Backpacking in 82 Days: The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

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I wanted to have The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng in a separate post, as opposed to how I have been blogging our trip. If anything, it’s just for myself because I want to remember all the thoughts that went through mine and Devyn’s head on our morbid day of visiting these locations.

Until I planned a trip to Cambodia, I had no idea about the Khmer Rouge or the genocide that took place from 1975-79. There’s so much to explain for the context and photos to make sense, and I’m still learning more about it. I immediately purchased a book about the atrocities after we visited both locations.

Here’s a quick gist (and I’m still learning more about it, so if I got something wrong, please let me know) Throughout the early 70s, Cambodia was already in a civil war which had a history tracing back two decades. Pol Pot (the eventual leader of the Khmer Rouge) was well educated with his comrades and they, along with many others were not in favor of their Prime Minister, Lom Nol. Lom Nol was very pro-American during the Vietnam war and at that time, the USA were conducting bombing raids on small Cambodia towns trying to push Vietnamese communists back into Vietnam. Many towns were destroyed and a lot of innocent lives lost. Those who survived were easily recruited by Pol Pot’s group, for they hated the States and how Lom Nol allowed this to happen.

They recruited many peasants, on top of an already pretty well educated group, who did their studies in France. Eventually, this created a group known as the Khmer Rouge. They overthrew the government and forced an evacuation of the city of Phnom Penh. They were the new authority of Cambodia and forced many civilians out of their homes.

Over the course of over three years, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, killed over 3 million of their own people until they were finally overthrown and forced to flee after an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge wiped out any traces of multiple religions, schools, family systems, places of worship, and anything culturally based. They destroyed it; physically and abstractly. They wanted the ultimate power to be looked upon to be them.

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who they felt were traitors to their communist movement, be it an intellectual, those with soft hands, or glasses. People were tortured for alleged involvement against the Khmer Rouge or for being an individual. The country today, has an average age no older than 35 because so many of the older generation was wiped out. Once you visit this still beautiful country, you can see the poverty as a result and how this horrendous moment in history set them back.

Choeung Ek: Now, onto the attractions. We arrived at the Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields, and at first, it’s not much to look at. It is what it sounds like. It’s a beautiful lay out of grasslands and rice fields. The first thing you see when you walk through through entrance is a gargantuan memorial. But this is not your average memorial. It contains the skulls of the thousands of people that were killed and dug up.

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An audio tour guides you around the fields and throughout the walk, are numerous 4ft deep divots in the earth. They’re graves. Once the site was abandoned, many graves were excavated and up to 400 people in one single grave could be found.

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What’s intense is that the kills were not quick. Due to the country being poor, bullets and guns were expensive. Any blunt objects that could be used were. Axes, sticks, knives, whatever. A handful of prisoners were tortured first At Tuol Sleng, before being starved and transported for execution to Choeung Ek. The majority of the skulls have signs of blunt force trauma or holes from being beaten to death. Devyn and I felt weird taking pictures, so we kept it minimal.

It’s the testimonies of the perpetrators and victims in the audio tour that add an additional heartbreaking element. There’s stories of witnessing a family member having their throat slit, a woman feeling shamed after being raped and so much more.

On the trek, which includes walking around bones and victim’s clothing that are still stuck in the earth, you eventually come upon the killing tree. People, primarily children, were beaten against this tree. The part the stuck with me was how the KR would grab babies from their legs and smash their heads against the tree. Yes, they killed babies. Pol Pot wanted to avoid revenge plots against them and felt the youth would seek them out for killing their families. As well, Pol Pot believed that when you cut grass, you need to take out the roots too.

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To prevent those outside of Choeung Ek from hearing the screams of the prisoners, propaganda revolution music would be played over a loud speaker to cover it up. Imagine hearing that during your last breath, as your throat is being slit with tree bark.

Tuol Sleng: I felt Tuol Sleng was more intense, if that’s possible, than Choeung Ek. Mainly because much of the location is left as is. Torture devices are still left out and the buildings are still up. The buildings at Choeung Ek were immediately torn down. Tuol Sleng was a high school before the KR took over and turned three 3-story buildings into torture chambers.

Building A’s rooms mainly consists of rusty looking beds with shackles next to it. In many of the rooms, there are photos of what happened to some of the prisoners in the room you’re standing in. Notably, a prisoner was beaten with a shovel and the photo shows their skull protruding from the flesh.

