Beyond the killing fields

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Beyond the killing fields
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


WARNING: This entry contains some disturbing stories and images. It really does.

I’m leaving Cambodia this afternoon but rather than relax and ease into the next leg of my journey, I’ve instead saved the most intense experience for last.

Mok picked me up in his tuk tuk at 8.30am and off we went down 17 kilometers of long and dusty roads. After yesterdays bus ride, it was strange to be so much further down the transport food chain, being the honkee rather than the honker. Although not the fastest vehicle on the road, it was great having a different perspective and more time to appreciate the life we were passing by.

Eventually we made the final turn off to Choeung Ek, more commonly referred to as The Killing Fields. It was one of many such sites around Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge, under the direction of Pol Pot, executed in excess of 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. That’s around 30% of the population at the time! After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 8,895 bodies were found in mass graves on this particular site. Today, it stands as a memorial in honour of those brutally murdered and serves as a chilling reminder to all who visit of what happened in this part of the world not so very long ago.

Visitors are directed around the surprisingly small site by an audio guide which includes personal accounts of survivors. For me, it was reminiscent of visiting Auschwitz in Poland for the very visceral experience of standing on the spot where such atrocities occurred and being surrounded by the physical evidence of it. The most powerful effect of that is the transposition of those lost lives on my own. At Auschwitz I stood beside my sister while the guide told us of families being divided on the platform on which we stood, half to be sent directly to the gas chambers. Here, I heard about the senseless killing of babies and small children by bashing against a designated tree – children who would be my age today if not for the accident of birth that made them Cambodian and me Australian. It was impossible not to be moved and horrified by this experience.

Human remains are still being unearthed every day as visitors move around the site. Caretakers collect them and ensure they are treated with all due respect. At the centre of the site stands a Buddhist stupa which is filled with over 5,000 skulls exhumed from the surrounding mass graves, many showing signs of violent death by blows to the head with crude farming equipment as opposed to the comparative mercy of a bullet which was deemed too expensive.

I returned to the tuk tuk feeling very subdued and whilst you might think this was enough trauma for one day, I wasn’t done yet! After a brief visit to the Russian Markets which I wasn’t much in the mood for, Mok conveyed me to nearby Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This former high school was converted into a secret prison (known as S21) where political prisoners were bought and tortured before being sent to the killing fields to be slaughtered. Meticulous records were kept which suggest that as many as 20,000 men, women and children were processed through S21. The site has been largely preserved as it was found with classrooms converted into multiple cramped cells, some still smeared with the blood of their former occupants. Barbed wire still covers the upper balconies which was put there to prevent the prisoners seeking the relief of jumping to their deaths. Still more rooms are filled with thousands of photos of former prisoners taken when they were interned there. It was truly haunting to see all those faces knowing that only six survived.

A day like this takes time to digest but unfortunately, time isn’t a luxury I could afford today! Mok rushed me back to my guesthouse to grab my bag and off we went to the airport as fast as his tuk tuk would carry us. The pressure of time made our farewell feel too abrupt and too soon. I’m not sure how appropriate it was but I gave him a big hug and thanked him for not only his time but his friendship which I know will live on beyond this trip.

I checked in for my flight with my head reeling from the immense experience of the last four days – it’s been a whole trip in itself, it’s hard to believe its just the entree for the greater journey! That said, I’m done with the heat – I’m ready to be cold and I want to see my mum!

The flight to Singapore was sensational – it was just long enough to watch the sun set and then to transcend rain clouds to see the lights twinkling on in the city and on the ships in the harbour. If I don’t manage to see the Northern Lights once I get to Iceland, I have to admit, I’ve already been treated to some seriously spectacular sky!

Once I landed, I had to clear customs and recheck in for my onward flight. I collected my bags and made my way to the exit only to swerve at the last minute when it occurred to me that I was probably better off freshening up on this side in the lesser used bathrooms. I was pretty sure I caught the eye of security when I proceeded to open my bag, rummage about, go to the bathroom and emerge in a different outfit. Sure enough, I was picked up straight away and invited to have my bags scanned and searched. I didn’t mind, I had time for minor delays and I knew all it would take was for them to see those sweat-sodden fishermans trousers to understand why I had to get changed ASAP! It was a cursory and friendly search and I was on my way to check in for my next flight.

Boarding pass in hand and still with ample time before my flight, I made my way directly to the departure gate to attend some very important emails. Although it is still the 18th in Singapore, it is already the 19th in Sydney – Matthew’s birthday and the anniversary of his brothers passing. With quivering lip and trembling hands, I sent off a small round of mixed messages with a grief compounded by a still-strong-sorrow at no longer being included in either celebration or commiseration. Right on cue, a man passed by looking for all the world like Simon at the age he would be now and I admit, I became a little undone. I felt suddenly alone and simply sad.

Then, as if my heart made a wish and reality obeyed its command, there was my Mum! Of course I had been expecting her but not quite so soon and from a different direction! The shock of seeing her stopped my tears right in their tracks and give way to an explosion of joy as we hugged our hellos. The clash of context made it seem unfathomable that it has been less than a week since we last saw each other, to say nothing of my own experiences over the past 4 days that have made the days feel like weeks.

Silly with excitement and sleep deprivation, we chattered like long lost friends as we boarded the A380 to embark on our next adventure together. Like mother, like daughter – once on board, we quickly plugged into the entertainment system and mapped our course with movies. I started with The Perks of Being a Wallflower which in the context of the day made me a little melancholy at the loss of the innocence and naivety of youth… but that was a walk in the park compared to my next choice – The Descendants. I’d missed it when it came out and not very far into it, I had a memory of my sister Bec advising me NOT to watch it in my then very fragile state. But surely I am stronger now and besides, I was far enough into it that I wanted to see how it ended.

I don’t know that anyone has been able to fully explain the phenomenon of watching movies at altitude – to begin with, your powers of discernment are vastly impaired and you end up watching things you’d never watch at sea level. Secondly, the things you do watch, as in this case, have an exponentially increased emotional pull on you – no doubt something to do with cabin pressure. Whatever it is, this movie on this day (in concert with the atrocities witnessed this morning, the sudden wrench from a culture I’m pretty sure I was starting to love, the significa
nce of the date and plain old exhaustion) touched every single nerve and rattled every bone in my body. On the ground, I would have cried. Up there, I sobbed without knowing how to stop. Like a little cry baby, I just wanted my mum! How lucky am I that at 40,000 feet somewhere over Kazakstan against all odds, there she was to hug me and tell me everything is going to be alright.

Patches McMum: My adventure with Naomi started today. An 8 hour flight to Singapore through to the transit lounge where I found Naomi for a great reunion (as I hadn’t seen her for 5 days!). We then boarded to A380 for our 14 hour flight to Heathrow.

Naomi Doyle, aka Patches McGee is a writer, traveller and phone-ographer in desperate need of your help to make her next trip to see the Northern Lights a reality. Join the journey here by subscribing to this blog, on Facebook at Patches McGee, Twitter @patches_mcgee and Instagram @patches_mcgee


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