Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of child sex trafficking in Cambodia, animal abuse, and genocide.
Cambodia still haunts me, and my feelings toward it are convoluted. I find that I want to cradle it in my arms, as if holding an injured thing. I feel great compassion towards its people, as well as love and sadness. But Cambodia is strong and has proven resilient in many ways. It has definitely left its mark on me.
Our first stop was Siem Reap. The dusty, busy city was still very much alive when we arrived that evening. The setting sun was full and warm, suspended low in the hazy sky. Our tuk-tuk pulled up in front of our hotel and we spilled out of it, trudged to our room, and dropped our packs. As I plopped down on the bed I looked up at the green painted wall, the plaster crumbling in places, and was met with a stark white sheet of printer paper titled, “Our Hotel Rule.” Among the list of rules was one that felt as though it sucker punched me right in the gut. “No Child Abuse In Room.”
Later that afternoon, a male traveler told us that during his ride from the airport his tuk-tuk driver offered to take him to pick up a child of his choosing. “You have a good time,” the driver coaxed, even after he had declined the offer a total of three times during the ten-minute ride.
It’s not uncommon to see little girls in heels on the street. In many windows there are posters of small dirty faces with tear-filled eyes and heartbreaking pleas. One such poster read, “Please Help Me” followed by, “Volunteers Needed.” Sex trafficking is a horrendous problem in countries like Cambodia, and the outcry has remained heavy on my heart.
Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, was also one of the filming locations for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. I’ve written a previous post about Angkor Wat specifically. You can check out some photos and read about my experience at The Temple City here. Due to the rising tourism, Siem Reap is probably one of the safest cities in Cambodia. Despite your occasional scam or pickpocket, there doesn’t seem to be much crime. The people are kind, prices are fair, the landscapes are often beautiful, and to be submersed in its culture was eye opening. After just a few short days, we headed south to Cambodia’s capital.
After a six hour bus ride we arrived in Phnom Penh’s city center. As with most SE Asia cities the traffic was heavy, the sounds were abundant, and the food was plentiful. We decided to stop and grab a bite, and try the local beer, Angkor. As for the orange in my Cambodia glass… well… that’s just Orange Fanta. I was having a serious craving!
As we sat outside doing some people watching and soaking up our surroundings, I quickly found out that dog meat is just as common as a cheeseburger. Not only can you find it on many menus, you’ll also see sizable (40lbs or bigger) dog carcasses on skewers or rotisseries out front of street café and restaurants. All the while, adult dogs bark out back, chained to metal posts in the ground, and puppies play in cages. This is just part of every day life in Cambodia.
The outdoor fresh market is several blocks long and equally as wide. And wow, was that an experience in itself! I watched a woman sit and pick at her toenails while a mixture of animal blood and dirty water ran down a gutter beside her. When a customer approached and asked for some fish, the woman hurriedly grabbed a few bare-handed, and wrapped them in brown paper. Chickens with broken feet lay nearby, unable to do much, and are then slaughtered on the spot when purchased. The fresh market is the most “fresh” I’ve encountered, and one quick trip through was truly all my stomach could handle. It’s important to keep in mind that this is all very culturally acceptable and considered the “norm.” Other parts of the market were more enjoyable for me personally, the fresh and dried fruits, the nuts, the vegetables, the goods, textiles, and toys. If you need something, the odds are quite high that you’ll find it here.
After several hours exploring the city, we arrived back at our hostel where the girl at the front desk told us they were showing David Puttnam’s film The Killing Fields every night at 8 o’clock. A 1984 movie depicting the ruthlessness of the Khmer Rouge regime from the viewpoint of two journalists. The drama is over two hours long and provided an education I hadn’t yet had. I thought it might prepare me for the following day when we were to visit The Killing Fields, but now I know that nothing could have possibly prepared me for what I was going to see.
A Brief History
The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot, a name I literally had only heard while jamming out to The Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia” on Guitar Hero years before. I had no idea what that song was about, and when I listen to it now, it means something entirely different. It’s dark and horrific, and I’m including it here, but please know if you choose to watch it that it includes some graphic footage of The Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge reigned from 1975-1979, just 40 years ago. The goal was to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic, founded on the policies of Maoism, a kind of Marxism. Pol Pot established the state of Democratic Kampuchea and aimed to establish a classless communist state based on a rural agrarian economy, embracing the total rejection of both capitalism and the free market. Whether brutally murdered, overworked, starved, or malnourished, under his leadership it is estimated that 2 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed. With the population being roughly 8 million, one out of every three to four Cambodians lost their lives. Meanwhile, the rest of the world knew nothing.