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It’s hard enough to stomach that you’re inside rooms where people were tortured, but there’s still blood splattered on the floors. And it’s not just drops. It’s dried up puddles on puddles. Almost every room in each building is covered. The photo I took was of a smaller puddle; it felt weird taking more.

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The courtyard of Tuol Sleng has a set of gallows, where they would hang prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness and then submerge them in fertilizer water to reawaken them to answer questions.

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Not all the rooms in the three buildings are the same. There are larger rooms where a multitude of prisoners would be chained to a wall. I think Building C was the building with individual wood and brick cells. I’m pretty sure you and I have used a port-a-potty bigger than these cells. Mind you, prisoners in these cells were chained to the ground and often tortured.

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Building B, I believe, has the rooms littered with photos of prisoners and workers. Looking into their eyes, each person had their own story and many were killed in these rooms. It makes you weak in the knees. Only seven prisoners walked out of Tuol Sleng as survivors. Chom Chey, one of those survivors, was on site that day selling books. You could see the pain in his eyes, but his smile remained genuine and true. The epitome of the Khmer people. As Lonely Planet puts it, they have gone through hell and back. Their smiles are so true and beautiful that you have to experience it to understand. They’re so thankful for life, it’s incredible.

Some of the other rooms have a history of the site, as well as mini biographies of the main people behind these atrocities. The three still alive are still on trial, or had their hearing in 2011. I can’t remember the information properly. Pol Pot, he died under house arrest living a peaceful life, with a family and everything. How the hell does karma exist? He never apologized or showed true remorse. A torturer at S-21, known as Duch, is the only one who has lived up to what he participated in.

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After leaving Tuol Sleng, I was shocked at how this is not common history back home in the US, especially because we were largely responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in World History when I was in high school, but I don’t remember hearing about a country being damn near forced back to the Stone Age as a result of our war with Vietnam. It was genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust. I understand why we may know more about the Holocaust; Germany was our direct enemy at the time and a religious group was slaughtered. I don’t understand how the KR killing its OWN people through means of personalized and individual killings/torture on a large scale is not common knowledge. The US is partial to blame, along with a few others. France too. It’s heartbreaking and I blame myself for not being better educated.

I don’t want to preach because that’s not why I write. But it’s the age old saying; if we don’t learn our history, we are destined to repeat it. These visits made me eternally grateful for the fact that I get to see my family again and helped me focus on the important things that are easily overlooked. I have a great family, fiancé, health, food, and a home. I was standing in rooms where the people who were butchered had lost all of that.

Devyn and I went to the night market that evening and it ended up being an experience whichever complemented our visits to these sites. I ended up getting in an epic dog pile with these awesome Khmer kids. They got a few lucky punches in, but I still think it was a draw.

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These kids are so pure and genuine. It’s hard to imagine that kids no older than them were butchered against a tree. Unlike the pussified and entitled brats our iPhone carrying kids have turned into, these kids are so high on life with nothing. They were having paper airplane contests. I have never felt so spoiled. As I mentioned earlier, the Khmer, especially the young ones, have smiles, that are infectious and genuine.

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Truly, to hell and back and appreciative of life. How does someone look at the epitome of happiness and think that they’re nothing but deep “rooted” rebels, whom deserve death? These kids brought me back to my childhood, where it took nothing but a stick to make me happy and entertained. They gave me new life again, and I’m eternally gratefully to them.

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Backpacking in 82 Days: The Gilis, misc adventures, and reflective thoughts

Logging everything according to individual date has become unnecessary and tedious. In NZ, we actually had a pre planned itinerary broken down into a day by day schedule. It was much easier to keep track of dates and activities that way.

Once you lose that, your days tend to blend into each other and, for at least Devyn and I, we only remember bigger events and our reflective thoughts if it’s important. That’s what it has been like in Asia. Some days, we just did nothing but read or hang on the various beaches. I don’t want to blog about that and I’m sure my audience of 4 doesn’t want to read that. So, where to start…..

Today is November 10 in the afternoon and this is being written after getting in an altercation with a hawker that ended in a “go fuck yourself”. Needless to say, I’m a little livid and writing about positive events while drinking a beer is a good way to unwind.

The Gilis- A set of 3 islands (we went to Gili T) in which, in my perspective, is a complete free for all. They’re beautiful beaches located in a world without motorized cars or police. People go to the island we went to for partying without any real rules. For anyone who think they’re badass for partying in Vegas, I suggest heading over to the Gilis. You really are isolated from the rest of the world.

