Traveling is a wonderful thing. It gives us the opportunity to learn more about the world we live in, about different people and cultures. For the most part, it makes us happy. But there are times when travel can make us feel heartbroken and confused about our society.
It’s not breaking news that our world’s history isn’t painted with only the prettiest colors of a palette. There’s a darkness to it that is impossible to avoid. Consequently, visiting historic places that remind us of our painful past is hard to do without reliving emotions that our predecessors once felt.
The first time my heart broke
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or S-21 Prison). Those were the only two things I was told to see in the city by other travelers. I didn’t know much else about Phnom Penh as I followed the Southeast Asia backpacking trail, but as soon as I arrived at my hostel, I arranged to visit these two places without really knowing what I was about to see.
I’m not embarrassed to say that I didn’t know about the genocide that occurred in Cambodia from 1975-1979 prior to planning my trip to Southeast Asia. Not to pass the blame, but we didn’t learn about it in school. What I learned is unfathomable. Call it genocide, ethnic cleansing, or just plain murder. It is estimated that approximately 2 million government officials, educators, intellectuals, professionals and their families were killed in Cambodia during these years by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
I probably hadn’t given Cambodia a second thought before. Now my heart wells up when something jogs my memory and my mind randomly drifts back to this beautiful country.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Nervous butterflies fluttered their wings in my stomach and an imaginary lump formed in my throat making it hard to breathe without thinking I would cry. As I listened to my audio guide explaining the lumpy-looking hills that were actually excavated mass graves, I was stunned. People died here and were thrown into mass graves like discarding an apple core. Babies were hurled against trees. The graves were so shallow that tourists often discover teeth and parts of clothing as they walk through the fields.
It shook me to my core. I felt hurt by this event that didn’t have any direct connection to me at all. But as a lover of this country and its culture, I did feel connected to it. Taking photos felt completely and utterly disrespectful. I didn’t want to disturb the poor souls that were left there. I knew I would never forget what I saw anyway, but to take a photo like a Hawaiian shirt-clad tourist just didn’t feel right to me.
I only took two photos of the memorial at Choeung Ek, a stupa filled with about 5,000 skulls found in the mass graves at that site. They are organized by the approximate age and gender of the victims. I wondered who they were, thinking, no one probably even knows who these skulls belong to.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison). A school transformed into a prison. It was terrifying walking the halls of this place. Imagining the torture methods the victims endured before their demise was devastating and inconceivable.
I walked through rows and rows of photos of the victims. I’m not sure if there is a record of everyone’s name, but I studied every single photo. These innocent people probably didn’t survive long after the photos were taken. They had been beaten and their spirits broken; I wanted to look at them so their death wasn’t in vain, hoping somehow their souls would know they made a difference to the people who came after them. They made a difference to me.
I felt defeated after visiting the genocide museum and Killing Fields. I kept thinking, this started in 1975. That wasn’t even that long ago, how could this happen in our time? How could I have not known about this before? And then I thought, what about Rwanda and the countless other countries this has happened to in the recent past? Things like this are still happening today.
Is ignorance bliss?
No, it’s not. It sounds hippie-dippy, but as citizens of the world, it’s our responsibility to try to understand this planet we live on and stretch beyond the reach of our normal life. There’s so much happening outside the bubble of our immediate surroundings, we should know about it.
I would love to erase the pain I felt from my visit to the Tuol Sleng museum and Killing Fields. It certainly put a damper on my enjoyment in Phnom Penh and memories of Cambodia. After that long and emotional day, it didn’t feel right to kick back with beers at the hostel with other backpackers. Though I tried to be social, my mind wasn’t present in the moment.
When I returned to New York, I couldn’t let it go. I read Luong Ung’s firsthand account of her experience during the Khmer Rouge regime in her book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. Her story is tragic and remarkable. My mind kept wandering back to that prison and those fields. I tend to do this; let heart-wrenching current (or historic) events envelop me to the point where I can’t move on from it. I try to read as much as I can about it and try to make sense of the madness. Phnom Penh changed me forever, to the point that I’m still thinking about that visit two years later.
As hard as it is to understand some things that occur in our society, I have to believe there’s a certain yin & yang to it. With the good, there always comes some bad. I choose to believe this or else I don’t know how I could face the news every day.
Even though travel to sad historical places can break our hearts, this is precisely why they are worth visiting. These reminders of our past broaden our perspective, uncover the empathy in our hearts, and motivate us to build a brighter future for our world. That’s what the victims of the genocide in Cambodia did for me.