The Killing Fields
The next morning we hailed a Tuk-Tuk and traveled roughly ten miles (16 km) south of Phnom Penh to Choeung Ek, the location of several of The Killing Fields. Having been to Auschwitz and Birkenau (which you can read about here), I can say with certainty that The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng come in close second for most somber, heart-wrenching and melancholy sites to see.
Once equipped with your audio guide and map, you’ll listen to the narrator explain the significance of certain areas, specific events that took place, as well as hear people tell their own stories and give their personal accounts. There are parts of the grounds that are roped off due to erosion where fragments of bones, teeth, and clothing can still be seen after heavy rainfalls. And if you see any of these, you’re encouraged to tell a guide or grounds employee.
Probably the most easily remembered landmark is The Killing Tree, where soldiers in the Khmer Rouge would hold babies and small children by their legs and beat them against the tree trunk until death.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with both the former and also foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. As a result, Pol Pot has been described as “a genocidal tyrant.”
At the center of the grounds you’ll find The Choeung Ek Memorial, a Buddhist commemorative stupa which stands 203 feet (63 meters) high. It is filled from top to bottom with skulls, and its glass sides allow visitors to witness the sheer number of them. Upon closer speculation of the skulls, one can see the trauma inflicted prior to execution. It is a quiet, respectful place and shoes are to be taken off when entering.
Some Useful Facts
The entrance fee is a mere $6 USD (approx 24,400 CR) and you are provided an audio guide. Entrance fee’s for S-21/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are $5 USD without an audio guide and $8 USD with one. I highly recommend coughing up the few extra bucks for the audio guide. Expect to pay somewhere around the ballpark of $12 USD for a one way tuk-tuk trip from pretty much anywhere around the city center to The Killing Fields. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll probably also want to see Tuol Sleng, and if you factor in this extra stop for your driver and pay accordingly, they will shuttle you where you need to go throughout your day and for the duration of your trip. Expect to spend a few hours at both The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. A fair price would be around $20 USD, if this is a bit steep for your budget try sharing the tuk-tuk with a fellow traveler and split the fee down the middle. You can also haggle at this point, but do keep in mind that your driver will do quite a bit of waiting around for you during the heat of the day.
About 9 miles from The Killing Fields you’ll find the S-21 Museum, otherwise known as Tuol Sleng. This is a complex of five different buildings and was formerly known as the Chao Ponhea Yat High School. It was quickly converted into a prison (Security Prison 21) by the Khmer Rouge, serving as a detention, interrogation, and torture center for the full four years it was in operation. It is estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned here during 1975-1979, which is a conservative number. It is also on record as just 1 of at least 150 torture and execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge during those years.
The day I visited, I was able to meet a Cambodian survivor who lived through the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s genocide. He had written a book telling of the account and was there doing a signing. I stood among others as he shared his truth and spread awareness. It was very moving and quite the gift.
As I walked through the complex, leaving one building and entering the next, one room will forever remain in my memory. A room full of faces. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Men, women, and children. Mothers and fathers. Brothers and sisters. Teachers, doctors, mechanics and the like. Just your average every day person who was forced to endure the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
And then I saw a photo, a hand was roughly holding a boys arm. His clothes were disheveled. His mouth was set. But his eyes are what caught mine. The stillness of his eyes. They burned into me and I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to. I was paralyzed in a moment where the only thing I could possibly do was offer recognition. To say, “I see what happened to you. I know now. And you won’t go unremembered. This will not be forgotten. You will not be forgotten. I see you.”
This boy with no name. Number 3. I want the world to see him. I want the world to know.
We were dirty when we arrived. Our packs weighed us down as we stepped off the bus onto the dirt road, but the breeze coming off the ocean lifted our spirits. The trees swayed with calm reserve and the waves softly crashed against the sand. The seasoned smell of grilled food drifted from the seaside huts. I exhaled just as deeply as I had inhaled, and the effects of such a heavy week seemed to lighten.
My heart was burdened with such horrendous stories of fear, torture, and death. But it wasn’t only the past that was making me feel sticky and dismal, it was also the present state of things. Human trafficking of the innocent, of the helpless, of children. It was the knowing. It reached so far down into the depths of me, I didn’t know how I would ever dislodge it. It stuck to me like a wet filthy rag, leaving a residue which seemed so permanent, no matter how hard I tried to shake it.
