We Weren’t Prepared for This When We Visited Cambodia

My husband and I visited Cambodia in March. I had always wanted to see Anchor Wat, and the “Laura Croft” temple. Ruins and temples were on the agenda. We expected to hear about the history of the country. We hoped to experience the daily life of Cambodians.

Of course, we had heard of Pol Pot and the atrocities he had committed during the seventies. However, we were not prepared for the utter devastation that Pol Pot wreaked, and the impact still being felt many years later.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a typically busy, congested, hot and humid city in the far east. We visited all of the typical tourist sites including the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and Wat Phnom.

Survivor in Cambodia showing his book
I’m with a survivor who documented his experiences in the camp

Our next stop was the Tupi Sien Genocide Museum and Cheoung Killing Fields. The systematic slaughtering of the country’s intellectuals in the most inhuman way possible left the country bereft of leaders. The country was reduced to a nation of farmers and peasants, all too frightened to question the leadership.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot was born to a relatively wealthy family north of Phnom Penh. While studying in Paris, he   became involved in communist activities. Upon his return to Cambodia, the country was involved in a revolt against French colonial rule. Eventually, Pol Pot led a coup and seized control of the country in alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

Once in power, Pol Pot ordered that all of the country’s intellectuals be rounded up and stripped of their possessions. They were forced to work in the fields to be “re-educated.” Children were taken from their families and forced into the military. Any complainers were sent to a detention centre known as 5-21, a former school, now the Tupi Sien Genocide Museum.

Horror

The museum chronicles how the inmates were tortured until they eventually told the “truth.” We saw the metal beds that the prisoners were chained to, leg irons, barbed wire barricades, and pictures of the victims.

After being tortured, victims were sent to the Choeung Killing Fields via truck. They were blindfolded and frightened. Holding hands, victims were led to the fields where they were killed. Their bodies fell into shallow graves. Today, you can see their bones and bits of their clothing on the slight indentations in the ground.

All of this is mind bogglingly horrible. One has to wonder about the capacity that humans have to inflict such atrocities on one another, and to develop indifference toward the suffering of their countrymen.

Recovery

Fortunately, there is a movement in place to help Cambodia recover from the devastation.

Shelves of silk at Tabitha, Cambodia
Buying silk at Tabitha

The hotel where we stayed, The Sunway Hotel Phnom Penh, hires and trains Cambodian students to work in the tourist industry.

Similarly, a place called Tabitha sells Cambodian crafts made by abused women who found shelter there.

A third example is Friends restaurant, a spot with incredibly delicious food and drinks prepared and served by young Cambodians being trained to work in the service industry.

These are only three examples of people and organizations trying to help the country recover from their horrific past.

Siem Reap

Then we were off to Siem Reap, which is being nourished as a tourist destination. It is here that we stayed at a resort called the Victoria Angkor Siem Reap. It is a beautiful, tropical resort with French colonial architecture and decor. The gorgeous grounds are centred around a pool. The food is scrumptious.

We enjoyed our time at the Victoria Angkor very much. A highlight was being handed a cool towel after touring temples and ruins each day. Again, the hotel is committed to providing training and employment to Cambodians.

Back at School

When we returned to Tashkent, the grade sixes were studying the concept of poverty in an Economics unit. When I introduced the unit to them before going to Cambodia, we were really just dealing with a theory of poverty.

After I returned from Cambodia, I could bring them the literature from the Sunway Hotel that showed the multitude of ways the hotel is actively helping Cambodians move forward. The kids were all eyes and ears! An academic exercise became far more grounded in reality, and kids began thinking of real changes they could make.

Visiting Cambodia was a huge learning curve for me, and I believe I was able to have a big impact on the students in my class. I do hope that one day they will engage in some truly meaningful activity to contrast with some of the needless evil in the world.

___________________

Thanks so much to Profound Journey tribe member, Fran K., for contributing this tribe story. This is Fran’s second story for our site. The first —Fran K’s Second Ending, 15 Years After the First One – tells of her encore as an educator, in places as diverse as South Carolina and Uzbekistan.

Fran’s time in Cambodia was a long-awaited trip before her second retirement. Now that Fran is officially retired (again!), it will be interesting to see what she gets up to next. Hopefully she will share her new adventures with the rest of us.

Would you like to visit Cambodia? What did you find most interesting in Fran’s account?

 

 

19 comments

  1. Hi, Fran and Karen – Thank you so much for sharing this post on the Profound Journey site. Richard and I visited Cambodia three years ago and also found it to be a huge learning curve . The unthinkable terrors led by Pol Pot were horrifying beyond words. I love the ending of this post focusing on a more positive future.

    1. I’m really grateful to Fran for sharing her experience. I learned so much from her post.
      Your comment about “the unthinkable terrors” being “horrifying beyond words” echoes and intensifies Fran’s words. I guess I’m a coward. I don’t think I want to ever visit Cambodia.

      1. I found your comment interesting. I think I have learned a lot about the world by not always looking at the luxury and beautiful side of things. Cambodia’s spirit was beautiful in that the people are kind for the most part and not hardened at all by tourism. They appreciated anything that you did for them, and they loved having a job. Our guide was working his backside off to earn money to send his kids to university. He greatly appreciated the tip and we knew that the money was going to a good place. I do think you would enjoy visiting Cambodia.

