It would be difficult to visit Cambodia without immersing in the atrocities of the 1970’s which form a major part of the history of the country.
KHMER ROUGE REGIME – The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. Led by Pol Pot they changed the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. The new regime modelled itself on Maoist China and immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine and destroyed temples, libraries and anything considered Western. Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million.
The following is a report I wrote in 2005 after returning from the trip I had with my brother who was living in Thailand at the time.
”We were met at the Airport in Phnom Penh by Liam, our guide, and Mr.Tok, our driver. As it was the end of the peak tourist season, we were The Tour. This worked very much in our favour as it was then a tour worked around us and the amount of time we chose to spend in any one place. Graham had arranged the tour via Internet and ‘phone with Mr.Sok Chea of World of Cambodia Travel. As it was too early to go to our hotel room we were on our way, straight from the Airport. Lim’s comment was that we would do the places that brought least happiness first and so we started at the Genocide Museum – Tuol Sleng (former Khmer Rouge S-21 Prison). Prior to 1975 the buildings housed a High School, but all of the classrooms were converted to prison cells with all windows being enclosed with iron bars and covered with tangled barbed wire to prevent possible escape by prisoners.Whole families from baby up were taken there to be exterminated.
Reports estimate that between 1975 and 1978 10,500 were killed, not including the children and that estimate is 2,000. This is all shown very graphically in paintings and photographs and also in visiting the cell blocks, seeing the shackles, gallows, etc. Prisoners were from all parts of the country and all walks of life. They were of many nationalities including Vietnamese, Laotians, Thai, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians, but the vast majority were Cambodians. They were workers, farmers, engineers, technicians, intellectuals, professors, teachers, students and even ministers and diplomats.
From there we drove approximately 15 kms, first on quite good sealed road passing many little roadside shops and dwellings, many bicycles and motor bikes, and fields of very green Morning Glory which is harvested while the leaves are young – it forms part of the local diet. Monks were seen walking alongside the road with umbrellas sheltering them from the heat of the day. I asked a couple of times that we stop so that I could take photographs (and they soon learned that this would happen quite often). The road meandered on for several kms deteriorating into a very pot-holed dirt road. When I encountered the first Petrol Station I asked for another photo stop. The children had just finished morning school and were all wandering or riding their bikes home. I asked three little girls if I could take their photograph and they willingly obliged and were very interested to then look at my camera to see themselves. Children go to school for 4 hours per day – either 7 until 11 or 1 until 5. It is exceptionally hot in the middle of the day and we found that many rest during that time.
Our destination on this road was Choeung Ek, a mass graves site known as the Killing Fields. When Pol Pot took power in 1975 all city dwellers were forced into the countryside to labour camps where everybody was forced to work 12-14 hours per day, every day. People were fed one watery bowl of soup with a few grains of rice thrown in, with everybody living in fear. We viewed large open pits where thousands of unnamed bodies were buried and saw the Memorial built in their honour.
Today’s Cambodian culture, including its art and music, is quite remarkable and modern day Cambodia is a friendly and youthful place that does not reflect the dark chapters in the country’s history.”