Hi everyone. Last week, I posted my diary entry for a day I recently
spent in Phnom Penh. Susanne Cornwall, my perennial travel partner, has
just finished typing up her journal for that day as well and she’s asked
me to post it online. I hope you enjoy it. -ac
Phnom Penh Visit, November 8, 1997
I’m on a plane to Cambodia right now. Andy and I plan to stop first in
Phnom Penh to witness the Killing Fields, then we will travel on to
Angkor to explore the ruins.
A couple weeks before this trip I fished out an old copy of National
Geographic from 1960. Inside there were dozens of pictures of Angkor in
that glorious old grainy film… the majestic Bayon heads, the incredible
outline of Angkor Wat. However, I found myself drawn not to the pictures
of the monuments, but to the pictures of the people. Children playing in
the ruins. A boy holding a toddler on his hip. I couldn’t help but wonder
‘what happened to these people’? This article was printed fifteen years
before the Khmer Rouge’s reign of horror, but these children were
certainly effected. It is said that as many as two in eight Cambodians
were murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. Did these children
survive? Those magnificent ruins faded into a backdrop for me as I zeroed
in on the children’s eyes.
I cannot think of Cambodia without thinking of the Khmer Rouge. It is an
unfortunate association. Cambodia has a fascinating history full of great
kings and jungle temples. Thousands of years of civilization. But my
impression of Cambodia has always been based on what happened over a
period of less than four years.
April 17th, 1975 was declared by the Khmer Rouge as Day One – Year Zero.
“History begins today,” they told the people of Cambodia. The capital,
Phnom Penh, was emptied out. All city dwellers were evacuated to the
fields. This was to be an agricultural utopia. Pol Pot’s forces took a
strangle-hold over the nation. Like a house with boarded windows and
locked doors, Cambodia became a mystery to the rest of the world. Inside
the worst massacre in my lifetime was raging. People were shot if they
wore glasses, if they spoke French, if they were too educated. Sons
bludgeoned their parents with shovels. Children starved to death. Finally
in December of 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and drove the
Khmer Rouge back into the forests. Thousands of families had been wiped
out. Skulls littered the rice fields. Blood seeped into the dirt. Vietnam
called Cambodia ‘hell on earth.’
It has been almost twenty years since Pol Pot disappeared into the
jungle, but the country is still struggling. Bandits roam the forests,
land mines are buried in the fields. King Sihanouk’s popularity is
strong, but new issues grow out of old horrors. The US government
considers Cambodia a highly dangerous destination. Americans are advised
against any non- essential travel to the country. So why am I going
there? I’ve asked myself that countless times. Certainly it is largely to
see Angkor. The ruins are reputed to be among the most incredible
man-made structures in the world. But I know it’s not just that. In a
way, I am drawn to Cambodia in the same way a person is drawn to look at
a man’s scars when he rolls up his sleeves. But much more than morbid
curiosity, I am amazed by this country’s perseverance. I respect these
survivors with my entirety. Day One, April 17th, 1975 was my third
birthday. This massacre, this perversion of humanity, occurred during my
lifetime. While I ran around in sundresses and played with Star Wars
people in the sandbox, Cambodia tore itself apart. I have come to witness
Cambodia’s memorials. To see the era after the aftermath. I want to find
the face of survival. As far as I can express, those are my reasons.
All the same, I must admit I am worried about our safety. For weeks I
have found myself muttering, “Please Lord, no bandits, no land mines, no
kidnappers.” Andy knew a woman who was shot by bandits three years ago.
She was on a private visit to Banteay Srei when she and her husband were
ambushed. The coup this past July intensified my concerns, as have the
recent reports of tourists who were attacked on the streets at night. But
I am willing to take the risk, because this is a trip I feel compelled to
take. Besides I’m on the plane to Phnom Penh. There is no turning back.
And in truth, I don’t want to turn back.
