The Killing Fields

Cambodia is the kind of place that inspires extreme feelings. Awe and anger, sadness and hopefulness and fear- it’s kind of a rollercoaster ride. But just like the scariest coasters at the theme park, it’s exhilarating and so worth it.

To be honest, this post has been hard for me to write. I had a difficult time sorting out my feelings about our first Saturday in Phnom Penh. My dad and sister were still with us, and we decided to visit two sites associated with the Khmer Rouge regime: the former prison S-21 and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

When I was in Berlin on a study-tour, a few of my classmates and I used one of our only two “free days” to take a train way out to the suburbs to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It made for a depressing day of sightseeing. But we felt that it was our duty somehow, as a human being, to try to understand what happened during the Holocaust. Just visiting a site isn’t enough, but it helps put facts into context. The concentration camp that we happened to visit was one of the older ones, opened in 1936, and was the destination for many political dissenters, homosexuals, and other “undesirables” as well as Jews. After the war, it ended up in the Eastern zone, and it was used by the Soviets in much the same way it had been used by the Nazis. Of course I know what happened during the Holocaust, but actually visiting the place helped me understand the role of the camps, particularly Sachsenhausen, before and during the war. I also didn’t know that any camps had been used by the Soviets. Things are always more complicated than they appear.

This is especially true when it comes to the Khmer Rouge regime. They officially ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, but actually controlled parts of the provinces both before and after that time period. S-21 and Choeung Ek are the primary memorial sites in the country, but many (though not all) of the people who were imprisoned and later executed were actually purged members of the Khmer Rouge party (the upper echelons were growing paranoid.) It seemed weird to me that the two most famous victims’ memorial sites in the country would actually be sites where a lot of Khmer Rouge died. I am not saying that they deserved what they got- not at all, and especially not their wives and children. But knowing this fact made me wonder: of those who were imprisoned, how many actually had clear consciences? How many prisoners had previously been the jailers? The Khmer Rouge accused people of ridiculous crimes, especially related to espionage, and it’s generally accepted that most were innocent-of those crimes. But who was truly innocent?

A classroom converted to jail cells at S-21

Now that the trials of upper-level leaders have begun, it’s easy to place all the blame on a handful of people. But half a dozen people were not responsible for the deaths of two million people. Others are guilty; yet not all- Khmer Rouge member does not equal mass murderer. Many were young, some were children, and did not know what they were joining. It’s fair to say that before 1975, few had any idea of Pol Pot’s future plans. It’s far more complex than I originally thought. I wonder how far the trials are going to go.

Despite these qualms, I still wanted to go see these sites. They’re the closest ones to Phnom Penh (S-21 is in the city center) so they are the most logical sites to memorialize to ensure that many people, both foreign and Cambodian, can come visit. And I think it’s important to pay a visit: education is the best way to prevent such events from happening again. While I was there, I tried to think about all of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, not only the ones who passed through S-21 and Choeung Ek.

Bob said the worst part about S-21 is that it used to be a high school, and it still looks like it. Actually, it really looked like a Japanese high school- big, square, concrete, with many floors. It’s hard to accept that the torture that occurred here could’ve happened in a place of learning. It’s disgusting. For me, more than any other emotion, that was the feeling of the day: not sadness, not anger, but total disgust.

S-21: Except for the barbed wire outside, it looks like just a normal high school

Choeung Ek was the final destination for most prisoners of S-21. Like S-21, it’s been preserved much as it was found. Although some pits of bodies have been exhumed, not all of them have, and it’s easy to find human bones or bits of clothing sticking out of the ground. My dad said he felt like the victims were trying to talk to us, and it was eerie. And like S-21, it demands the question “how could this have happened?”and I felt like I had a huge responsibility to tell my friends and family about these places, about what I have seen.

Exhumed pits at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The most unfortunate thing, now, is that both of these places are extremely poorly curated. The fields of Choeung Ek are fairly self-explanatory, so that was okay, but the museum on the grounds was disappointing. S-21 has barely any descriptions at all for its exhibits, and for those that do exist, the translations are full of mistakes. Both places do offer tour guides (for an extra fee, subject to availability) but I felt it was a disservice to the victims’ memory not to do a better job of explaining the horrors that happened there.


Angkor Wat: Favorite Temples

If there’s anything that deserves two posts, it’s Angkor Wat. In the past, I avoided writing about really touristy places; that’s why there’s no post on Borobudur. I’ve changed my mind now. I know there are probably a million blog posts on trips to Angkor Wat. But only I can write about my impression of Angkor Wat. That’s part of the beauty of a place like Angkor: no one has the same experience.

My favorite temple was the Bayon.

The Bayon

I liked it because of the carvings of everyday 12th-century Cambodian life, which I mentioned in my last post. Each panel was so different from the last- they showed people going to war, preparing a feast, giving birth, or anything else.I also really liked the gigantic stone faces that stare enigmatically down at visitors. Our guide told us that no one is sure who it’s supposed to be, but it’s probably the king who commissioned the temple, Jayavarman VII.

