Monday, December 1

Killing Fields & Genocide Museum

The other day we flew from Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh... there could not have been a more striking difference between the two. With its proximity to Angkor Wat and constant crowds of tour groups, Siem Reap feels distinctly touristy: everyone speaks English, cafes and restaurants cater to western tastes, and the main street is lined almost exclusively by fancy hotels. In Phnom Penh we found a much more realistic city, full of local people who were as friendly as Cambodia's "smiling country" reputation would make them out to be.

In Phnom Penh, we visited the Killing Fields and the genocide museum, both in remembrance of Cambodia's genocide (1975-1979). We've learned a lot about the event, considering most of us knew very little about it a month ago. We watched a documentary on Pol Pot's regime and I read a memoir called First They Killed my Father. The sites were very powerful, and I think very well done. They were not nearly as crowded as Angkor Wat, and nearly all the visitors were very respectful. The exhibits had simple yet powerful facts and anecdotes about the history, and the photos that had been salvaged from the Khmer Rouge records spoke for themselves.

My first thought when we arrived at the museum was how similar the building looked to the Chinese middle schools, and it turned out that it had been a school before being converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison detention center, with routine and brutal torture, for the duration of the genocide. I can't begin to imagine what the visit would be like for a Cambodian who's lived through the recent history, whose parents may have been killed, or who grew up in Pol Pot's regime themselves. Throughout the day I found myself wondering how locals percieved us there, as blatant foreigners, paying respect to those killed. What is our place there? We had barely heard of the event; our nation had played a shameful role in creating the situation in which the Khmer Rouge rose to power -- and then neglected to take action to stop it. And yet the Cambodians seemed to genuinely welcome us as guests, not specifically at the museums, but throughout our whole trip, they were extremely friendly.
It was certainly worthwhile to visit Phnom Penh; it was emotionally straining and I think we all found ourselves trying to comprehend the history that made a catastrophe like that possible, but it was a provocative stop on our trip.

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