Opening the door to Cambodia's past
It’s not hard for me to remember the seemingly endless hours I spent preparing for those daunting history exams in high school. Although, what’s difficult to understand is, throughout all of those hours, I never once studied the Khmer Rouge.
Of course, history is vast and not every topic can be covered in depth, but arriving in Cambodia and realizing I didn't know a shred of detail on this country’s brutal history was disconcerting.
Maybe you're reading this thinking, ‘What’s the Khmer Rouge?’ or ‘What brutal history?’
I would’ve been asking the same had I not traveled to Cambodia last month.
We arrived in the country’s capital as the sun was setting. The light shining at just the right angle to highlight the cloud of dust that veiled the highway. We sat in the back of a tuk tuk on the way to our hostel realizing for the first time the true necessity of those blue hospital masks.
Broken streets dressed in garbage set the tone for our 24 hours in Phnom Penh.
The next day, which we spent at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Museum, taught us why the city seemed unfazed by its state of distress.
Some speculate as many as 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Records are vague and numbers vary, but regardless, the Cambodian genocide was one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.
As many as 20,000 people were killed on the very site we were standing that day, Security Prison 21 (S-21).
S-21 was originally a high school and it still looked as one from afar. But inside, there were torture beds rather than desks and traces of bone rather than chalk.
The school was turned into a place of abuse and death in 1975, when then Khmer Rouge drove nearly all citizens out of their homes in Phnom Penh and into the countryside.
Their aim was to start a new society from scratch, meaning eliminating all forward-thinking intellects.
The museum that now stands at S-21 tells stories of unimaginable torture and horrific death. It teaches accounts of families that were separated never to be united again.
S-21 houses memories that will never be forgotten by the people of Cambodia, but outside of this small country, many people seem completely unaware of these horrors.
One can hope that as years go by tourism in Cambodia will increase, opening the eyes of the world to the truth that’s shaped the country’s history.
Until then, I can’t help but wonder what other secrets of the past I’ve been ignorant to all these years.
Though I’ll never know every inch of history, I know I’ll continue to open new doors to the past by traveling to places scarcely mentioned in those raggedy high school history textbooks.