  2. Thanks for sharing your account of your visit to Cambodia, Fran. The experiences you write about here makes me realize, once again, that seeing history in real life is very different than reading about it in a book or even seeing pictures. The lasting effects of that history still being felt today is very clear in this part I quote from your write up. “Today, you can see their bones and bits of their clothing on the slight indentations in the ground.”

    It is amazing to think about the number of atrocities that are perpetrated by one group of people on another group of people happening all over the world. All of them have residual effects on generations to come as they struggle to rebuild and overcome these devastating events.

    Thank you for bringing Cambodia into clearer focus for us, Fran. Your first-hand account of being there brings a personal note to telling of the history of the country that we would not otherwise have. As Donna mentioned above I too am loving the ending on a positive note that offers hope to the Cambodian people.

      1. You’re welcome, Karen…I really enjoy being a tribe member. This website you created is something special. I continue to promote it across my social media accounts so that more and more women become aware of it and the great resources and sense of community it provides. 😀

    1. Hi Susan, I always find your comments insightful and I enjoy reading them very much. Can you just imagine what the human race could achieve if we could just focus on the positive instead of having to rebuild and overcome?

  3. Well-written, informative post that kept me spellbound and not a little horrified. I’d like to say that visiting Cambodia is on my bucket list, but seeing the place where so much horror and devastation occurred would be anything but a vacation. However, we MUST visit and record these places, honor those who were murdered and those who are helping a country and a people rebuild and re-establish themselves. I applaud those, like Fran, who do this. And I thank her for sharing her experience. I read a lot of books, including historical fiction and non-fiction, and I learn about atrocities that humans act upon other humans, and I am still as befuddled about the lack of humanity in ….humans…. as I was when I first began to see the world as it is, past my childhood.

    1. Hi Pamela,
      Welcome to Profound Journey, and thank you so much for taking the time to respond to Fran’s excellent post. Apologies for not posting and responding to your comment yesterday when you made it. My internet was down for the entire day and night yesterday, fortunately a rare occurrence.
      Your make a good point that we have a responsibility to honour those who were murdered and those who are helping, and to share our experiences with others. Like you, I would not look forward to visiting Cambodia, but you make such a good point that I may be putting this destination on my bucket list after all.

    2. Hi Pamela,

      Thanks very much for your thoughts! I agree with you. It is important to visit places like this.

      After all the people in Cambodia have been through, the feeling that prevailed for me was the strength in the human spirit to overcome the past and to move forward to build a better life.

      If you do go, I would encourage you to visit places like Tabitha, Friends and many other such places to support the people.

  4. I assume Tashkent is in Uzbekistan? Are you still teaching there, Fran?

    I visited Cambodia many years ago on a backpacking trip, when I was in my twenties. It left as big an impact on me as it did on you. Those Killing Fields are so horrible and I can still see all those photos of the victims in my mind, let alone all the skulls and bones. Without encountering atrocities like these, you might wonder how it is possible for leaders to torture and kill fellow humans. Well, it is possible and it has happened on many accounts in many places in the world. We can only hope this will never be repeated and educate the new generations of its impacts.

    1. In an article about Kris Kristofferson, there was the statement – “There is no one more hopeful than a cynic waiting to be proved wrong.”
      That’s how I feel when you talk about hoping that atrocities not be repeated. In our current political climate, I feel uncertain of that, even cynical about it, but I am sure hoping to be proved wrong.
      I certainly agree that education is the way to change perspective. Maybe every twenty-something needs a mandatory trip to Cambodia’s killing fields.

      1. I like that statement, Karen and feel just like you… It is a mix of being cynical and being disappointed in (part of) the human race for me.

        Travel always opens people’s minds and perspectives and I agree with you that it should be part of our education. A trip to the Killing Fields, or a Holocaust Museum or… How can you expect anyone to have an open mind when they are stuck in the same (small) place/culture forever? An exchange program in college/high school would certainly benefit students. When done in an underdeveloped country, it is very affordable and eye-opening!

    2. Hi Liesbet,

      Apologies for not responding earlier. Tashkent is in Uzbekistan. It is the capital city. I just retired from teaching this past June and so I am no longer there. I taught there for six years so in many ways it was a second home to me. It was particularly difficult for both my husband and I to say good bye to our loyal driver Sanjar and his wife Deelia who was our housekeeper.

      As for your comment “….this will never be repeated…”, I keep wondering how things like this do continue to happen in different parts of the world.

      1. Thanks for the response, Fran! Like you, I keep wondering as well… There certainly is a dark side to our human race, no matter how a positive outlook tries and hopes to “trump” that!

  5. Fran, thank you for describing your visit to Cambodia. Many times, people visiting other countries don’t look beyond the tourist holiday experience. I appreciate your perspective.

    It is so true that the impact of such violence continues to affect survivors for generations, and reshapes entire societies. I am thinking about the cultural genocide that our Canadian First Nations experienced and the the continuing legacy of residential schools. It is a reminder to all of us to be careful who we elect, or otherwise trust with positions of power.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude
      The length of time it takes a place to recover from events or from decisions that are made is a big learning curve for me. As you point out, we are living with the Canadian First Nations treatment today. Another example is the aftermath of the civil war in the states. We spent three years in Charleston, South Carolina and were surprised how relevant the American Civil War is to this day. Another visit to Budapest was spent listening to the impact of decisions made following World War. The anger is still there so many years later. I am sure we could go on and on and find other examples.

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