We arrived at Phnom Penh’s Ponchetong International Airport around 11AM.
We walked from the plane, across the pavement to the terminal. Another
American, a man in his early 30’s, snapped a picture of the airport from
the outside. He turned to Andy and me and said, “got to get that shot.”
We waited in line for visas – a cold assembly line process – until our
passports were stamped “Cambodge” with thick black ink. We headed through
the terminal to look for our pre-arranged guide. I was surprised to find
the airport in such stellar condition, considering that the control tower
and radar had been destroyed in the recent coup. By the main entrance,
young men motioned to us, called to us, offering taxis. We made hotel
reservations at the terminal’s hotel desk. Still no guide. Finally a
young man stood in the crowd holding up a sign that read “Susanne C and
Andy C”. He smiled kindly and directed us to the car. On the way through
the parking lot, a teenager walked alongside me trying desperately to
sell me a newspaper. The headline read “Verdict on Pol Pot” and the
teenager kept saying “Pol Pot,” and looking sadly up at me. Pol Pot, the
leader of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, was tried in some undisclosed
jungle court several months ago. He’s living out the rest of his
miserable life in a mosquito infested hut with his wife and 12 year old
Our guide’s name was Rith. He was a young attractive man with a blue polo
style shirt and trim black hair. Automatically I liked him. While driving
to the hotel he asked what we wanted to see. Too embarrassed to say we
were mainly interested in the genocide monuments, we waited for him to
reel off the sites. We nodded when he got to Tuol Sleng (the Khmer Rouge
prison) and the Killing Fields monument. We also agreed that we wanted to
see the Silver Pagoda.
Driving through the city was fascinating. It seems to be a city of
children. Well over half the people we saw were under 17 years old. Paved
main streets branch off into dirt roads. Concrete lays uprooted long the
sidewalk. Motorcycles dart in and out of cars, cyclos, and vendors
pushing carts. There are no functional street lights. People cross when
they can. Traffic moves with subtle anarchy. (Still better than LA on a
sunny day.) From behind the car window I could see naked babies, children
with backpacks in school uniforms, young merchants balancing baskets on
their heads. Teenage women ride side-saddle on mopeds, their long dark
hair swept over one shoulder. The city is teeming with life and youth.
Over half of the current population wasn’t even alive during the Khmer
Rouge’s reign. A boy no more than nine years old drives two little girls
on his moped. A woman washes her baby in the shadow of an old French
The buildings look as though they could have once been grand, modern. But
dust and decay coat much of their once glorious facades. Chunks of
concrete lay where the streets roll off into dirt roads. Dogs lounge in
the shade. Puppies play around the food stalls. It seems to be a city
without a time period. It’s not like going back in time, not as if
technology just hasn’t arrived yet. I’ve been to places like that…
Varanasi, India, and to an extent, Venice, Italy. But Phnom Penh isn’t
like that. It was like too much time had passed, and a once prosperous
city was worn out, frayed. But what I saw in the buildings I did not see
in the people. Young children ran and laughed. Women on mopeds smiled
shyly at me. The city I now call home, Washington, D.C., seemed sterile
compared to this action and youth. “Life goes on” the old saying goes. So
Rith dropped us off at the hotel and said he’d be back at 2PM to show us
the city. He walked us up to the Hawaii Hotel’s main desk and waited
while we checked in.
“How old are you?” I asked. “29,” he smiled. “I was born in the year of
He was born, then, in 1968. He was seven when the shit hit the fan here. I
wish I could have asked him about his life, but that would be terribly
inappropriate. He would offer the information if he wanted to, I figured.
Everyone my age or older here is a survivor, a witness, a victim. My train
of thought was broken when the hotel staff greeted us with pink papaya
drinks. The air was heavy and humid, and those drinks were damn good.
