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Growing up, my parents had very little sympathy for my problems. It didn’t matter whether I was complaining about the measles, my nosebleeds, or stomach worms, their response was always an impassive: “Tough it out. You’ll be fine.”
Who could blame them? When you grow up under a Maoist regime that killed 70 million people, then survive a famine, only to be forced into gruelling hard labour in the countryside, “validating feelings” and babying your special snowflake kid isn’t going to make it to the top of your give-a-shit-list.
If you’ve never had to secretively bury a relative murdered by the government, been so hungry you’ve scarfed down rats, grass, and mud, or felt warm blood gushing down your back after endless hours of hauling boulders up a mountain, then you will never understand what it’s like to have real world problems.
So having heard endless stories from my parents about what it was like to survive Hell on earth, I thought I was prepared for what we would see in the Killing Fields and S2 Prison in Phnom Penh.
I was wrong.
Nothing could’ve prepared us for this. Not my parents. Not the Hunger Games. Not even seeing those gas masks in South Korea.
Because what we saw in Phnom Penh completely destroyed my faith in humanity.
In the S2 Prison of Phnom Penh, we found:
Prisoners were shackled and tortured for months until they died. Prison Guards sat in the desk in front of them, extracting forced confessions of anti-government thoughts. Once the prisoners sign the confession, they will be shipped off to the Killing Fields to be executed and tossed into a mass graves. On the wall of this cell is the life-size picture of the rotted corpse of a prisoner tied to this actual bed which was taken when investigators first arrived in this room, but out of courtesy I’m not going to post that here.
Some prisoners tried to kill themselves by stealing the interrogator’s pen and stabbing themselves in the neck. Others tried to jump off the prison roof. Guards put barriers in place to prevent this from happening, not out of compassion, but so that they could have complete control over how the prisoners lived or died. Prisoners were only allowed to die when THEY said so.
In the courtyard of the prison, guards used to hang or drown prisoners.
Next, we went to the Killing Fields, which is where they transported prisoners after they confessed to being so-called “anti-government spies”:
At first we thought this was an innocent, pretty-looking historical structure. But when we got closer we realized it was a monument to the millions of victims murdered by the regime. It contained multiple stories, each overflowing with human skulls.
I have to admit, I was a sobbing mess when I came out of this building. Because not only were the sheer number of people killed completely terrifying, the WAY they were killed was even worse.
The Khmer Rouge believed that shooting people wasted precious bullets. So instead they resorted to killing people with the most barbaric, primitive weapons available. Using sticks, hoes, metal rods, even the leaves of palm trees (sharp enough to slit a human throat), they maimed and killed their victims, watching them die a cruel and agonizingly slow death:
If you looked into the cases of human skulls, you can see the skulls labelled with the method in which they were killed.
And just when I thought it couldn’t possible get any worse, we saw this:
You could see the blood stains of so many innocent babies and children whose skulls were smashed open by the Khmer Rouge against the trunk. It is seriously the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.
Finishing up our tour, we walked back on the visitor-designated path (to avoid disturbing the resting places of the dead), we noticed a human jawbone jutting out of the ground right next to us. While I was freaking out, a worker there explained that there are still so many bodies still buried that this happens from time to time. Every time it rains, more human bones and clothing are unearthed, and even though they diligently collect them on regular basis, they can’t collect them all.
In just 4 years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered 2 million people. This equated to about a quarter of Cambodia’s total population.
So why did this happen? Who were the Khmer Rouge and why did they ruthlessly murder their own people?
A guerrilla group driven by communist ideology, the Khmer Rouge were led by their Marxist leader Pol Pot, who, not shit, took one look at the communist massacres in China and Russia he perpetrated and thought “They were too soft.” Even Mao Ze Dong at one point sent a diplomatic cable to Pol Pot to “Chill the fuck out” (my paraphrasing), and when Mao thinks you’re a wee bit off the deep end that’s…not so good.
Crazy Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian society where cash and social systems such as banks, religion, or technology would be abolished.
Everyone had to be farmers and spend all of their waking hours farming by hand. He then forced millions of people out of the cities and into the countryside to starve while farming 19 hours a day for the purpose of “re-education”. The year was reset to “Year Zero” and anyone thought to be an intellectual, foreigner, or Buddhist had to be killed.
Problem was, basically anyone and everyone could be considered an intellectual. Pol Pot and his guards started arresting anyone who:
• Wore glasses
• Spoke another language
• Was literate
• Wrote letters (correspondence was forbidden because it would alert the clueless population to what was really happening behind prison doors)
So basically all of you would’ve been executed just for being able to read this post.
It was especially ironic, given that Pol Pot himself was educated in France, spoke multiple languages, could read and write, and wore glasses.