I stood on the beaches of Sihanoukville overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. I felt the sand between my toes, listened to the seabirds chatting and tried to drink in every beautiful color the sunset had streaked across the sky. I was moved and I was grateful, I was heartbroken and I was full. So full of appreciation for this life. And so determined to live it.
**If you feel a calling in your heart to find out more information about human trafficking, intern, volunteer, or donate, please feel free to check out these websites. I am not affiliated nor do I receive anything from these organizations if you wish to do so.
Cambodia sounds like an absolutely fascinating and in some scenarios harrowing place. if I was to plan a trip how would you advise doing so?
Is it best to go through a company or just fly out there and go with the wind so to speak?
Hey Nate! Thanks so much for stopping by … as for your questions, I think that would boil down to your own personal preference. I don’t prefer strict itineraries, scheduled bus tours, or being subject to anyone else’s timeline. I rather do a little research before I head out and plan my own trip. I find it’s less expensive and more rewarding. But that’s just me! The important thing is that you go! Cheers 🙂
Wow Courtney, This post has been so informative. Nice timing too, as i was thinking of going there for my next holiday. Thanks for helping us out with your post. So much to learn…
Hope you go visit, Habib – enjoy your trip!
Impressive, sad and overwhelming story. Cambodia is on my ‘To Do’ list to visit. It’s sad to see how much the population has suffered. The boy’s picture left an impression on me, the stillness in his eyes, the suffering.
Thank you for a great read and for sharing your story.
Thanks for reading, Dany!
Very moving. I had no idea of the atrocities that occurred. Number 3 now has a face and he will be remembered.
The video by TheDeadKennedys was a nightmare.
You’re a very good writer and tell your story very well.
It’s sad to hear that so much has gone on in such a beautiful country.
I have heard that Cambodia is a poverty-stricken country currently dealing with an economic collapse…
And I didn’t know that they eat dog meat. That is disgusting!
The killing fields sound extremely depressing. I can’t believe all that has happened in Cambodia! Pol Pot was certainly a horrible, evil, and disgraceful person.
Thank you for sharing your experience there.
Thanks for reading, Garen! The dog meat thing did take me aback … but at the core of it all, isn’t eating any animal outside of necessity, inhumanely and without thought a pretty needless act in itself? Who am I to take another beings life? Yes, Cambodia was both sad and beautiful. I encourage you to go 🙂
Such a fascinating country and story, even for such a brief time. This holiday you outlined is an adventure I would love to go on someday.
Hope you do, Dave! Thanks for reading!
This is so cool. I have always wanted to travel to Cambodia! I want to see Angkor Wat, but I really want to see The Killing Fields. I was so touched by that movie and the subsequent documentaries I have seen about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Sihanoukville, which I never heard of, looks amazing … like a paradise. So sad to hear that human trafficking continues. The Killing Tree … wow, I can’t believe that this is my first time learning about it. Absolutely horrible atrocities especially that you say it’s a close second to Auschwitz!
I encourage you to go! It’s a somber experience but definitely a worthwhile one.
Hi Courtney, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It is so sad and I don’t think that I would be able to visit Cambodia. That is a lot to digest with all those injustices. I admire you for your honest approach and that you raise awareness. Keep it up!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Even though I agree that yes, it is sad and a lot to digest… that’s no reason not to visit! That’s like saying you couldn’t ever visit Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, or Gettysburg. There’s darkness in the world, unfortunately that may never change. But we can do our part to shed light in those places 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here!
Excellent article Courtney. It’s unfortunate that Cambodia has such a sad history. Because of my current job, I have met a lot of Cambodian’s through their local temple. I must say they are the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met! I’d love to go experience their culture, they also have some amazing food. It sounds like this was quite a trip. I would love to get there some day and see it for myself.
That’s so awesome, Dan! Yes, they are very kind people.”Someday” can take a very long time to show up… I hope that you indeed do go soon!
I just wanted to say you are a natural author! You are an excellent descriptive writer and I felt like I was there. I am not one that likes to travel outside my comfort zone very much, but you made me think twice about that. Once I started reading I could not stop! Your article was full of information and fantastic details. Thank you!
Aww thanks so much for the compliment, Elizabeth! Ya gotta get out! Go places, see things! And when you do, come back and tell me all about it!
I’ve wanted to visit Cambodia for a while, and your post really helps bring it to life. Your market experience really reminds me of similar markets I’ve found in Thailand and Peru, for example. I’ve had my eye on visiting Angkor Wat, but I’m really interested in the other options for visits you’ve listed here as well. Thanks for sharing such an honest piece!