The hotel was strangely empty. We were the only customers in this enormous
dining room with straw woven chairs and glass chandeliers. It seemed so
strange to be the only guests in this grand room. Outside the window,
children played on the curb. Schoolboys walked by. Two other tourists,
American men in their thirties, followed a guide to a car. All the
foreigners here seem to have the same look on their faces – a look that
seems to say, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in Cambodia, but it’s
After lunch we figured we had some time to kill before Rith came back, so
we headed out to the nearby market. We dodged cars, crossed the streets,
passed toddlers walking clumsily on the sidewalk, and stopped in front of
the flower market. Young women sold flowers from buckets in their stands.
Awnings or sheets of cloth covered the stalls.
The market was laid out like a starfish. A main domed building poured
outside into rows of cloth covered stands. The outside merchants sold T-
shirts, Khmer cloth, flowers. Amputees gathered around the stands. When
they saw us, they immediately came over holding out their hats, asking
for money. A uniformed amputee stretched out his hand. It was
heartbreaking. One T- shirt at the stand where the amputees hung out said
“I survived Cambodia.” I thought that was horribly tasteless considering
what had happened here in living memory. I can’t imagine a tourist
arrogant enough to think that his little trip to Cambodia was some kind
of ordeal that merited such a T-shirt.
We walked into the domed marketplace. It was enormous. Sunlight shot
through slits in the high ceiling and fell on the mazes of merchant
stalls. Watches, radios, gems, clothes – you name it. Wooden reliefs of
Angkor Wat sold next to underwear. Middle age women tried on bras over
their clothes. A boy maybe 10 or 12 years old came up to us. His brown
shirt was torn and ripped, and he was speaking in very broken English and
French. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, but he clearly
wanted money. I wasn’t carrying anything under a five dollar bill, and
Andy argued that we only had five singles, and we needed them since it
was a weekend and we couldn’t cash our traveler’s checks. I know in
theory that you are not supposed to give money to children, but I wished
I had a buck on me anyway. He tailed us through the market, following not
more than an arms-length away. Most of the time he walked right next to
my elbow. We had become involved in a tragic game of dodging and hiding.
We walked faster. We slowed down. We tried to weave into the maze of
cloth stands. He never missed a turn. Finally, I realized that every time
we went near the police sitting at the entrance, he had to back away. So
we stood at a stand there and pretended to be interested in the gems.
“What’s this?” Andy pointed to a large fang. “Tiger’s tooth,” the woman
answered and laid it on top of the glass in front of him.
Finally, when the boy wasn’t looking, we dodged into the outside market
stalls. The market really is a maze of people, cloth and stands, and
after a few turns we knew we had lost him. A young girl smiled at Andy
and pointed to her cloth. He smiled back and said no thank you. She
laughed shyly and waved good-bye. Andy bought some scarves, but after
maybe twenty minutes we decided to leave the market. The boy and the
amputees reminded us that we could not be invisible observers here.
At 2PM we met Rith and the driver in the hotel lobby, and headed out to
our first stop, the Silver Pagoda. Housed in a gated courtyard near the
palace, the Silver Pagoda and its adjoining grounds are incredible.
Sweeping roofs, panel paintings of the Ramayana, lion statues, and stone
nagas create a majestic display. Even more incredible is the fact that
these structures, the Emerald Buddha and the solid gold/ diamond studded
Buddha survived the Khmer Rouge.
I walked around aimlessly for a while just taking in the enormity of it.
Inside the Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is even more
impressive than the grounds that surround it. The structure is called the
Silver Pagoda because the floor is covered with 5,000 silver tiles
weighing one kilogram each. It was built under King Norodom in 1892 and
was apparently inspired by Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. At the far end of the
Pagoda is a gold painted platform where the Emerald Buddha is seated. It
is actually made out of Baccarat crystal. In front of the Emerald
Buddha’s platform is a life-sized standing Buddha made out of solid gold.