They're always watching...

Bob’s and Lissa’s favorite temple was Prah Khan. When we went, it wasn’t very crowded- it’s not one of the must-see temples, but our guide took us there because she really likes it and thought we would too. The temple Ta Prohm is famously known as the “jungle temple,” because there are trees growing throughout the temple complex, and it’s been only partially restored. Prah Khan is similar but hasn’t even been restored as much as Ta Prohm.

Outside of Prah Khan

I asked Bob and Lissa why they liked this one the best.

Bob: It was the most jungle-y temple.

Bob at Prah Khan

Lissa: It was in the middle of the jungle and all to ourselves. I liked climbing on it.

Jungle explorers at Prah Khan

My dad’s favorite temple was Angkor Wat. I don’t have any direct quotes from him, because he hasn’t responded to my email, but if I can remember what he said when we were there, he thought that this one was the grandest and most impressive.

Just after taking this picture, Gary climbed up that tall tower behind him!

He was especially amazed at the extent of the carvings: almost all the surfaces were covered.

Apsara carving in a doorway, Angkor Wat

We only spent one morning there, but our guide told us that she sometimes gives 10-day tours of the temples. When she does that, she takes her tour group to Angkor Wat alone, for three entire days. There’s just that much stuff to see.

The art will amaze you... and dwarf you

A Beginner’s Guide to Angkor Wat


A chat with my sister, February 2011
do you want to go to Angkor Wat?
lissa: i don’t know what that is, but ok
me: google earth it

We had some visitors! My dad and sister flew out to visit us for eight days. It wasn’t much time, so we decided to spend just two days in Bangkok and the other six days in Siem Reap (visiting Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve been wanting to go to Angkor Wat since… I don’t know, probably since the first time I ever heard about it. Lissa, on the other hand, didn’t know what it was. But we both had a great time.

The Temples

For those of you who might be in the same boat as Lissa was: “Wat” means temple in Cambodian, but Angkor Wat is not only one temple. It’s a collection of dozens of temples, big and small. Angkor Wat is the most famous of them all, so the entire area is usually referred to as “Angkor Wat.”

Angkor Wat itself (under repair when we were there)

The temples were built between the ninth century and thirteenth century, by a succession of kings, for various reasons. Some are devoted to the Buddha or a Hindu god. Some are devoted to the kings’ parents, and some are funerary temples. Interestingly, some temples are Hindu and some Buddhist. Southeast Asia has been a cultural melting pot for a long time, and Cambodia is no exception. The ancient empire of Angkor was influenced by both India and China, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Art

These temples are very old and historically significant, but I think the real reason they’re such popular tourist attractions is because of the art they contain. The kings were not content to just to build temples; they commissioned artists to carve intricate bas-reliefs over most of the exposed surfaces. Due to our limited time, we decided to hire a guide to take us around the temples. The bas-reliefs all tell a story: some carvings depict stories from the Ramayana, some show historical events, and some show scenes from daily life. Our guide was able to tell us what meant what, as well as point out things we wouldn’t have noticed on our own.

A scene of 12th-century daily life (people cooking a feast) at The Bayon

The Effect of Tourism

Almost every single traveller we’ve met in Southeast Asia is planning to go to Angkor Wat. I guess if you’ve flown all the way here, why not go? According to my incredibly unscientific study, it is one of the top cited must-see destinations in Southeast Asia (the other one nearly every backpacker mentions is Vietnam.) This is a good thing in many ways: Cambodia sure could use the money, and temples don’t get restored for free. However, we were constantly surprised by the number of people we saw touching the carvings. Over time, some of the carvings have gone from rough to smooth, and now appear shiny. Our guide told us that she’s also seen people breaking off pieces of the rock, to take home as a souvenir. I worry about this laissez-faire attitude towards preservation. The good thing about Angkor Wat is that there are no unsightly signs that say “Don’t touch.” Unfortunately, maybe they need them.

Bas-reliefs made smooth and shiny by too many people touching them

My dad and I agreed that if these temples were in America, the bas-reliefs would be behind glass. I had that same thought at Borobudur (in Indonesia) as well; those ruins predate Angkor’s but receive far fewer visitors, so the reliefs are still in fairly good shape. I think that in the future, both Cambodia and Indonesia will have to do more to protect their ancient temples, and that probably means Plexiglas, at least over the most popular carvings. Go now, while you can still see them up close!

Fun Things to Do at the Temples

  1. Dance like an apsara, or heavenly dancer (in Hindu mythology)

    Look at the carvings on the column on the left to see the real apsara

  2. Thump your chest in an echo chamber

    Lissa tests to see if the effect is real

  3. Touch your nose to a giant’s

    Bob at The Bayon

  4. Pretend to be Vishnu and have people worship you

    Gary plays Vishnu (with help from Bob) while Lissa and I worship him

  5. Look for Cambodian wedding parties taking photos

    Cambodian wedding party at Angkor Wat

  6. Take a hundred photos in different windows and doorways

    Doorway at Ta Phrom

    Lissa at Phra Khan