Eyes wide open
Phnom Penh & Siem Reap, Cambodia

Zack Cahill’s week-long taster of Cambodia reveals gruesome stories of a recent past, but also a majestic and magical ancient history.

So, this morning we will be visiting the school for street children, then the Killing Fields, then the Genocide Museum. This will be followed by a five-course lobster brunch.”

With a sentence like that, you know you’re in for some emotional whiplash. A few hours later I will burst into tears by the swimming pool while eating a twenty-dollar club sandwich. That’s Cambodia, a country of deep contrasts. The highs are high, but the lows are the lowest you’ll ever experience.

My first day in Phnom Penh passed in that hazy way where humidity, jetlag and a foreign climate combine to make everything dreamlike. A tour of the King’s Moonlight Pavilion, gold, red and pink pillars held aloft by statues of the bird-headed god Garuda; tourists in bovine herds under parasols; pregnant street dogs drinking water from a giant plant pot; Buddhist monks taking iPhone selfies, looking like an idea Banksy rejected as too on-the-nose. All this is played out to a soundtrack of constant, endless stories about gods and demons, woven with the demented dream-logic of myths – loose and improvisational.

I’m prone to temple fatigue, especially if I’m jetlagged and no one has handed me a beer, so I had turned in early, hoping to somehow prepare myself for today.

“Call me Cham,” says my guide with the smile of a man who has long ago stopped expecting white people to pronounce his full name. He leads me through a school for street children set up by a European couple in the early noughties. The kids are all around us, in clean white shirts and polished shoes, smiling and giggling and tiny. Here they learn English and a trade. More importantly they’re kept off the street and away from the dangers they’d face there.

“Education is important,” Cham stresses. “In the eighties, children had no education. They became cruel.”

I ask him what he means by cruel. He explains that the country had undergone a gigantic trauma, people were deeply scarred and it was difficult to even talk about what had happened, let alone process it. Eventually, children stopped believing the Khmer Rouge had ever existed. They started thinking of them as some kind of Boogeyman cooked up by parents to scare them into doing their chores.

“Not good,” Cham says, “because if you don’t believe, it can definitely happen again.”

This place is a soft landing, an inoculation of hope and positivity to ready us for the Killing Fields.

It’s a long and complicated political yarn, but here’s the digested version. The Khmer Rouge were an offshoot of the Communist Vietnam People’s Party. They won the Cambodian Civil War and installed their own government in 1975, led by Pol Pot. They proceeded to kill two million of their fellow Cambodian men, women and children.

That’s what Wikipedia will tell you. But as our van pulls out and Cham turns in his seat to tell his personal story, it’s clear I’m going to get a far more visceral version.

He was 13 when the Khmer Rouge took power. Their first act was to evict everyone from their homes and send them out of Phnom Penh on foot. Cham remembers leaving the city as defeated soldiers of the old regime walked in the opposite direction holding onto a long thread. The thread led them back into the city, to the Khmer soldiers and certain murder. The emptying-out of Phnom Penh was intended as an etch-a-sketch ending to the old way of life. Cross it out and start over – destroy class, destroy culture. Replace them with uniformity and labour and crushing dullness. Families were dragged from urban areas, suspected havens for corruption and rebellious thought, and put to work in the fields.

They divided the workforce by age. Everybody worked. Illiterate children were taken out of school and given jobs they couldn’t possibly fathom as doctors and nurses. The 16-25-year-olds who did the hardest work were given 100kg of rice per year. Everyone else got 25. Many, like Cham’s family, quickly died of starvation or malaria. Many more were sent to the Killing Fields.

The first thing I see as I step off the bus is a sunburnt tourist puking in a bush. It is 35 degrees and humid and I don’t know if the man is suffering from the heat, a hangover or from what he’s just seen. Either way, it’s an apt omen.

Cham ushers us through the gates to a low-rise wooden building, where we watch a jarringly amateur documentary, badly edited with horror movie sound effects. Watching something so shoddy in a sombre atmosphere that you absolutely can’t laugh in, is a surreal experience. It’s making me nervous. I have an appetite for dumb, violent movies, but I’m pretty sensitive to the real thing and I really have no idea how I’m going to handle all of this.

He walks us to a large, rectangular depression in the ground, with wooden walkways built around it. “They buried them in holes like this. We built the walkways because when tourists walk on the ground, bones pop up.”

Cambodians are incredibly frank people. When Cham talks about what happened, he doesn’t attempt to soften the blow in any way. There are no euphemisms or gilding the lily, but he doesn’t dramatise or get emotional either. He just baldly states the facts.

“Bullets were too expensive, so they beat people to death with heavy branches or sticks. They blindfolded them and battered them over the head. Prisoners were kept waiting in huts while the soldiers dug their graves. Speakers blared music in order to drown out screams. They covered the bodies in DDT, for the smell and to finish them off if the blows to the head hadn’t. Then they brought out the next wave of victims.”

The victims here came from the nearby S21 prison, accused of spying for the CIA, KGB or Vietnam. To be accused meant your entire family was arrested.

“That’s Cambodia. A country of deep contrasts.”

“Cut grass. Remove the root,” says Cham. “That was the saying. Even babies. No one is released. To kill by mistake is better than to release by mistake.”

We are quiet in the moment. Then he shrugs and says as if it was intended to cut the melancholy, “Ok so we go look at mass grave without head.”

We walk on to another nearly identical depression in the ground from which dozens of headless bodies were exhumed. I look up at the long path ahead of us. It’s nothing but holes like this.

The worst part is ‘the tree’. Gnarled, thick and twisted, every square inch of it today adorned with colourful bracelets and trinkets. A sign beside it, written in that same sparse, affectless language so common here, reads: “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.”

Cham leaves me to walk around and I am drawn to a tall glass monument filled to the top with drawers of bones – femurs, skulls and ribs. The bones are marked blue for male and pink for females, the closest they could come to restoring the bodies to some sort of order and dignity. Along the bottom are weapons – machetes, clubs, and heavy bamboo branches. I walk on, breathe deeply and write down everything I see.

This is just one of 400 killing fields. Around 20 thousand people were killed at this one alone. Comedian Eddie Izzard has a routine about the Killing Fields. He says that when someone commits murder, you call them a bad person. When they kill ten, you call them a psychopath. When they kill a million, you’re almost going, “Well done! Your diary must be very busy.”

I understand where that ‘joke’ comes from now, because I have been forced to consider the colossal administrative effort involved in exterminating two million people. “Well, of course, bullets were too expensive,” I say to myself. It just makes sense.

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