Things to know about Cambodia’s history

Like I’ve already mentioned in my last blogpost, I feel like it is important to know about the history of places. The history of cities, countries and nations that we visit. Because most countries, especially our favorite backpacker destinations, are very rich in their history. And not only in a good way. So I’m trying to gather information every once in a while to share with you guys, so you can be a bit more “educated” about the place you are going to. Or have been to.

Today, I decided to talk about Cambodia, a country I loved very much and whose history touched me deeply. It’s not a random choice but based on a photo exhibition I’ve been to recently at the Museum der Fünf Kontinente (Museum of the five continents) in Munich. The exhibition is called “Shaded Memories” and features photographs by Ann-Christine Woehrl. (If you have the opportunity to go, definitely do so!)


Photos of those killed at S21 by author

Cambodia’s dark history started when its dictator, Pol Pot, decided in 1975, that he wanted to kill every man who was intellectual with the help of his movement, the Red Khmer, which consisted of farmers that didn’t know any better. He wanted to make Cambodia an agricultural communism, because he believed that this would put an end to Cambodia’s poverty. But it didn’t stop there. He also started torturing and killing whole families – mothers, fathers, babies. All in total, around 2 Million people died in the years between 1975 and 1979.


Skulls of victims at the Killing Fields

There are two places you can visit in Cambodia that are connected to that genocide: The Killing Fields and Security Prison 21 (also called S21), which used to be a high school (both are located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital).
S21 was famous for its tortures, where fingernails were pulled out and heads were pushed under water until the prisoners finally “admitted” that they were working with foreign nations or did whatever else they were accused off. Out of all the prisoners in there (there were around 20.000 throughout the 4 years), only 7 survived.


S21 from the outside


Inside the S21

The Killing Fields are exactly what the name suggests. It’s a big area, where a lot of the mass killings of prisoners of S21, but also others, took place. There’s even a tree, where guys from the Red Khmer smashed the heads of little babies against, while holding them on their feet. But not only that, you can also find skulls and other bones or shreds of clothes from victims of the murders.


Mass Grave at the Killing Fields

Both places are obviously very depressing. And even if I tell you about them now and you know what to expect, the feeling you get when you step on those Killing Fields can’t be described. You wish you could take every single one of the Cambodian people into your arms and hug that horrible history away. And you can definitely not hold back the tears.


The Killing Tree at the Killing Fields

But unfortunately you can’t turn back the time for them. It will never go away, it’s part of their history and it will always be. But by spreading the word about the horrible things that happened around the world, we might be able to prevent another genocide like this from happening again.

If you want to learn a little bit more about it, there’s one book I’d highly recommend: First they killed my father by Loung Ung, a survivor of this awful genocide. And if you are not that much into reading, you are lucky, Angelina Jolie just made a film out of it, which will be released on Netflix some time this year.


And if you are interested in Cambodia in general and its state at the moment, check out my article about its poverty and a children’s home in Siem Reap here.

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