We met our tour guide, Hong, early in the morning and determined an itinerary starting at Tuol Sleng, the national genocide museum. The facility was converted from a 4 building high school under the Khmer Rouge rule in 1975 to a prison and torture facility called S21. The Khmer Rouge inflicted a countrywide genocide affecting the entire population and killing over 2 million people in under 4 years, about one-fifth of the population at the time. The facility housed VIP prisoners: those with advanced degrees, politicians, and even former commanders suspected of treason. The other buildings were sectioned into smaller cells that housed men, women, and children prisoners. The Khmer Rouge rule was abolished by the Vietnamese in 1979 and many survivors continue to tell their stories today. When the prison was liberated, there were only 7 survivors, 2 of whom are alive and were at the museum selling their memoirs.
From the museum, we continued to Cheung Ek, to see first-hand the killing fields about 15 km outside of the city. This was the final destination for many of the prisoners from S21. Prisoners arrived blindfolded, by bus about twice per month. Victims were slaughtered and thrown in mass graves. Around 20,000 people were killed and buried in this killing field and there are many others situated throughout the Cambodian countryside. Today a Buddhist Stupa holds over 5,000 skulls that have been excavated from the grounds, bones and clothing continue to be exposed. It was poignant to learn about the significant loss this country has witnessed so recently. Although it was an emotionally charged way to start our trip, it was an important part of history to keep in mind as we move forward.
After leaving the killing field, we went to a lovely lunch to process all that we had seen that morning. After a delicious meal of pineapple fried rice, we continued to the National Museum to learn about the three time periods of Khmer history: Pre-Angkor, Angkor, and Post-Angkor. As our very enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent explained, the museum holds several original temple fixtures as there is limited protection at the actual temple locations in Siem Reap. We learned about the history of both Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia and were exposed to several statues depicting the gods and their Cambodian interpretations.
We wrapped up the day with an internal team meeting to discuss the direction of the first day of meetings with Kirirom starting tomorrow. We are really excited about starting our project!