But if you were to point out the sheer hypocrisy of it, you would be executed, along with every member of your family to avoid retaliation. After all a common saying in that regime was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
You would think that living through these unthinkable atrocities would’ve broken the Cambodian people. After all, pretty much every local we talked to had lost family members. But we were wrong. Despite all this, Cambodians are surprisingly resilient. They seem to have the outlook that the “past is in the past” and are Hell bent on moving forward and living a life to the fullest, a life that the Khmer Rouge were NOT successful in extinguishing.
So while Phnom Penh destroyed my faith in humanity, meeting and getting to know the Cambodian people restored it. Because even when the worst, most unimaginable atrocities happen, human beings still find a way to keep going.
Sometimes in our comfortable Western First-World lives it’s easy to let our problems get to us. Mortgages, student loans, and spiralling health care costs regularly keep us up at night. And don’t get me wrong, these are all real problems and we have to deal with them, but sometimes it helps to remember that the fact that we don’t know what it’s like for tanks to roll into our homes and force us to flee into the countryside means we’re already winning by default. The only difference between us and them is the country we happened to be born in.
So what I learned in Cambodia is how resilient humanity can be when it needs to. After all, the Cambodians went through Hell I can only imagine in my darkest nightmares and still emerged optimistic about the future.
So now every time I stress out about something, I think back to my time in Cambodia and realize: You know what, everything’s probably going to work out just fine.
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36 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Proof that Your Problems Aren’t Real Problems”
“You would think that living through these unthinkable atrocities would’ve broken the Cambodian people. After all, pretty much every local we talked to had lost family members. But we were wrong. Despite all this, Cambodians are surprisingly resilient. They seem to have the outlook that the “past is in the past” and are Hell bent on moving forward and living a life to the fullest”
That was my experience as well. Being a (stupid) friendly foreigner I kept asking people about their family. Every single response started with a pause, and “well I lost my father to Pol Pot”. G£$” D%^& F”£$ ME!!! Why do I keep doing that FFS!!”!
And yet I met many people, several friends who I still keep in touch with, and they were so sanguine about the whole thing, positive, and dare I say happy. Simply the nicest people I have ever met. Have been back a couple times, looking forward to going again this year, and am involved with one of the schools there.
Cambodians are the most amazing people we’ve ever met. I honestly can’t fathom how they managed to move on and have a positive outlook after ALL THAT. Truly inspirational.
One story that weirded me out: met some friends who owned a restaurant there, Aussie bloke and his Khmer wife. Met them at dinner, ended up closing the place down. Afterwards they took me to a pub to shoot some pool, then a club, yes an actual club.
Went to the loo and was standing at the urinal when I feel these two hands on my shoulders start to give me a massage. WTF?!! The people are so poor there the bathroom attendant would give you a (shoulder) massage to try to get a tip.
The look on my face when I got back outside (they all knew straight away what had happened), they couldn’t stop laughing. Have more stories but I’ll stop there.
That is bizarre. But yeah, we saw a lot of poverty while we were there. Really puts things into perspective.
Wow – I have never been to Cambodia but it is high up on my list. I have heard the people have a beautiful calm about them which is so far removed from what you would think having lived through such gruesome terror. Thank you for putting our little shit problems into perspective. There is no better education than seeing the plight of others.
It was definitely an education. The Cambodian people are proof that you can come back from anything. Hope you get a chance to go there some day.
We visited Cambodia last year after having heard of all they went through… Once there I could not believe it… Actually not believe it at all. I also lost faith in a lot of humanity. This is something I hope never happens again, but knowing this world it probably will in some sense or another. This put a lot of perspective into me about how lucky we really are in the western world. We bitch about traffic, or how long our food takes at a restaurant, but really have no problems. Now whenever I’m having a rough day I think of what a rough day really is… Just being born in the western world you have no idea how good you really have it.
I couldn’t believe it either. It was like “okay, what’s the worst thing you could ever think of to happen to a human being…now multiple that by 10X”.
Saddest, more disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. Reminds me to be grateful to not have been born during that time, in that place, and to my parents for their hard work in getting us to Canada. I’ll always be reminded of this whenever I think of the plight of the Cambodians.
Repulsive. Goes to show how blessed we are to be living where we live today, in today’s time period. Human life is so easy to snuff out. So fragile. And people can be downright treacherous. It’s scary to think about.
It’s terrifying. That’s why it helps to focus on the bright spot…the fact that the Cambodians are able to move on from such a tragedy and still be optimistic about the future. They’re inspirational!
I have no words…
My great grandpa always used to say “It could be worse”
At first, he survived a famine in 20s, after that Soviets took everything from him and killed almost all his family. In 1930s they put him in GULAG for 15 years.
And he always used to say, “It could be worse”
So sorry to hear about what happened to your great grandpa. I’m shocked that people can go through so much Hell and still have perspective and optimism. Truly speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.
Just heart-breaking. I went to Mauthausen concentration camp a few months ago and went through something similar. As blood-curdling as it is, I feel like it’s important to experience, too.
