Posted by: adventuressetravels | April 27, 2012

Genocide on the Banana Pancake Trail

Trees bloomed in the 3-story school’s open courtyard adding softness to the cold stone of the memorial monument and gravestones.  But even the beautiful nature and hot Cambodian afternoon did nothing to mask the palpably oppressive feeling that hung in the air.

As I stepped into the first school-room a dull horror crept over me.   What evil had taken place here?

A steel bed frame with stood in many of the open checkered school room.  On closer examination a bar was attached to the bed.  No, this wasn’t a deluxe room for especially good prisoners.  These were rooms for the unluckiest of unluckies.  Grainy photographs on the wall painted the grim picture of what was found when the S-21 was liberated.  A prisoner was shackled to the bed, blood pooled beneath it.  This was how the room had been found.  Walking to another, the photos depicted bloated corpses days dead, their flesh shining. How an institute of learning could be so perverted sent a shiver down my spine.

When I came to Cambodia I knew next to nothing about the country’s history.  Of course I had heard the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” and knew that Pol Pot was a terrible dictator or something like that.  But I didn’t know much more than that.

Even after a week in the country it surprised me how far behind Cambodia seemed from its neighboring countries of Vietnam and Thailand.  Not until I visited S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, did the full impact really hit me.  Pol Pot wasn’t just bad, he was a monster.   A monster who killed over 1/3 of the country’s population.

When you look at the history it is no wonder that Cambodia is so far behind its neighboring countries.  Not only did Pol Pot kill around 2.5 million people, over 1/3 of the country’s population: he specially selected the best and the brightest to die.  He  butchered doctors, teachers, and anyone with an education efectively lobotomizing the country.

But executions only made up a small part of the death toll during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.  All Cambodians living in cities were”relocated” to the countryside and forced to work in labor camps.  These workers were given less than a cup of rice a day to live on and worked quite literally to death.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located in a school that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge converted into an “interrogation center.”  Of the 17,000 people who were taken to this center only seven came out.  It is one thing to hear about it or read about it on paper and another thing entirely to walk through the places these things happened.

Still, if I had known more about the genocide in advance I might have been better emotionally prepared for the experience.  The longer I spent looking at the pictures, walking through the dusty rooms, the worse I felt.  Ghoulish color paintings of men getting their heads bashed in, strung up for interrogation, and naked bodies lying end-to-end carpeting a floor lined the walls.  Just when I was sure I couldn’t take anymore we walked into a room filled with glass cases.  Behind the glass bones and skulls were unceremoniously heaped.  One case a jumble of bone fragments spoke volumes of the horrors that had occurred here just a few decades before.

My head started to spin.  It was becoming too much.

An old Khmer man with a dried-apple face was sitting behind a table stacked with his autobiography.  Beside him stood a younger Khmer woman who served as translator for the book’s author.  This was Bou Meng, one of the last living 7 survivors of S-21.  He had escaped death because he was a talented artist and had painted a famous black and white portrait of Pol Pot.  He was one of two artists who had been allowed to live.

The other artist had painted the gruesome color murals displayed throughout S-21.  A dull horror crept over me:  he had not painted these looking back through the blurred lens of time.  These were accurate representations of what had happened.  The man’s artistic ability to capture events was reason the Khmer rouge had let him live.

I was shaking visibly by the time I left S-21.  I am not sure if it is because this happened so recently that its impact is so profound, but the museum shook me to my very core.  A few days later I read the autobiography “First They Killed My Father,” is a powerful book detailing one girl’s experience surviving relocation and the Khmer Rouge’s labor camps.  This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend, especially if you plan on visiting Cambodia.

Today more than 50% of Cambodia’s population is under 25-years old.  The impact that these atrocities have had on the country will not be erased any time soon.  However, the most incredible thing I found about Cambodia was the Khmer people.  In my experience they are almost universally kind, good-natured, and friendly: they did not allow even this dark twisted chapter of history to crush their spirit.  I fervently hope that this positive attitude will carry them forward into prosperity and a bright future for Cambodia.

There is a $2 entry fee for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum


  1. Superb personal reportage.

  2. The words as you read compile one story, yet the impact visually, certainly stresses the ugly! ThankS, Sally

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: