Photo Reflections: The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21)

What follows is the most harrowing and remorseful section of the entire trip we took. “Heavy” is an understatement when considering the emotional and historical weight the Khmer Rouge have on Cambodian history. Most know a little about the Khmer Rouge, but do not know a full picture. They only know of the deaths. In a way, it’s somewhat curious that most tourists who visit Phnom Penh visit the site of the Killing Fields and the site of the S-21 detention center, but never gain the bigger, objective picture of a group of people who tried many things to “save” their country from innumerable influences. While I am not an expert, and while it’s not my place here to critique Cambodian tourism, I will say this: people who visit Cambodia should go to these places to witness what they offer, regardless of other things those people can do to be better educated.

The total time for both of these activities was around four hours. I should note that while everything looks pristine and placid, the degree of heat was so penetrating that one could not even concentrate for very long without growing weak. It must have been hell for everyone involved in the 1970s. I cannot imagine having to be in such horrific circumstances in such a challenging climate.

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Below: the most intelligent ants I’ve ever seen. Larger than most but not huge, they operated more individualistically than collectively, and actively avoided my hand while carrying things in their mouths.

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Perhaps the saddest stop on the audio “tour” of the Killing Fields. I had never in my life been in a space, outside of being online, where I had been physically moved by the personal disgust this image arose within me:

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A truly sick, dark poetry:

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The museum, which features displays on Khmer Rouge trials, hierarchy, and the future of the Killing Fields:

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Mumbling and essentially speechless, one leaves the Killing Fields with remorse. But, strangely, it seems like despite a certain degree of sadness many Cambodians have recovered from the atrocities of that time period. It’s more complicated and “recovered” isn’t accurate. There is a degree of reverence and an outlook to the future, no-doubt inspired by Buddhism, that has allowed movement into the future. Below: the next series of pictures were taken on the way to Tuol Sleng. It was nice to get back into the noise and dust of the streets, to re-acclimate  to adjust away from what I had seen . . . 

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Below are images from the detention center the Khmer Rouge not only kept victims in, but murdered directly. As the communist approach often goes (most famously in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, perhaps), the intellectuals and anyone considered of being against the party would be taken into this place, detained, interviewed, and often eliminated. And often eliminated in terrible, terrible ways. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but I will say that one thing I did not capture were the huge boards, double-sided walls, filled with photographs, portraits, of all the people who were detained. These people were actually photographed by the Khmer Rouge. And so there are very graphic portraits of living and dead individuals, which makes it difficult to be comfortable, to be alive. Below: no speaking. There is an eerie silence about the whole place even though it’s mostly filled with the generic tourist imagery (composed of people like myself).

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Barbed wire still covers the entire perimeter:

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The library was closed:

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It’s hard to think about what some of the stains on the floor might be.

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