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Yet, somehow, there seems to be order. It’s like a well-organized Lord of the Flies scenario. You’re in no more danger than the rest of Indonesia; you keep your head up just the same.

Devyn and I stayed in a cottage for $16 a night. It came with its downside however. A load of ants in our bed and other critters in our bathroom. Your bathroom is technically located in a room outside, adjacent to your living space. We made friends with a spider the size of my fist and a few cockroaches. But, the family running it was super nice and fed us every morning. You are on an island, so no room is without these problems I learned, unless you fork over more cash. A lot more. We personally wanted more money for activities.

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Another hilarious downside was being right next to a Mosque. Mosques broadcast prayers 5 times a day over a loudspeaker everyday. A pretty cool experience 4/5 times. However, 1/5 times takes place at 4am for a good 20 minutes. At that point, you feel like a religion is being forced upon you, and it almost seems selfish to make the rest of the world hear your prayers. It’s like church bells. Shortly after, I read an article about Israel trying to pass a bill, deeming it noise pollution. Look it up. But, from various sources, a good chunk of Lombak and the Gilis are Muslim, so I have no real right to complain. Especially since, I don’t know if you know, there’s some tension between certain Muslim groups and the States. Here’s a few pictures that are irrelevant to what I’m saying:

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No pictures do Gili any justice. We went scuba diving and snorkeling and, hands down, the best you will ever experience. The water is crystal clear, bath tub temperature, and littered with amazing sea life. It was after these dives that Devyn and I got drunk and started discussing veganism. I can’t recap it verbatim, but went something like this:

Many of the places we have visited so far in Asia are poverty stricken and it’s only going to get worse when we are in Cambodia and Vietnam. Places like this survive on meats and poultry. It’s a genuine strife for survival. One thing animal rights groups don’t realize is these countries don’t have the means or proper resources for “free range” animals or what not (Anthony Bourdain also has said this). A place like the Gilis especially, their economy survives a great deal from fishing.

It got us thinking that veganism is such a 1st world issue and privilege. Would we really have the audacity to tell these people to stop eating animals? Basically, cut out most of your diet because I don’t agree with it. On the flip side, the call for veganism has brought attention to problems like factory farming in the states, which is horrible. But these issues, from what we are seeing, is our own fucked up nation’s issue. You can’t call for a “greener lifestyle” or international meat free diets when that’s how these people survive. Unlike the states, places like NZ and from what we have seen in Indonesia don’t have the factory farming issues. We’re just fat asses who over indulge. There needs to be more focus on eliminating that disgusting shit, as opposed to what it has now turned into; an elitist movement set on telling people what to do. Why can’t we ever focus on moderation? Why is it always so extreme? Just kill off Texas first and we can start from there.

I don’t want to bag on that lifestyle because I do think it’s a great way to live when done without patting your own back. Just don’t tell me how much healthier it is to be vegetarian/vegan while you’re smoking a cigarette. Living a greener lifestyle and reducing one’s meat intake is great, especially in the states where indulgence is such an issue. Also, this blog is not meant for too much venting, more just inner thoughts about what Devyn and I have discussed. So please, feel free to tell me how much of an uneducated asshole I am in the comments :).

Too much reading, here are more Gili photos:

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If you want to save money, eat at side streets and food markets. Devyn and I fed ourselves for $4 USD almost every night. Sure, it is nice to go to some of the other restaurants conveniently located on the main strip, but if you want your bang for your buck, take an extra few minutes to do some searching. Speaking of Devyn and I, anyone who thinks they’re in a solid relationship, I dare you to travel this long with each other. Boy, do you work out kinks. If anything, this trip has made me realize why this girl is my forever. Mediocre relationships wouldn’t survive this so yes, I’m tooting my own horn; we are awesome.

It was during the Gilis where we realized we were planting ourselves in one country too long. Meeting people who work in the Gilis (especially our dive instructors) we realized we can’t just do play time forever. Many of the workers from other countries work during the day and rage at night. Repeat. Devyn and I can’t wait to be a boring, home bodied couple drinking wine and watching movies after a long days work. We aren’t meant for the party lifestyle and a trip like this makes you ready to grow up. Here’s more photos:

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If you ever do a budget trip like this, don’t stay in one country too long. You get bored. We ended up booking a flight two weeks earlier than originally planned to head home.

