What am I doing here? The question had lodged itself in my brain when I arrived in Southeast Asia two months ago, and it’d been reverberating in my skull ever since. I should have stayed in D.C., I thought, working on improving my GPA and hunting for a job post-graduation. Instead, I’d accepted a study-abroad spot in Singapore, leaving everything I knew 9,649 miles away.
One crazy decision begets another and before I knew it, I was traveling every weekend, touring all of Southeast Asia with my classmates. We’d confidently made our way through the big spots on the Banana Pancake Trail: Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Singapore. Now it was time to step into the big leagues, where McDonald’s was scarce and indoor plumbing even scarcer. It was time to go to wild and wonderful Cambodia. And to be honest, I was a little scared.
In two days we’d be in Siem Reap to see the temples at Angkor Wat, a marvel of the ancient world. But first we had to get through the Killing Fields. In preparation for our journey, I had read Lonely Planet’s history snapshot of our destination. I knew that the Khmer Rouge an old political faction that staged a government coup in the late 1970s. Over the course of four years, they were responsible for the deaths of around two million people, through starvation, disease, forced labor, and executions. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, as the Killing Fields are officially called, is the death camp where they executed people.
I am nerdy by nature, dragging my long-suffering family through museum after museum while on vacation. When I departed for Southeast Asia, I was determined not to just soak up the sun and enjoy cut-rate shopping—I wanted to learn something, too. But I was not entirely sold on the Killing Fields. It felt wrong to tour a spot so recently used, like wandering through a battlefield with corpses still on the ground. I was embarrassed how little I knew about the history of the conflict. Most of all, I thought it would be really awful, something I couldn’t handle. I’d had a breakdown in the Holocaust Museum in DC a few years earlier, vomiting and curling into the fetal position in the bathroom, and I didn’t want a repeat performance here. But this unease convinced me I had to go, that it was something a person needed to see. I wanted to learn something, didn’t I? Here was my chance to push myself way out of my comfort zone.
I stood in front of the gates at 9 a.m. sharp, already sweating from a combination of the dazzling heat and my own fear. My two dear friends, Adhiti and Mei, were next to me, shielding their eyes from the sun. There was a panhandler standing outside hoping to capitalize on the sympathies of Western tourists; he scuttled and hid under the shade of the gate when people started snapping pictures.
My first impression was that it was all strangely very pretty. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; the flowered trees released their perfume. The area was an orchard before the Khmer Rouge used it as an execution camp; gazebos and benches still perversely adorn the landscape. I had expected gray skies, fire and brimstone, leering guards…something like the Tower of Terror ride at Disneyland. I was prepared to see something more conspicuously evil. Instead, everything about the Killing Fields was at first glance bizarrely, terrifyingly pleasant.
Inside the gates, there is a small museum which feels like the lobby of a historic tropical hotel, open-aired and dotted with black and white photographs. My friends and I drifted soundlessly from image to image, scrupulously reading each caption. The information presented in the exhibit was both repulsive and compelling; we couldn’t look away even if we wanted to. The Khmer Rouge’s rationale for whom to murder was shockingly fanciful. For example, if you wore glasses, you were an intellectual, which meant that you were anti-Communist, which meant you got executed. Old and young, women and men: nobody was safe.
The museum also matter-of-factly pointed out that Cambodia has yet to see true justice. Pol Pot, the dictator responsible for these atrocities, died in custody. Many of the other individuals involved are dying of old age before the International Criminal Court can get its act together and try them. Every adult I spoke to in Cambodia has a story of someone they lost to the Khmer Rouge.
Outside of the museum are lush, green fields. They contain mass graves. It is hard not to think, at every step, somebody walked this while in unimaginable pain. Someone lost their battle for life and dropped dead right where I stand. Presiding over the vista is a tall pagoda that houses the skulls of those murdered. Unlike the rest of the grounds, it is not in the least bit pleasant. I took a picture from far away, but felt it disrespectful to take any closer photographs. Those skulls were somebody’s mother, somebody’s son. There is someone alive who knew that skull when it was still attached to a living person.
Across the street there is an elementary school. I could hear the children’s laughter floating over the barbed wire gate. At first I thought it was the screams of ghosts. But no, real live children played on a playground just a few feet away from the Killing Fields.
Did they have any idea? I stumbled across the grounds in a daze, willing a cloud to cover the sun and make things dreary. It wasn’t right for things to look so lovely.
The entire experience was such a study in contrasts that I could almost shrug it off as a bad dream, a creation of a tired and troubled mind. But it’s impossible to forget. I am used to American museums, where captions are long, flowery, and dry, words that are unable to rouse any sort of real emotion. Not so here. There was no fluff, no filler to the signs rough English translation. I stood for probably a half an hour in front of a sign which read, in fresh white paint, “killing tree against which executioners beat children.”
How do you ever walk away from that sign? I wanted to walk backwards and un-see the sign and the tree and the whole terrible place, erase it from my mind, because I knew a part of me would stay there forever, slack-jawed in wonder and staring at that damn tree.
Almost three years later, I feel like I am still standing in front of the tree. I try to remember it often, jab my finger into the still-healing wound to keep it fresh and painful. I don’t want it to ever stop hurting. Recently, though, my thoughts have drifted from the tree to the elementary school across the street. Who builds a school next to a death camp? At the time, I thought it was shockingly insensitive, like putting a Chipotle inside the Sistine Chapel. Now, though, I think it might be incredibly brave. Because nobody can ever, ever undo the evil that happened there. It is woven inexorably into the fabric of time, and ripping it out would cause the whole tapestry to fall apart. What can be done, though, is to add some new threads of hope and happiness alongside the despair.
Those children who attend that school will grow up knowing what I had to learn at twenty-five standing in front of the tree: life is sometimes full of unimaginable sorrow. You must always carry that sorrow with you or you will be condemned to repeat that sorrow and bring it into the world again. But carrying sorrow does not mean you must always be sad. The antidote to sorrow is not the absence of sorrow, but the presence of joy. That may not be an idea worthy of painting on a sign, but after three years, it’s the best I’ve got.
Playground image via the author; all others via Shutterstock.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her wonderful husband Tom and a giant mutt named Indiana. She loves all things Sherlock Holmes, musical theater, and feminist. Catch her on her blog or Twitter at @LauraDuncombe1.
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