Khmer Culture

1 Feb

There are too many posts about beaches, but I can’t help it! Hearing about all the snow in Canada makes me want to hide under my beach umbrella and order another fruit shake!

But don’t worry, I didn’t spend all of my time on the beach. We had a serious culture injection in Phnom Penh. Our first day was a serious one. We hired a tuk tuk and visited the Killing Fields. The Khmer people (Cambodians) have a dark history. From 1975-1979, the Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge Regime was responsible for over 2 million deaths in Cambodia – essentially, a genocide. They envisioned an agrarian society and forced Khmer people into the farmlands to grow rice in harsh conditions. They destroyed education, religious and economic institutions and enslaved the people – including foreigners.

Memorial for Khmer Rouge victims, Cambodia

Memorial for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

The Killing Fields was just one of the many areas across the country where the Khmer Rouge executed the population. Over 129 mass graves were discovered and thousands were murdered in this field – including children and babies. In fact, there is a rumored ‘baby killing tree’ next to one mass grave, where the Khmer Rouge would smash babies and then throw them into pits. My stomach turns even as I type. They believed that if they didn’t kill the babies, one day the children would seek revenge. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste money using bullets, so everyone was murdered by bludgeoning, stab wound or forced object to the head – using pitchforks, hoes, etc. Unthinkable.

There is a small museum on site that traces the history, those involved and the excavation process. They sectioned off the mass graves and there is a small path you can follow. Most of the skeltons have been excavated, but every year more bone and clothing is revealed from the rain wash. In fact, there are still pieces of teared clothing sticking out from the ground as you walk along the path. It’s unbelievable.

After the Killings Fields, we visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. It was once a high school before the Khmer Rouge transformed it into a prison and torture facility. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept records of everyone who they imprisoned in Choeung Ek and other facilities across the country. Over 20,000 people were tortured and executed in Cheoung Ek. The classrooms were turned into cells and torture chambers with various devices. Most rooms were left as they were, but some have photograph exhibits of the prisoners.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre

Rules of the prison

Children, babies, women, and men all had a mug shot with a number attached to their shirt. If they were naked, a cloth was tied around them. They wore shackles the entire time and were given a small dish to do their business in. There were only 7 survivors – all of whom said they were treated less than animals – no food and hardly any water. It was truly miserable. I felt sick to my stomach.

The main officers responsible for the torment in the Killing Fields and the high school were arrested in 1999 – can you believe that. After all that time, the international community finally charged these sick people with their war crimes and genocide. In fact, only the supervisor of the prison has been sentenced, while the others are STILL waiting for trials.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, Cambodia

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, Cambodia
Photographs of the victims

There was also one more thing we discovered that shakes me: the Cambodian government actually sold the Killing Fields to a Japanese company for $12,000 a year. The company charges admission and uses some of the money to maintain the site – but I’m sure they are making a hefty profit. I can’t believe the government would sell the memory of their people and history for a quick buck! Some Khmer people are outraged by the business deal – I am, too. It makes you wonder how poor the country must be to make such an arrangement – how desperate they are for a source of income. I hope my government would never do that… but who really knows? I am lucky to be living in a wealthy nation.

I can’t believe this was happening while our parents were our age. Nobody did a thing. I suppose the same thing is happening now – all the rebels in Africa and yet nothing has changed. I feel so lucky to be Canadian. I cannot even begin to understand what it would feel like if that happened at home. The sheer hopelessness – knowing you had very little chance to survive. Murder in the streets, people starving. Yikes. It’s travel days like these, that remind me how truly lucky I am.


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