700 diamond pieces dot the statue – as a tika on its forehead, as the
eyes, as a string necklace. I still can’t believe the Khmer Rouge didn’t
melt it down, sell it or destroy it. Supposedly they left it in tact to
inform the world that “all is well in Cambodia.”
The grounds, like our hotel, were strangely empty. Especially since we’d
just come from Bangkok where the wats were so choked with tourists that
you couldn’t avoid getting twenty of them in every photo. Suddenly a
group of school children arrived – boys and girls about junior high age
in blue and white uniforms. They pointed at us, smiled, waved and finally
approached us with a camera. They wanted to take our picture. We happily
agreed and the kids gathered around us for a shot. After their photo we
asked them to pose for us. It was a wonderful experience. They were so
cute and excited. I guess they don’t see many tourists anymore.
Outside as we waited for the car, an amputee limped up to us asking for
money. In the distance ten foot pictures of Sihanouk and his wife were
plastered onto stone fences. The Cambodian flag – blue and red with an
outline of Angkor Wat – flapped in the wind.
The drive to Tuol Sleng wasn’t very far, but once we left the main
street, the dirt roads were bumpy and punctured with pot holes. More
children, dogs and vendors lined the streets. A sign on the white gate
read, in English and Khmer, “Tuol Sleng – Museum of Genocide.” Children
peddled bikes too big for their bodies around the gate. An old woman
stood next to her fruit stand. Boys played tag. We drove past the sign
and into the prison.
Some 17,000 people were brought here during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.
Seven people survived. In this gentle setting that used to be a high
school, victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and murdered. Men
missing legs came up to us as we got out of the car. We paid the entry
fee of two US dollars and met our guide, a middle aged woman named Pala.
The campus consisted of four buildings congregated around a grass
courtyard. The bright sunlight revealed where paint had chipped off the
walls. A thin, lanky man swept off the 14 graves in front of the first
building. In these graves lay the last 14 people killed at Tuol Sleng. A
monk in saffron robes and black rimmed glasses followed in the tour
The first building housed prisoners on two stories. They were chained to
metal bed frames. No mattresses, only hard metal. On the walls, hanging
above each bed, were photographs of the dead found in each room after the
Vietnamese wrestled the city from the Khmer Rouge. In one cell, a
photograph showed a naked body, wretchedly twisted, handcuffed and
shackled. He had been killed with a shovel. White bits of cheekbone were
exposed. A pool of blood gathered under his bed. This was the very room
where he was found. The room where he was tortured and murdered. I looked
around the cell. In his anguish, that prisoner must have focused on the
bits of dust encrusted in the walls. He must have seen how the plaster
had fallen off the walls in fist-sized chunks. He must have seen those
spots where the paint changes hue on the ceiling. This room had been a
tomb for the living, and I was surprised somehow by the amount of light.
The window was covered with a series of slates which allowed strips of
sunlight to pour through. Past the window slates I could see a little
girl on a tricycle, riding just outside the prison. I could see green
trees, houses, people working in their backyards. I turned around and
looked out towards the outside hallway. The monk in the small tour group
behind us was standing at the cell window looking in. He had his hand up
to his mouth. The prison reflected in his thick glasses.
Our guide Pala pointed out a sign hanging in the hallway. It had been
translated into English. This sign greeted the prisoners of Tuol Sleng. It
stated such prison rules as “The prisoner will not cry or yell out while
receiving lashes.” Each line of horror was stated as a matter of fact.
The next building was even more haunting. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous
records of their work. Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival. Some
were photographed in their rooms, chained to their beds, but most of the
prisoners were forced to sit on a thin wooden chair with a rod stemming
out from the back that dictated where their head should be. This
collection of photos is the victims’ last testament. A woman, hair
cropped holding a baby stares out from one photo. A boy with his mouth
bloodied and swollen. Blood smeared up his cheek. A young man with his
arms pulled behind him stares into the camera. His eyes bulge with
terror. Every shot is black and white, making them seem ever the more
like evidence. Rows upon rows of evidence. Walls and walls of evidence.
