History Lessons and Joyous Occassions

Well we have been really, really busy these past few days. So busy, I haven’t really been able to find the time to be able to write out all that has been going on. But this busy-ness is a good thing because we have learned so much about this country in such a small span of time. There have been lessons in humankind, lessons in evil, lessons in healing, and lessons in survival. All have been powerful messages that have hit us all in many different ways.

We spent the full day on Wednesday learning about Cambodia’s most recent history involving the Khmer Rouge and their take over of Cambodia. For those who don’t know, from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled ruthlessly over Cambodia through Communist ideals that enslaved their people and created mass famine and unbelievable working conditions for all. Essentially, this is how this came to be:

The Cambodian people had been experiencing civil war and had been bombed heavily by the United States (as a part of the Vietnam war hoping to kill all North Vietnamese supporters). It was so heavily carpet-bombed by the US that Cambodia still remains to be one of the most heavily bombed countries on Earth (Laos having the extremely unfortunate title as the top of the charts). Rabble.ca reports “The United States dropped upwards of 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the amount it had dropped on Japan during WWII (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) by almost a million tons.” All of this in secret. Obviously the effects of this were devastating.

During this time, a young Cambodian man of privilege named, Pol Pot, was creating an army of followers to his extremist ideals. He trained young boys in the jungles and rural areas, aged between 12-16, to fight. He spent years doing so and on April 17, 1975, his forces captured Phnom Penh. They took over Phnom Penh in only 3 days. They made every single person leave the city of thousands. We wondered – how could this possibly happen? How could you clear out a city in this short amount of time? The answer was simple as people at that time weren’t listening when he and his army marched into the city on the first day. So to make people listen, he shot one entire family per city block. No one was spared. From that day forward, people were forced to listen and follow or be shot, tortured or killed in some way. The longer it went on the more brutal they became in their killing.

During the Khmer Rouge’s reign – they forced urban dwellers to relocate to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labor projects. The combined effects of executions, forced labor, malnutrition, and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population. In all, an estimated 1 to 3 million people (out of a population of slightly over 8 million) died due to the policies of his four-year reign. The reign fell only when Vietnamese soldiers began to invade Cambodia in order to help free them. Pol Pot fled to the countryside and lived there (with the remaining Khmer Rouge followers) until 1997. During this time, he held a seat on the United Nations and was determined to be the official leader of Cambodia. This is a fact that completely floors us all. How on earth could the UN allow for this and support him knowing what had happened in Cambodia? It is unbelievable, but it is unfortunately true.

We learned all of this about Cambodia’s history by visiting two remaining places where evidence of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge still remain. The first site was the mass graves of the Killing Fields – also known as Choeung Ek (one of thousands – there were many of these Killing Fields that were scattered throughout the country). After the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese, the Killing Fields were horrifically discovered and exhumed. It is estimated that over 1.3 million people were executed and discarded in these fields. Visiting this place brought forth many emotions for us all. There is such a juxtaposition to today where it is a very serene place and you can walk around in silence, only listening to the birds, and trying to imagine what life was like at this place and time. It is difficult to understand. We listened to a very informative audio guide that lead us throughout the fields. It was important to hear the information as you stood at the graves to help you make as much sense of a place like this as you possibly can.

Over 8,000 skulls are encased in glass at the shrine located in the centre of the Killing Fields.

Over 8,000 skulls are encased in glass at the shrine located in the centre of the Killing Fields.

From there, we travelled back into the city, and visited the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21). This was a former High School that, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, was turned into a place to torture people in hopes to find out “information” about their enemies. They tortured the people to the point where they would lie and make up stories to try to get the torture to stop. Over 20,000 people were tortured in the walls of this school – many of them succumbing to death from the abuse they had to endure there. Our guide was really wonderful in helping us to understand and try to comprehend the atrocities that occurred there. His parents lived through the Khmer Rouge reign and his own history is effected by what happened in Cambodia during this time.

Thousands of documented prisoners at S-21. Photo courtesy of theguardian.com

Thousands of documented prisoners at S-21. Photo courtesy of theguardian.com

All of this is just so horrifically unbelievable. We just couldn’t understand – how can humans treat each other in this way? It is so hard to gain a true understanding of it, but we did try our best. I know we all thought of what we would do if we faced a situation something similar. It is almost impossible to put yourself in that situation when you have not experienced anything like it in your life. However, learning all of this was a necessary part of coming to Cambodia. It is essential that every traveller try to learn as much about the genocide in hopes that history won’t repeat itself (but looking at history – this is sadly almost inevitable).

It made Thursday’s experience of visiting the People Improvement Organization (PIO) that much sweeter though. On Thursday, it was wonderful to witness how Cambodia can preserver and rise from the ashes of their very recent history. And it is able to do so through people who are willing to give of themselves to help their fellow humans around them. The PIO is a school and orphanage that helps children who live in the slums of Phnom Penh. It is founded by Phymean Noun who was there on Thursday to greet us and tell us about how she started the PIO. Our experience here was that of pure joy. We were able to see first hand the opportunities being provided to people who would never have them without someone’s help. Students attend the school FOR FREE. Children stay at the orphanage and attend school FOR FREE. They are given hope and opportunity and a way out of the cycle of poverty that would have otherwise awaited them.  As a treat, we took the children who live in the orphanage to a water park in Phnom Penh. We piled in 75 children into tuk tuks and drove them to a water park that looked like it had been abandoned in the 60s. But to the children – it was the BEST place on earth. They swam, screamed, giggled and for a few hours – just got to be kids who didn’t have to worry about anything other than having fun. It was a beautiful thing. I spent the day with my sponsor child, Raksa who has really grown into a healthy young girl. She arrived to the shelter a couple of years ago terribly afraid and badly malnourished. She looks really fantastic and we played together for most of the afternoon. Kelso supports her older brother Cha Phrom and I was also able to spend some time talking football with him as well (in honour of Kelso who wasn’t able to be there).

On the way back to the PIO, Gwen and Pat’s tuk tuk was in an accident. A motorbike and their tuk tuk collided during the busy rush hour traffic. Everyone was ok – the man on the motorbike received the worst of the injuries of cuts and scrapes on his face and arms. Luckily, our friend Savi, raced back to save the day and to help my parents and the kids as people began to gather around the scene. Everyone was fine, but I think it was a very scary situation to be in (especially being a foreigner with young children who don’t belong to you in your care). All is now well and they have a very interesting story to tell everyone when they return!

Riding in the back of the tuk tuk (post accident!)

Riding in the back of the tuk tuk (post accident!)

Today we built houses. This was an experience all in itself and one that deserves to have a whole blog post dedicated to just this. We will write about this tomorrow.

Sitting on the stoop of one of the houses.

Sitting on the stoop of one of the houses.


“Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.” – Jamais Cascio

We have seen people in Cambodia survive through their hardships and we are now seeing them to thrive in the opportunities that lay ahead. And it is amazing.


About K.O.

I am a middle school Drama specialist and boxing enthusiast. I love to spend time with friends and family in Singapore and Canada, travelling, watching movies and then writing about my experiences here.

Posted on October 19, 2013, in Travels. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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