Tag Archives: Khmer Rouge

A Day in Phnom Penh

30 Oct

*Sorry to my dear subscribers who were sent this blog post too early – below is the completed version!*

Leaving Luang Prabang was harder than G & I expected, mostly because we totally fell in love with Laos and partially because our flight back to Cambodia kept on getting delayed & delayed & delaaaaaayed.

Yes, we made some friends at the 2-room airport… yes, I was able to find the time to embarrass myself by slipping and falling directly on my tailbone (partially breaking it for the 3rd time)… and yes, I did get to eat chocolate chip cookies for lunch because nothing else looked as delicious and nutritious (a highlight, indeed)…but overall, it just kinda sucked.

When we finally made it back to Siem Reap, we missed our deluxe bus to Phnom Penh and ended up taking a local night bus, which was a 5-hour Cambodian karaoke joy ride and, therefore, a 5-hour test of our love and my will.  (The only thing I can liken the experience to is the test my sanity is currently undergoing, in an attempt to ignore the Korean man sitting next to me at a cafe, who sounds as if he is trying to suck-in his front tooth & failing only badly enough to try it again every 15 seconds.  AGH!)

By the time G & I arrived in Phnom Penh, we were so grateful for basic amenities like air and ice-cream that we didn’t care about the dirt or the chaos.  We were simply content with roaming the streets,

checking out the beautifully delapadated French Colonial architecture,

and stopping at every coffee shop that tickled our fancy.

For a minute, we felt bad about being tres lazy, so we waddled over to the Royal Palace in hopes of infusing our mushy brains with history and culture…but alas, the Palace was closed for a special ceremony -c’est la vie- no smarts for us.

But who needs brains when there is shopping to be done?! (Story of my life.)  Right around the corner from the Royal Palace, on St. 240 between 19th St. and Norodom Blvd, we discovered the coolest row of boutiques with unique and locally produced goods, including clothing, jewelry, and some awesome home accessories.   There were also a few modern and great restaurants scattered between the shops, where we took some long yummy breaks between spending all our money (honey).

After futzing around for an embarrassing amount of time, both G and I were finally ready to face one of the real reasons we came to Phnom Penh – to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Once a local high school, these 5 buildings were converted into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge, who during their regime, exterminated nearly 2 million Cambodians in an attempt to transform the Country into a socialist agricultural state.  (If you are interested in reading a little more about Cambodia’s history, please see one of my previous posts.)

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, almost all of which were tortured and executed (there are only 7 known survivors of Tuol Sleng).  Most victims were soldiers, government officials of the previous regime, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers monks and engineers.  And sometimes their families. (Source)

Walking through the classrooms that were converted into torture chambers, I was disgusted by the blood stains still visible on the floor.  Even more disturbing, however, were the hundreds of photographs of the prisoners, taken by the guards to catalog their victims.  It was almost unbearable to see the portraits of children and babies killed at the merciless hands of the Khmer Rouge.

I will not go into too much detail because, quite honestly, a part of me is trying to suppress what I learned on the tour that day…but as haunting as the experience was/is, Tuol Sleng is an extremely important museum to visit in order to understand Cambodia today.

Cambodia – A Backward Glance at a Terrible Past

26 Sep


I’ve finally defeated the Kuala Lumpur cold that had me out for the count all of last week (ugh!) and now I’m ready to Cambodify you.


Before sharing all the detailed glories and delights of our Cambodian adventures, I feel compelled to write a short post about all that I’ve learned about Cambodia’s history during our trip – and it’s beyond depressing.  Most of you probably know about this country’s terrible past under the control of the Khmer Rouge, but I, personally, didn’t know enough, and visiting Cambodia opened my eyes to a sadness and a hopefulness that I had never experienced before.  I want to make sure to convey these feelings to you.

So, let me just start off by saying that the most important feeling I have about Cambodia is LOVE.  The country just bursts with beauty – the children…

the landscape…

and the faith…

they simply left me breathless.

But, just as beautiful as Cambodia is, it is also extremely hard-  the poverty is almost unbearable, staring you straight in the face as a reminder of the country’s dark history.

There is no way to travel through Cambodia without feeling and seeing the vestiges of its bloody past.  The Cambodian genocide still sits on the surface of so many daily interactions, making the country feel raw, and yet, in some twisted way, even more remarkable for all it has overcome.


The following is a very short overview of a tragic history.  This summary is by no means comprehensive (and it does NOT do Cambodia’s history justice), but I hope it reminds you/makes you think about/drives you to learn more about a nation that is still recovering from one of the world’s bloodiest revolutions.

In 1970, the conflict in Vietnam extended over to Cambodia, and the country broke out in a violent civil war.  Cambodia was split into two, with the North Vietnamese & their Cambodian allies, the Khmer Rouge, controlling the countryside, and the Republican Government of Lon Nol controlling most of the towns.

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh and seized power over Cambodia.   The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to transform Cambodia into an agrarian-based communist society, and they, therefore, forced the majority of the country into agricultural slavery.

“Within days of the Khmer Rouge coming to power, the entire population of the capital, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march out to the countryside [to undertake agricultural work].  Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution.  The advent of the Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.  Currency was abolished and postal services were halted.  The country was cut off from the outside of the world” (Lonely Planet Vietnam, Cambodia Laos & the Greater Mekong, page 46).

The Khmer Rough deprived Cambodians of their basic rights.  They abolished normal schooling, private property, religious practices, and traditional Cambodian (Khmer) culture.  Even family relationships were heavily controlled, “People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor or pity. The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only [the Khmer Rouge’s political party], which was to be everyone’s mother and father.” (Cambodia Tribunal)

During the next four years, thousands of Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge, including most of the country’s educated people (doctors, lawyers, teachers, ANYONE with an education) because they were seen as a threat to the new communist regime.  Thousands more died of famine or disease as they slaved in the rice fields or the Khmer Rouge work camps.  Overall, it is estimated that two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979.

Two million people died.  And this happened only 36 years ago.  It’s almost too crazy to grasp.

In December of 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia after repeated attacks by the Khmer Rouge on Vietnamese border villages.  They were successful in capturing Phnom Penh and driving the Khmer Rouge from power.

Today, Cambodia is still struggling to overcome its years of conflict, but is on the road to recovery.  If you are interested in learning more about Cambodia in the 1970s, I’d highly recommend the tough (true) story of Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father and the movie, The Killing Feilds.  If you feel compelled to help from across the sea, use those extra $20 in your wallet to donate through Kiva.org directly to a Cambodian in need.

And if you don’t want to do anything after reading this post, I’m still happy you read this far.