Some of the victims smiled innocently into the lens. Shards of sunlight
poured across the pictures. The few foreigners who died at Tuol Sleng
also have a place on the wall. An Australian businessman who missed his
chance when the world evacuated from Phnom Penh. A westerner with a
scraggly beard and wide horrified eyes. One photo struck me the hardest.
A boy no more than twelve years old with cuts on his cheeks and around
his eyes. A heavy metal chain hung around his neck like a leash. Tight
jaw, dark eyes.
I cannot understand what happened here. How could this happen? How could
anyone torture these children, these women with babies, these young men?
I know the history. I have heard the Khmer Rouge rhetoric about creating
a utopia. Andy and I discussed the theories. Brainwashing created a world
in which a person was a cog in the system. The individual soul was
disregarded. Murder was commonplace, systematic and nonchalant. But I
still cannot understand how a person could bludgeon that little boy in
the photograph to death with a shovel. In the same way, I cannot
understand how the Nazis could have murdered so many millions of men,
women and children. Again I know the history, I understand the rhetoric.
But such mass cruelty is still beyond my comprehension.
I believe that violence is innate in man, but I believe that what
happened here was not innate. This was a perversion of humanity, a
malignancy on mankind. The prisoners here were hung from the high
school’s gymnastics bars and dropped to the ground. Their fingernails
were torn out while their hands were clamped between two pieces of wood.
They were held underwater, electrocuted, lashed. God, how could this
We walked past the walls of photos to another room. Pala pointed to two
more rows of photos showing boys about 13- or 14-years-old in cloth caps.
“These were the interrogators,” she stated. “Interrogators, killers, same
13-year-old killers? These were the guards? The ones who tortured mothers
and children with such ruthlessness? They had been brainwashed, I know.
They were, in a way, victims too. But that doesn’t mean that I feel any
sympathy for them. Next to the pictures of the boys were pictures of the
young female cooks.
In the next building over, rooms were divided into small brick cages.
Inside, I couldn’t stretch out both arms the cages were so small.
Prisoners here were starved until their ribs showed through their skin.
They were shackled and left to await torture or disposal.
“Why didn’t they escape, some people ask me,” Pala said. “Why didn’t they
Clearly, the brick walls were pretty flimsy and a good knock could topple
“They were too weak,” she continued, “to push down the walls.”
After a beat she began again. ” I lost my own family during the Khmer
Rouge. My husband was killed with a bamboo stick. My daughter was starved
to death. My brother was killed with a shovel…”
She listed off the members of her family and their violent deaths. Some
light crept into the room illuminating the thick gobs of concrete between
the bricks, the holes in the plaster walls that served as doors, the
wooden slates over the windows.
“I wanted to commit suicide,” Pala’s voice was low. “But I did not.” The
whites of her eyes were faintly pink, but I could tell she was past
crying. Now she was telling us her story to share her pain, her country’s
anguish and to make sure that her family somehow lived on.
“You understand, lady?” She kept asking me, in case I didn’t understand
I understood what she was saying, but not why, not how. I didn’t
understand like she did anyway. I had come to witness the aftermath, and
I found it, twenty years later, still imprinted on her face and in her
Outside a group of boys played volleyball. The net was strung up between
the back of a barrack and a palm tree. Two puppies tumbled around in the
courtyard. Of course to them, nothing happened here. A young boy rode a
bicycle up to the door. Andy bent down and took his picture. The child
gripped the handlebars and smiled broadly.
“My nephew,” Pala smiled.
The building was covered with barbed wire so that the prisoners didn’t
kill themselves by jumping to their deaths before “confessing.” They were
not given spoons in case they used them to slit their writs.
The fourth and final building housed paintings by one of the seven
survivors of Tuol Sleng. The three by five foot paintings showed guards
ripping out people’s fingernails, prisoners being whipped by five guards.
