With limited time in Cambodia, we knew we would have to rush to see the main reason to visit Phnom Penh—the Killing Fields. To be fair, I knew very little about the Cambodian Genocide since it’s often just a footnote in most history classes, and there is very little literature about it. We bounced along in our tuk tuk with our luggage in hand, wondering what we should expect. I was curious, but I also had a terrible storm brewing in my stomach. There was part of me that wanted to know about this time in history—and part of me that very much didn’t.
We arrived at the Killing Fields about two hours before it was supposed to close. While there were a few, small groups of tourists wandering about, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We were given an interactive audio guide that led us through the grounds and from sign to sign. I braced myself, knowing I was going to learn things that I couldn’t unlearn. Signs warned us about the graphic nature of what we were about to experience.
Over 1.7 to 2.5 million people are estimated to have been killed by Pol Pot’s regime. Many of these murders occurred where we were standing. Bodies are still being found, and we were cautioned that it was likely we would see some of the bones that had yet to be found and gathered.
Just as I was beginning to comprehend how many people had died in that very spot, I noticed something white sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, I found that it was a human jawbone. It stuck out of the damp mud like a white flag of surrender. For a moment, I felt as though I was going to puke. There was something so visceral about seeing human bone contrasting against the earth.
I couldn’t take pictures. Although I had brought my nice camera and I was planning on documenting my time in Cambodia, it was too much for me. All I could do was walk along the paths where thousands before me had before they had been executed. Men, women, and children were victims. Passing a tree, I could still see blood stains from babies being beaten against it by the Khmer Rouge.
We continued through the fields, now lush and green with vegetation. Candles and tokens had been left behind in memory of those who had been slaughtered. While at first, the Khmer Rouge had rounded up “intellectuals” and those who would oppose the regime, after a while it became senseless genocide. I was astounded that I had never heard about this event, or if I had, it wasn’t given the gravity it should have. I felt very numb, willing myself not to cry.
The memorial was beginning to close, but we had one final horror to witness. We walked to the final structure, took our shoes off, and walked inside. Human bones were stacked, one on top of the other, labeled by gender and year found. There was no way to know who they belonged to—everyone was nameless. I couldn’t help but think about how much country had played a part in this. Perhaps inadvertently, but it made me frustrated to think that the Cambodians were still suffering because of this history.
My idea of the world had changed. And that’s why I travel. It challenges certain perceptions and forces you to encounter things you wouldn’t normally want to believe. As difficult as it was to experience the Killing Fields, I am much better equipped to understand the world I live in—and to do my part to make sure nothing like this happens again.
(Always) keep wandering,