Hatchet, Pick Axe, Gun, Human: The Killing Fields

As I posted about before, there is a time during travel when pictures should be avoided.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia is one such place, in my opinion. Now a testament to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the Killing Fields are really comprised of physical markers explaining what happened; an audio, self-guided tour; a small museum; and warnings that if you see human bone fragments…leave them. The bones are still collected from  the fields a regular basis as heavy rains reveal what was once hidden.

Then one enters the stupa. I entered the stupa last, leaving my shoes at the front as requested. Upon entering, bare skulls greeted me. They are stacked in glass vases, tall enough to reach into the heavens and the horror that can be humanity.

The skulls are color-coded with what kind of injury occurred to them: hatchet, pick axe, gun. I would add another code: human. There were times when I gasped at the gaping holes, wanting to push out of my mind what was already forming as a garish scene replete with brain, gore, and blood.

Who would do this? Who would be willing to swing with such sheer force to cause a wound like this one…or that one?

Bluntly put, many people would and have.

When I returned to the car that would take me back to my hotel, I was quiet. This time it had nothing to do with the language barrier and everything to do with what I had seen.


Cambodia, Where Social Justice Meets Tourism

I almost ran down a family of three with my bicycle.

I hadn’t been on a bike in a good eight years, and I was wobbly at best. The motto “It’s like riding a bike” does not apply to me. Why I decided to go on a 20 km bike tour in Phnomn Penh, the world may never know. Yet there I was thinking I could bike in a busy city for two kilometers before hitting the countryside’s (hopefully) open roads.

I apologized profusely to the mother who looked like she wanted to slap me down (understandably) and could feel a panic attack coming. What was I doing? This is crazy? I’m riding a bike in a country that does not even bother to follow traffic laws!

“I don’t like this,” I said, my voice as shaky as my biking.

“It’s OK,” my tour guide reassured me. 

Eventually, I made it to the countryside with my super patient guide and tour group. Bouncing along back roads with children shouting hello, I got the hang of biking and had a beautiful time. We stopped at a Buddhist temple, a local school, and a home/silk factory. I felt strong being able to bike 20 km on a whim (thank you, fitness classes) and was happy to be outside for once.

When not attempting to stay upright on a bike, I made it a point to visit businesses that not only aim to turn a profit, but to turn a person’s life around.

Here are my main itinerary items while in Phnom Penh:

The Killing Fields will be a post unto itself. It’s another sobering monument, along with Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality.

Romdeng Restaurant is an eatery that trains former people who made their living from the streets (I don’t like the term street children) in the hospitality industry. I sat on the top floor with a wooden ceiling fan whirring above me and white lights twinkling beneath me. It was a meditative experience with good food set at frugal prices. My waiter had a shirt that read “trainee,” and it was clear that he was nervous. He did a great job though, and other staff members helped to coach him through the process. After eating, there’s a store that sells wonderful handicrafts (re: souvenirs!). Bags made from reclaimed materials such as tires and earrings crafted from former spoons are just some of the available items. Since dinner was extremely reasonable, it’s easy to not break one’s budget while shopping there.

Cambodian Living Arts is reclaiming the cultural history that the Khmer Rouge regime attempted to destroy. With regular nightly performances at the National Museum, it’s a gorgeous show that keeps professional dancers gainfully employed and also gives background information on folk dances. It’s best to buy tickets in advance for this.

Mali’s is good eating. Period. I got a pri-fixe menu and enjoyed fish amok, a traditional Cambodian dish, soup, wine, tea, and dessert. The one thing I didn’t like is that they tried to sit me at the bar even though I had made a reservation. After I asked when I was going to be properly seated, I was moved to a small table. I don’t care if I’m a female solo diner. Don’t throw me at the bar in an empty restaurant. I’m glad that I stood up for myself though because usually I’m a “well, it’s fine” kind of gal.

What  I enjoyed the most about Phnom Penh was my hotel though. I stayed at the Rambutan Hotel and was just in love with the smooth cement floors and friendly staff. I would go back to Cambodia just to lounge at this hotel for a week.



Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum–No Pictures, Please

There comes a time when taking pictures is just not appropriate, period. I’m old enough to still remember when a film roll came with 24 shots, so it was impossible to snap photos of every single item that I saw. I had to be discerning. I had to enjoy something for what it was and walk away knowing it would not be burned onto a piece of film.

I’m old enough to still remember dropping photos off at a local Walgreens and hoping every frame came out crystal clear, not overexposed or completely black.

And I’m old enough to know better.

Thus, when I found myself giving the teacher stare (also known as the death stare) while on vacation, it was well warranted. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a haunting memorial to the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide of its own people. As a teacher, I was horrified that they turned a school into a torture center. Photos abound of people who walked in and never walked out. Audio tours warn of violent descriptions and rooms still have iron bed frames where people were chained and tortured. Tally marks are still etched into cement walls and barbed wire tops every wall.

There are also clearly marked signs that say no pictures. Period.

Thus, when a white male found it appropriate to pose with his bottom lip pushing out while standing behind some barbed wire, my teacher stare was trained right on him. He flinched. He knew. So did his silly friend holding the camera.

I didn’t say a word though I could feel the anger bubbling in me. A family friend left Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge, people’s lives were torn apart because of this brutality, and you want to take a picture that will probably end up on Facebook in the next two minutes? In other words, you want to be the stereotypical, disrespectful, Western tourist.

I didn’t say anything because 1.) arguing loudly (I don’t think I could’ve said anything quietly at that moment) would’ve been just as disrespectful to the space as taking photos and 2.) I don’t even know if the man spoke English.

Instead, I gave the uncomfortable stare and kept walking. Not much later, an Asian woman posed…smiling…in front of the torture rooms.

And I was disgusted.

I think social media has made us–humans–even baser than before. We no longer have respect for privacy–our own privacy or that of others’–and we can’t even take a moment to reflect without wanting to “prove” we were somewhere. A genocide museum is not a form of entertainment. It’s not something that we should say proudly, “I went there! Look at the photo!”

We go as a testament to the evil that all humans possess. We go to remember and hopefully not repeat. We go to pay our respects, not to get our next Facebook photo op or conversation starter.

Thus, when visiting The Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (both in Cambodia) and The War Remnants Museum (in Vietnam), I had to put my camera away.

The pricking behind my eyes, the catching in my breath, the heat that overwhelmed, the heaviness that was my heart was enough “proof.”

And no photo can ever capture that, nor should it.