One painting showed a blindfolded, half starved man being carried like a
hog at a luau. Another painting showed a man, thin and bent, sitting in
one of the brick cells with a shackle around his ankle. Pala explained
that was a self portrait. In the next room hung instruments of torture,
and down the hallway, was a bust of Pol Pot. The nose had been hacked
off, it looked like, with an ax.
The final room displayed a map of Cambodia that covered the whole wall, 10
feet high maybe, ten feet across. The map was made of human skulls. Skulls
of the victims. Red lines, to represent blood, drew the Mekong River and
Pala walked us outside. We thanked her , not really knowing what to say.
Andy asked if we could take a picture of her, and after she agreed, we
each took one photo. When I snapped the picture she wasn’t smiling, but
her jaw was strong and tight and her chin was pointed slightly upwards. I
thought to myself, even if the picture doesn’t come out, I will never
forget that profile.
The Killing Fields
After Tuol Sleng, we drove in silence out of town to the Killing Fields
of Choeung Ek. Paved roads ended at the edge of Phnom Penh. Our journey
was dirt roads the rest of the way. The driver had to maneuver around
barrel- sized potholes. Raised houses with corregated metal roof tops
lined the roads. Some roofs were actually made of palm leaves, though
most were wood and metal. Dogs played under the shade of a drop cloth
awning, while children held kite strings and played tag in their school
clothes. A young man with his shirt off stood on the balcony of his
wooden stilted home. A bright pink towel, hanging on the railing next to
him, blew in the wind. We crossed a bridge and saw the homes standing
right up alongside the river. Every once in a while, I could see the vast
expanses of rice fields and distant palm trees. It was just as I had
After about thirty minutes we arrived at the Killing Fields Memorial. We
paid the very small fee (one or two US dollars each), then walked up to
the three story high Memorial Pagoda. Inside piles upon piles of skulls
are stacked according to age and gender. “Female, 14 to 17″ read one
card. We were close enough to touch them, although I felt that would be
disrespectful. Pile of bones. Thousands of lives. The towering Pagoda
shelters more than 8000 skulls. When the interrogators at Tuol Sleng were
done with their victims they told them they were going to be sent home.
Instead they were taken here and killed.
Behind the Memorial Pagoda are the mass graves. Pits of bones with grass
and dirt thrown over them. Andy brushed his hand through the dirt. A bone
came up under his fingers. He quickly covered it back up. Across the pits
I could see the river. On the other side of the Pagoda, rice fields
yawned and stretched under the setting sun. It is incredible that this
peaceful, quiet place was the Killing Fields. Rith, our guide, walked
around with his hands in his pockets. Women watched two boys picking
fruit out of the upper branches of a vine covered tree. I took a picture
of three children who were playing just outside the gate.
We drove back the way we had come. A little boy waved, and I waved back.
He ran alongside the car for several strides just to smile and say hello.
The sun slid past the palm trees and down into the rice paddies. Again we
sat in silence.
Rith and the driver dropped us off at the hotel. He gave us his business
card, so we could write to him. It turns out he is a conservation
specialist at the Silver Pagoda. We thanked him about half a dozen times,
said good-bye to the driver and went inside.
While Andy showered, I stood on the balcony outside our room watching the
traffic on the street below. The city has not yet recovered, but there is
an overwhelming sense of hope. Phnom Penh is a city of survivors and
their children. They have not pushed the horrors of the past aside. They
acknowledge the past; they live alongside their memorials; they set up
shop and play tag in the shadow of Tuol Sleng… and they carry on with
hope and grace.
I hardly slept at all that night. Every time I closed my eyes I saw
images of Tuol Sleng. When the alarm went off at 4:50AM, I was already
awake. That morning we left Phnom Penh and set out to experience the
grandeur of Angkor.
Archive for December, 1997
Hi everyone. Last week, I posted my diary entry for a day I recently