visited “the killing fields” where prisoners were taken to be executed and dumped in mass graves.
this is pete drawing photos for us and using his laminated map to explain the khmer rouge times and history.
this is “the killing tree,” where soldiers would swing and kill babies and children. probably the most haunting place of all. it’s even hard to type that.
lastly, we ended the day at The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, home of the infamous S21 prison where the most violent crimes were committed. during the khmer rouge era, this high school was converted into a hell-like prison. we walked through the haunted halls with cambodian pete and could barely speak a word.
standing on the blood stained floor where an american journalist was held and then killed.
above is the american journalist. the khmer rouge kept detailed records of their prisoners and victims.
throughout S21 are the faces of thousands of innocent ghosts staring back at you.
many of the prisoner’s photos were taken against a door of the school. when we walked by the door, chills came over my entire body. we’ll never be able to imagine the fear and terror of these people’s final moments.
sweet, sweet cambodia pete.