After the Gilis, we decided to spend the last week of Indonesia back in Kuta. With our bigger budget from cutting the trip short, we hired a guy to drive (you can find these anywhere) us around and take us parasailing, to a coffee plantation, and an awesome Hindu Temple with wild monkeys. We got ripped off for parasailing by a few hawkers, but it was still fun.

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SPEAKING OF HAWKERS!!!!!! I mentioned them in another blog post, but did not explain what they are. Kuta is the main destination for a lot of people visiting Bali, so naturally it’s full of hawkers. Hawkers are people who set up little shops on sidewalks selling faux versions of various products (ie. sunglasses, shirts, etc). Usually it’s really cheap because it’s bootleg copies. From what I heard, most of them are not Balinese.

I really wanted Bintang (their local and only beer) t shirts because my clothes reek and I thought it would be cool. Devyn and I venture into a little store where, of course, they’re trying to pressure you. It comes with the territory. But, this guy in particular, tried selling me two shirts for 750,000 rupiah, or over $60USD. I said no way and only wanted one. Mind you, I got a sweet pair of sunglasses a few weeks ago for $4. We went back and forth and I told him no more than 75,000 rupiah at best. He took that as a deal, bagged the product and stuck it in my face. Devyn, being the smart person she is, said no way and it’s going to be no more than 50,000. One thing led to another, he got pissed and (for my younger audience, the rest of the this is explicit) said “fuck you” to Devyn.

When someone says that to your fiancé, your natural instincts are to punch the guy. But you’re in a country where that leads to serious problems with the po-po. I tried being calm and telling him to not speak that way, so he said “fuck you” to me. Dev and I took off while flipping him off. He continued being an asshole which led to a darker side of myself. Without too much detail, it ended with me saying, “Have fun eating dirt for the rest of your life, you cocksucker.” (I told you mom, but it’s clean language now)

I’m human and have minor anger issues, especially when my fiancé is insulted. It’s incredibly horrible to say that and is not a 100% my character, but when you’re worked up, it’s amazing what you will say. The whole point of this trip is to see the world and have learning experiences. This particular experience is a good example of how I have many flaws, and I should work on not allowing it to bring out cruelty. I’m an asshole sometimes, but who isn’t? It’s why I disagree with Sirius XM firing Anthony Cumia. People get worked up. Look that up.

The only thing I regret is grouping hawkers in with the Balinese. Balinese, true Balinese people, are beautiful souls who never have anything bad to say. We even met a guy named Putu who invited us to his brother’s wedding. Hawkers are not true representations of this culture, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t exactly wish I didn’t say what I said.

I’m an American. I’m a white male. Naturally, I was born with privilege. I don’t deny that. But out of this, no matter the scenario, I can learn to be a little more humanistic and apathetic to others without what I was born with.

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Backpacking in 82 Days-October 19-26 Final Days in NZ; Start of Asia

We are in Bali now, but here’s a lazy recap of the end of New Zealand and other such endeavors. I’m also having wordpress issues, so ignore the hilarity of BIG pictures.

October 19- It was my 25th birthday, and probably the best one yet. It’s damn near impossible to top what Devyn and I did. We did the Pure Glenorchy: Lord of the Rings scenic tour. It was an early morning, half day tour and after a lot of wine drinking the night before, 8am wasn’t friendly. What this tour does: It’s a 4×4 tour where you get picked up from your accommodation with a small group and they take you to various locations from the film (ie. “boil, mash em, stick em in a stew scene” isengard, Lothlorien. Aside from the nerdgasm, it’s a beautiful scenic experience.

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After, we had some time to kill in Queenstown, being we got back at noon. Now, Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world and makes backpacking on a budget difficult. We splurged on a jet boat, but that’s about all we could afford. Bungy jumping, skydiving etc all range from $190-300+ NZD.

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We got an amazing wardrobe with this adventure, clearly.

To top off an excellent birthday, we ventured to Fear Factory Queenstown. It’s hyped as NZ’s scariest haunted house and in the tourist pamphlets, it has some pretty rave reviews. Devyn and I are huge horror fans and don’t scare easily. We think modern day horror sucks and has been dumbed down to torture porn. How scary can this really be?

My hats off to FFQ for they freaked the shitballs out of us. It’s a maze you do in complete darkness and you have to follow these red lights. You’re constantly feeling around in the dark, with “things” feeling around for you. We were pretty much stalked and mocked by a crazy woman the whole time. She laughed maniacally, grabbed us (they can touch you) and turned off our red lights. It’s hard to explain how good they get you without recapping the whole 20 minute maze. What they do well is playing off subtlety, the unknown, and messing with your imagination. It’s what true horror is.

