If you want to know more about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, three excellent books that tell personal stories of survival of the victims and of the psychology of the perpetrators are The Gate by Francois Bizot, Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop.
The Gate describes the experience of the author who was captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge four years before they entered Phnom Penh, and who then played a critical role at the French embassy as people tried to flee. Survival in the Killing Fields tells the equally incredible story of the author who was a prison of the Khmer Rouge and was an eyewitness of countless atrocities and who went on to play Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields. The Lost Executioner describes the hunt for Comrade Duch, the head of the Khmer Rouge’s secret police who was in charge of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison. After his capture described in the book, which was in large part due to the tenacity of the author, he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment earlier this year.
Phnom Penh was a beautiful city, but I saw it largely through the eyes of the books I’d read. I made a pilgrimage to see the embassies where people had taken refuge as the Khmer Rouge regime took over in 1975 and where the last airlifts had left many Cambodians behind. I visited Tuol Sleng, the prison that is now a genocide museum, and listened to a survivor describe the torture they had witnessed there.
But nothing prepared me for what it was like visiting the Killing Fields themselves. Whilst I had visited Dachau in Germany and been hugely affected by the experience, visiting the Killing Fields was very different. The country still feels very new to tourism and it’s clearly not sure how to deal with the site of what is still a very recent history. Walking along paths where bits of cloth were coming out of the ground I realised that these were people’s clothes, and I was being allowed to walk over the bodies of those massacred here. These people have not been properly buried and have been left where they lay, whilst the site has become a memorial on the tourist trail. I felt strongly that this cannot be the best way to deal with this place.
Cambodia is somewhere that cannot fail to leave you feeling changed. Its extremes are hard to deal with. The beauty of the countryside, the breathtaking sight of Angkor Wat at dawn, a stunning Buddhist temple and beautiful French cafes are juxtaposed with the Killing Fields, mine fields that still litter the country and poor children begging for food who are appallingly often the victims of sex tourists today.
If you are going to visit Cambodia, I’d urge you to read some of the many books that explain it before you do.