Warning: This is NOT a happy post and may contain distressing subject matter. However, we feel it is too important to ignore.
Some of you may already to well aware of the atrocities that took place in Cambodia in the 1970s. Maybe you have visited the country, maybe you are old enough to remember the story as it unravelled. Perhaps you have seen the acclaimed film “The Killing Fields”or maybe you’ve read a book about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
But maybe you have no idea what we are talking about. If this is the case we invite you to read on as this terrible piece of Cambodian history is something no visitor should ignore.
The simple facts are, over a 4 year period from 1975-1979, around 2 million people (25% of the country’s population) lost their lives at the hands of a brutal regime. Entire cities were driven from their homes and forced to labour in the countryside, while schools, hospitals and factories were all closed. Those who opposed, or were simply seen as a threat by the regime, were imprisoned, tortured and eventually murdered. These include women, children and even infants, such was the intense paranoia within the Khmer Rouge. The leaders of this regime initially escaped justice, with the full extent of atrocities only being accepted by Western countries over a decade later. Today, some are finally standing trial for war crimes.
Before this, Cambodia was a thriving country in South East Asia. The Khmer Rouge effectively hit the reset button, forcing a nation to build itself back up over the last 30 years. It is working hard and progress is coming. What is amazing now, visiting the country, is how friendly everyone is. They are just delighted to have people wanting to come to their country, happy to be able to build for the future once again, not to live in fear.
We were both largely ignorant of the extent of these horrors before coming to the country. In particular, our visits to two locations brought us back to earth with a bump. S21, the genocide museum, located in the capital city Phnom Penh and The Killing Fields on the outskirts of town. Neither of these is easy to visit without being emotionally stunned, but their importance, to tourists and Cambodians alike, cannot be underestimated.
Challenging as they were, these two visits gave us a greater appreciation for how fortunate we are in life. Importantly, we also gained a deeper understanding of Cambodia, what it has endured and how it is moving forward…with a characteristic smile.