The summer before coming to college, I went to Cambodia.
Cambodia is a beautiful place. The land is fertile, rich; unlike America, you can actually see the wildlife. The people are polite and generous. The food is lovely, the beaches white.
But Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. One dollar is 4000 riel. Walking down the street (especially when it’s obvious that you’re a tourist), you’ll be swarmed by disfigured beggars and orphaned children. When you visit the temples, they’re run down, pieces taken.
Just outside of Phenom Penh, the Killing Fields are a huge tourist attraction. This “attraction” is a green, lush area; trees and flowers grow in beautiful, twisted forms. However, under the nature—and I imagine what attracts people the most—is the land’s history. As you walk in, you are greeted by Cambodian workers in a dilapidated office offering you an mp3 player with headphones. There is a small fee for tourists; Cambodians are allowed in free. As a Cambodian American, my fee was waived. The track comes in two options: English or Khmer. It is a self-guided tour.
For Cambodians, its free to preserve the memory, to allow us to learn our history.
Signs direct your path through the journey. As you arrive at the first location, a tree covered in multicolored woven bracelets, a sign prompts you to press ‘one’ on the mp3 player.
“Hello, my name is Ros Kosal. I’d like to thank you, first of all, for coming to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known to many as The Killing Fields. I know this is not an easy place to visit – unlike our beautiful National Museum or Royal Palace in Phnom Penh – but we are grateful that you have come here today to see this place of memory, and of healing.”
Kosal, a Cambodian refugee himself, guides you through each location. He brings you to the spirit house, a small bird house covered in prayers imbued in cheap bracelets, asking you to please pay your respects. He has you pay attention to the dips in the rough ground, tells you that they’re actually poorly covered ditches housing literally thousands of battered bodies, lifeless and nameless individuals who never got a proper burial. These are intellectuals, businessmen, scholars; these are people. Pay attention to the ground, he says; if you look closely, you can see bone fragments and particles of clothing from these unknown bodies. At one of the oldest trees in the attraction, he points your attention to discoloration along the trunk. Here blood of hundreds of innocent children scars the earth; they were held by the legs and swung, like worthless sacks, against the trees. The Khmer Rogue couldn’t waste even bullets on these souls.
The most notorious part of this site is the skull stupa. Here, Kosal asks you to take off your shoes and light an incense; pray in the Buddhist tradition for these lives. Traditional Hindu Naga guard the temple, watching you pay respects. When you enter, you’re greeted by 17 levels of real bones, separated by body part. Just at the peak of the tower resides 9000 skulls, broken and pierced. You can see how they died.
You are a part of the atrocity.
Browsing the Lincoln Memorial or the Museum of Tolerance, you see the horror. At places like the Khmer Rogue Killing Fields or Holocaust Camps, you aren’t just a spectator. It’s impossible to not be swept up in emotion. There’s something about being there; it’s not just remembrance, it’s experience. It’s a reality you can’t just ignore, because you’re walking the same ground that they did.
With memorials like the Killing Fields, it’s a reality that the world can’t forget.