Cambodia was distinctly different from any other country we have visited. I could tell you about the crazy driving, the mothers going to market in their pajamas, or even the interesting smells, which can be attributed to either the livestock or the culinary creations being peddled on every street corner. If any of these things intrigue you, go ahead and ask me to elaborate. (The traffic situation is my favorite thing to talk about.)
Instead, what I’d like to tell you about is the part of Cambodia that gripped each of us during our visit and that deserves solemn reverence.
Odds are you’re not ignorant to the horrors of WWII Nazi reign. It’s a common part of history curriculum in schools, and some of us even have parents or grandparents who were alive during that time and remember it all too well. That was 70 years ago. But did you know about the holocaust in Cambodia that took place just 30 years ago?
I had never heard of the Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot before this last December. But in preparation for this trip, I read a book called When Broken Glass Floats, a memoir by Chanrithy Him, a woman who survived a childhood ruled by the Khmer Rouge. (Read it. It’s great.) Or, if you’re like me and you typically don’t have the time or motivation to read a 300-page book, check out the movie “The Killing Fields.” It’s not an easy movie to watch, but several Cambodians commented on its accuracy.
The result of the Khmer Rouge reign was the death of more than 3 million Cambodian men, women and children. While that number is only half compared to the holocaust in Germany, it is still a striking number. And it was only 30 years ago.
We visited the killing fields, the place where the Khmer Rouge did the bulk of their executions. It’s difficult to describe just how sobering it was to be in that place—to look down and see clothes and bones barely unearthed after the last rain. Of the 140+ mass graves, there are still 80 that have not been touched.
What made it all feel real, other than the connection I felt from reading first-hand accounts in books, was that we were getting our tour from a man who lived through it all. He lost his mother, father, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and many others during the time of the Khmer Rouge, and hearing him describe what it was like to return to that field in 1980, after the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown, it made the whole thing painfully real.
There was so much more to our time in Cambodia, and much of it was far less depressing. But the time we spent visiting the memorials of this tragedy were the most striking. If you ever get a chance to visit, go. If you can only read books or watch the movie, do it. This is a piece of world history that needs to be remembered, and a people who need to be understood.