Like you said, how can you take your own problems seriously in the face of the atrocities carried out here, Mauthausen, and countless other places.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
As heart-breaking as it is to see places like that, it’s important to educated ourselves to prevent it from ever happening again. It also teaches us to have perspective and be grateful for what we have.
When people here talk about how “stressed” they are because they’ve lost their phone charger, they really need to get a grip. I think we all get caught up in our “problems” by being too narrow-minded. Traveling to different countries and seeing how others live their lives can really help you gain perspective. Then you can go home, re-evaluate, and realize how good you have it just by being born in North America.
Do you live in peace? Yes. Do you have a working toilet? Yes.
I went to Cambodia a few years ago. Thought it was a very peaceful country and then learned more and more about the Khmer Rouge. Couldn’t believe how much the country has suffered and it was only around forty years ago. You can still see some bullet holes at Angkor Wat.
The most terrifying thing is how recent it was! I couldn’t believe how peaceful and optimistic the people seemed in the face of so much tragedy. It was very heartbreaking and eye-opening at the same time.
Congratulations on your pilgrimage to the Killing Fields of Cambodia. I’m sure the suffering of those poor people is a bit easier to bear memory of because of your visit!
Thank you for this perspective.
Angelina Jolie directed a movie based on this. I believe it comes out at th end of this year. Should be interesting to watch! It’s called “First they killed my father”.
Oh, I’ve heard of the book but I didn’t know they are was a movie coming out! Thanks for letting me know.
Have you watched “The Killing Fields” which is a movie based on the true story of a journalist who was trapped in Cambodia during “Year Zero”? Highly recommend it.
Not your usual happy post FireCracker, but I do appreciate the positive message at the end.
Here’s to hoping nothing like this happens in the world again.
I felt sad writing this post, but in all honesty, the Cambodians taught me more about positively and resilience than anyone else.
Horrible, but thanks for sharing. You’re right, we all need to keep things in perspective.
Thanks again for sharing, pointing out some of our problems pale in comparison to the Hell on earth the Cambodian people went through. The photos made me cringe that such evil existed
The saddest thing is there are things like this going on today, right at this very moment. Maybe not to the extreme of Pol Pot or the German concentration camps, but some really bad things are happening to people in North Korea and South Sudan and DRC, to name a couple countries. What gets me, is I don’t know what we can do about it now. I don’t want my grandkids to just visit museums there in 50 years. I try to be grateful every day, and teach my kids to be grateful. That doesn’t mean I don’t show them sympathy for their small problems, as everything is relative, and a lack of compassion for others is the start of such evils.
It is so true, such things are happening as we speak. I would not be surprised if there’s a Pol Pot-like killing going on and we don’t know it, or at least don’t realise the scale of it.
If the media doesn’t report it, the state that does the killing shuts down the communications infrastructure, and no other state gives a ****, then hardly anyone beyond the border would know what’s going on.
Yup, it’s news and media that keeps things like this in check. That’s why it always starts with shutting down newspapers and restricting communication. My hope is that the existence of the internet will keep things likes this from happening…but in places like North Korea, horrible things are happening everyday and media and news will never know about it.
By the way, I see you still haven’t travelled to the African continent. That changed my world view forever.
Where in Africa would you recommend? We’ve thought about going to Morocco, but that’s about it.
We regret not heading down to Phnom Penh when we were in Siem Reap. Time didn’t allow.
Your experience sounds moving, if I can call it that. We had a similar experience when we went to Auschwitz in Poland. The perspective you get on your own problems is hard to explain. It’s like we should feel nothing but gratitude 24/7.
We’re going to Poland in a few weeks, so that will be very eye-opening as well. Definitely makes you feel a ton of gratitude for what you have.
We went to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany, we saw something very similar to what you are describing. When I was there I kept thinking how can a human do this to another human being. I still can’t explain my self how a human can torture another human so badly.
Seeing places like this really puts thing in perspective it makes me realize how blessed we are. Mankind is so ignorant.
They did a study called “the Milgram experiment” where they paid people to turn up the dial which supposedly electrocutes people. Even when the victim seemed to be in a lot of pain, people still kept turning up the dial because they were being told by an authority to do so.
Super scary. This is why we need to learn to think for ourselves.
There is a whole field studying the psychology of evil. Also look up Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. It’s amazing and saddening what cruelty people are capable of when they are in a position of authority and have perceived power. Lots of these people aren’t innately evil or bad.
People are capable of great evil…but also of great good.
I have heard about the Stanford prison experiment before. It’s fucked up..Milgram study had some controversies associated with its experiment and some people argue that they haven’t been to reproduce that kind of behavior again (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2013/10/02/the-shocking-truth-of-the-notorious-milgram-obedience-experiments/#.WVO-GYTyt9B).
In any case Milgram study does make sense, because it happens everywhere specially in corporate structure, where I feel I am just following my bosses orders. I do whatever my boss tells me to do, and that’s why I am following your blog so I can show her the middle finder in couple of years heheheh.