I sure did love Thailand! But I haven’t yet made it to Peru — jealous!! I really do recommend visiting anywhere in Cambodia if you get the chance.
Cambodia would be a great place to visit. I would like to see the Killing Fields, even though I know it would be an emotional place to behold, like you said. You touch on many of the reasons why Cambodia is such a fascinating place!
It really is, Bryan 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
When I first saw the title of this article I got excited because I have heard good things about Siem Reap, and as I began to read .. I’m with you… I wasn’t prepared for the graphic details. Quite the education. I have been in other countries and am aware of the injustices.
I really enjoy your story telling and the way you convey the details from your trip. I look forward to reading more of your stories!
I’m happy that you found yourself here, and that you’ve now learned of this ridiculously overlooked event. It’s difficult, I know. But sometimes there’s no sugarcoating things. Hope to see you back 🙂
Hi Courtney. You write beautifully. It is easy to empathize with what you are describing. Many thanks for sharing your story. I have been to Cambodia and the places you have described several times, and am always left saddened by the inhumanity of some people towards others. Unfortunately, there are still many instances of violence against fellow humans going on in the world at this moment. It just goes to show that humanity still has a long way to go before we can truly call ourselves civilized.
So true. People have such an, “Out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Myself included at times. It’s hard to be in the middle of it all and so fiercely want to change things, only to feel so helpless at the end of the day. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Hope to see you back!
Woah, Cambodia sounds rough from some of what you’ve described! I think anyone would have a hard time processing all of that information. You’re very brave to go there yourself. The Khmer Rouge – that is so messed up to hear about what they did. I guess it just goes to show if people are desperate, they will do anything. I do have a question though. If I could donate some of my money to ease the suffering of children in Cambodia, where could I send my money? Are there charities addressing the problem there? I look forward to reading… Read more »
Cambodia will always hold a special place in my heart. I appreciate your brave comment … however, it truly had nothing to do with bravery. I want to see every country I possibly can, and learn as much as I’m able. Cambodians are good people who have been handed the short end of the stick one too many times in my opinion. There are a number of organizations one could donate funds to, I’ve listed them at the end of the article 🙂
Thank you so much for your interest!
Your post is well written and extremely compelling. I’m in my 60’s and remember so many of the news reports about the atrocities Khmer Rouge inflicted during the 1970s. I’m happy to hear the good reports in your post but extremely saddened about the reports regarding child sex trafficking. I cannot conceive of what a man’s motives are for pursuing that kind of debauchery. I’ll be praying for those little victims that they are released from that inhumane slavery and that all those involved will be brought to justice.
Thank you for making the public aware through your posts.
God bless you,
Thank you Dave, we can’t raise awareness enough!
I’ve read your posts before and this one was quite different. It’s crazy to think that in a place of such beauty and awe that you can still find such horrific happenings. Thank you for reminding me that I live in an amazing free country. No place is perfect. No place is completely safe. But I am truly blessed to live in America and my heart goes out to the people of Cambodia. I can imagine (only because of your written words here) only some of the things you saw and heard while visiting.
Do you plan on going back?
Jennifer, it’s good to see you back! I know many of my posts are more uplifting and adventurous. Yet this, I felt, truly needed to be shared. To answer your question, I would go back to Cambodia.. but most likely under different circumstances. They offer an internship, assisting with the rehabilitation of those rescued from human trafficking circles. I would like to dedicate my time, when it makes sense for me, to doing that. I hope this wasn’t too heavy and that I see you around again!
Just seeing so many skulls boldly stacked and displayed is eerie to me. I can only image how you must feel after being exposed to the reality of what took place there. I feel like it’s sticking to me just reading about your experience. It is the reality of things like The Killing Fields and other things that go on in different parts of the world that make me thankful everyday. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Please remember to encourage someone today!
Yes, much of it was eerie Vanna. But I’m grateful for the experience. Come back soon!
What an absolutely wonderful post! I am embarrassed to say I really know nothing about Cambodia and I found your post incredibly intriguing, and sad. I had no idea of the atrocities that occurred there, and the ones that still do (the child sex trafficking). I think I need to watch The Killing Fields now, as you have sparked my interest in knowing more.
I do hope that you watch The Killing Fields – it really is worth the time! I didn’t know any of this prior to visiting either, so don’t be embarrassed! And thanks so much for stopping by!