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October 20-23- We left Queenstown and took a long drive to Christchurch. Other than stopping off the side the road to check out an old church, it was an uneventful few days. Christchurch was badly damaged from an earthquake in 2011 and it’s a scene right out of a post-apocalyptic movie. No words can explain how gnarly the damage is. We felt a bit odd and disrespectful taking photos of the damage inflicted. We really just spent the days preparing to leave for Bali.

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Recap on NZ-kiwis are amazing human beings. I’ve said it before, but they live a hobbit lifestyle. Good food, drink, and company is all that’s important. They are incredibly helpful to travelers and were genuinely interested when we mentioned that we’re from California.

We listened to a lot of NZ politics radio and their news mainly concerned the Ebola scare and ISIS. Global news was a larger topic there. Being an island on the other side of the world, their political problems aren’t as large. They had an hour of a vet giving pet advice. It was great! An interesting parallel with them and the states was their “issues” with various Maori people. From what I gathered was that they tend to be the participants in many crimes committed in NZ. However, allegations came out that the police were racist and targeting Maori people much more. Understand the parallel America?

October 23-26. 4am wake up call to get to the airport and start our trek to Denpasar, Indonesia. After a layover in Australia and a 12 hour endeavor, we landed in Bali. It was there where we really felt out of our element and truly on the other side of the world. Mushrooms are legal here, but everything else equates to the death penalty.

Leaving the airport, we were bombarded with people trying to carry our luggage and get a tip out of it, as well as taxi drivers trying to rip you off. Thanks to our Lonely Planet guide, we learned to walk through a parking lot 300 meters away and hail our own.

The drive to our hotel is where it sunk it. Their traffic is an all out free for all. Ironically, the best drivers I have ever seen. On these narrow roads, they know how to maneuver.
Aside from going to Mexico to get drunk when I was 18, this is the first time for myself personally, that I saw first hand poverty. It’s only supposed to get worst as we work our way to Cambodia 3 weeks from now. It’s incredibly humbling.

When Devyn and I return to the states, we have to save up for our wedding, buy cars, get jobs and an apartment. If these are our only problems, we are spoiled. The real Balinese people, (not the hawkers) are beautiful people so it’s pretty heartbreaking.

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That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our few nights in Kuta enjoying the beaches and great/cheap food and beer. It’s another reason we felt terrible; we are living like kings and queens basically at the expense of a poor country. I understand tourism has boosted Bali’s economy, but it sounds like an invalid reason to pat ourselves on the back. I really want to return to the states much more appreciative of what I have.

As a californian, I’m just a lucky person. It’s why I can’t stand nationalism. Unless you have served he country or have overcame obstacles to live here, (those leaving Mexico) your nationalism is justified and God bless you. Everyone else, according to Chris Rock, are just lucky. I’m no better than these people because I was born advantageous. Our goal here is to respect these amazing people to the hugest of our abilities and show our gratitude for their incredible hospitality.

You do learn how to be pushy. Hawkers are always trying to sell the tourists cheap merchandise, such as clothes and tours. They’re always coming up to you trying to force a sale, so while being polite, you have to be pushy back. You can’t blame them, though. They’re just trying to make a living in a tough environment.

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A lot of Australians holiday in Bali. We met an awesome family at our hotel and it was the first time on the trip we really met a cool group at our accommodations and really compared cultures. Until then, it was just crusties in our hostels. Until we visited NZ, Australia, and Bali, I was under the impression everyone hates America. We do suck on a gargantuan level, sure, but when I was in Europe 6 years ago, it was open season on me. Just like we are with others, they were genuinely interested in American and California lifestyles. So, yeah, shut up England (I know not Europe) and France.

Our first few nights were in Kuta. Seeing the poverty of good people made Devyn lose it (I found a good one) and last night, the high level of stray dogs and cats hit me. Unless you’re callus, I guarantee any first time travelers will tear up while visiting Southeast Asia.

We left Kuta to travel to Ubud today. It was an odd and shady circumstance of changing ghetto shuttles 3 different shuttles. While we were slightly on edge, we still had fun.

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Once in Ubud, the Balinese continued to spoil us with kindness. We found a really awesome room 3km from the center of town for $23. That gets you a resort. Devyn told them it was our pre-honeymoon and, well….

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We’re undeserving assholes. Wear right next to rice fields so needless to say, the scenery is awesome.

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