Struggling Through Cambodia

Posted by on May 25, 2013 in Cambodia, Featured | 6 comments

These two weeks in Cambodia were tough.  

I feel as if I now understand what people meant when they cautioned me, “You know that the trip will be very difficult at times.”  I have been tested and it has, in fact, been difficult.  While I do not want to be overwhelmingly negative, I do feel the need to be honest.  Beyond the splendor of Angkor Wat and the friendliness of Cambodia’s people, there seems to be an overall sadness to the country.  And, even though I couldn’t shake a slightly depressed feeling for my entire visit, I learned a great deal.  I learned about human resilience and that even I can overcome brutal living conditions.

Shrine remembering deaths at the killing fields

Choeung Ek Memorial

But first, I had a history lesson.  I cannot believe how little I knew about Cambodia’s troubled past.  During the Vietnam War, Cambodia opened its borders to the North Vietnamese people allowing them better strategic access to the south. As a result, Cambodia was heavily bombed by the US .  This led to the formation of a clandestine Cambodian communist group called the Khmer Rouge in 1960. Under a dictator named Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge gained support from powerless and helpless Cambodian peasants throughout the next 15 years and eventually came into power in 1975.  Pol Pot then spearheaded the most deadly and horrific genocide that I have ever heard of.  His vision of a society free of educated people was put into action by forcing every city dweller to become farmers in the countryside and specifically targeting educated people, doctors, monks, artists, and other specialized professionals.  Mike and I visited two museums in Phnom Penh (our home during our Cambodia volunteer project): The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) that hauntingly told the story.  I was shocked, saddened, and angered to the point of tears by what I saw and learned.

Mass graves

Mass graves at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Our first stop was the Killing Fields, the largest of over 300 in Cambodia. During the Time of the Khmer Rouge, over 1.3 million Cambodians were sent to killing fields to be slaughtered.  They arrived by the bus load thinking they were being sent to do some sort of farming job.  Men, women, and children were kept in an uncomfortable windowless room during the day, but it was at night that the terror truly began.  Soldiers would blast revolutionary music to muffle the shrieks of terrified innocents.  We learned that these people were not just killed, they were tortured – brutalized with archaic farm tools or hacked with a dull axe. We saw the tree that was used to crush babies heads.

Tree used to kill babies

Tree used to kill babies

We saw containers full of teeth and bones that had surfaced from the shallow graves…some even surfacing during recent heavy rains.  And we heard story after story of the kind, simple people that were killed for no reason.  I cannot describe the sadness and shock that I felt after spending a few hours at the Killing Fields.  Ironically, it is quite a peaceful setting today as it is located outside of congested  Phnom Penh.  It was hard to believe that such horrors took place in the same location less than 40 years ago.

Skulls of those that died

Skulls of those that died

Even though I was fully depressed by the time we finished our tour, Mike and I felt we needed to visit the other important museum in Phnom Penh: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), the largest prison during the Khmer Rouge time.  While formerly a primary and high school, this property was turned into security office #21 in 1975.  Prisoners were brought to S21 and forced to confess to crimes they never committed. They were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and killed.  The museum itself was haunting, comprising of four dreary buildings, walls covered in barbed wire, and an indescribable somberness.  We began our tour by watching a 60 minute video about the Khmer Rouge era and spent another hour quietly walking through the prison, looking at the pictures of the thousands killed, and viewing the prison cells.  My blood boiled, but I know that any emotion that I felt pales in comparison to what the victims went through.  While both Choeung Ek and S21 were difficult to tour, they gave me valuable insight into the plight of Cambodia.  All told, it is estimated that over 2 million Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge time period- one quarter of the country’s population

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Not surprisingly, Cambodia is still trying to battle back from this tumultuous time period.  I could sense this struggle from the moment we arrived in Phnom Penh as it is evident in the landscape and pervading corruption.  I knew I was in for a rough week when one third of our two day volunteer orientation was focused on this corruption…many of the police and city officials are out to make a buck.  Our orientation program also taught us about the ongoing problem of displacing the poor.  Phnom Penh is trying to improve the city by building gated communities, modern shopping centers, and manicured parks.  While this sounds like a positive thing in theory, the government and city planners are opting for this “progress” at the expense of its poorest citizens.  They are routinely tearing down the slums rendering the poor people homeless in order to build up the city. I was emotionally crushed when we watched a short video documenting this issue (The Cause of Progress Boeung Kak lake Trailer 2012 – YouTube ).  Mike and I witnessed this unfair displacement firsthand on a morning jog through Phnom Penh.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Cell at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Throughout our trip, running has allowed us to see and explore cities in a unique way.  Unfortunately, a run across the river Phnom Penh left me saddened instead of energized. We saw busy construction sites next to the slums in the process of building these manufactured communities.  The newly renovated area was a ghost town, probably because of its impracticality.  I couldn’t help but remember the faces and stories of the people in the documentary who were forced to leave their homes.  I just hope that the government is making the appropriate and sufficient arrangements to help these impoverished people.  Needless to say, this was the last city run for me.

Prison cells

Prison cells

Adding to all of this sadness and frustration in Phnom Penh, my personal living conditions were almost unbearable.  Mike and I lived with a local family that seemed to be pretty well off by Cambodian standards.  We were initially excited to have a private room and bath and wifi!  Unfortunately, we quickly learned that the house was without A/C.  While we were given one rickety fan, it did nothing but blow the blazing hot (95-100 degrees) air around.  It probably seems selfish to be complaining about being hot when the Cambodian people are clearly enduring much worse hardships.  But, my two weeks in the suffocatingly hot accommodations brought me to a personal breaking point.  I slept only a few restless hours per night and felt sick and dehydrated for my entire stay.  We took multiple showers per day and tried to minimize the heat by working out a system of cooling down but it was virtually fruitless.  I was miserable and felt hopeless but am proud to have made it through. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The startling history and current disarray in Cambodia left a lasting impression on me.  Yet, as I got to know the friendly locals and spent time with the angelic children at the orphanage, I couldn’t help but see a glimmer of hope in the future.  Despite the tragic past and seemingly dire current conditions, I see individuals full of love and a desire to build a better Cambodia.  Even though some “progress” in the country is ill advised and corruption is rampant, I am surprised by how much the country has already recovered from the civil war that occurred just over 30 years ago. I can only imagine how much Cambodia will continue to evolve over the next 30 years…hopefully for the better.


  1. So unbelievable how ruthlessly insane a powerful group could be. Many prayers for the country’s recovery. Love, mom

  2. Hey Katharyno…a really good read is “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung. She was a kid when her family was evacuated from Phnom Penh. Pretty powerful stuff. Glad you guys made it through!!

  3. Thank you for your honesty. Al and I continue to pray for the both of you. Hang in there. Aunt Cathy

  4. Can’t wait for you to come home to re energize the batteries.

  5. Kathryn,

    I appreciate your honesty in this blog. Brought to tears, it reminds me of how blessed we truly are. When I go to complain about the 60-65 degree weather on Memorial weekend, I will stop, look around and be happy for my freedom, my employment and my wonderful family. The time you take to share of your travels and experiences have not only been educational, but helpful in smacking me upside the head to realize I have nothing to complain about (unless the Hawks lose tomorrow! Haha…had to lighten it up a bit)

    Love you both,

  6. I’m speechless and very sad. It is difficult to understand the “why” of places like Cambodia. I hope and pray that the people who read your words will do all they can to become informed and active in the affairs of our country and the world. Where was the Unites Nations while all that was happening? Love, Grama Mary. praying you stay safe and healthy.

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