To destroy you is no loss

Skulls at Choeung Ek Killing Fields - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Skulls at Choeung Ek Killing Fields | Photo by Lauren Girardin

I’m waiting for Todd outside the lobby of our guesthouse – the lobby also being the living-dining-sleeping room for the five-person family who runs this place. Ignoring the touts clusterfucking around the entrance of the backpacker hostel next door, a Cambodian man walks over and asks me if I’ve seen Phnom Penh yet. The Killing Fields. S-21 Prison. He tells me that he lived through Pol Pot‘s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and takes tourists to see what there is to see, tells us what we have to know.

Like many touts, he has notebooks filled with handwritten reviews by other tourists saying that his tour is awesome and interesting and oh so sad. He leaves me the review books and goes into the guesthouse to chat with the family. When he returns to collect his books a little later, he gives me his phone number, simply saying “Call if you want to know the happening in Cambodia.”

Usually touts give me the heebie-jeebies. Peter Tuk Tuk Driver, as he introduced himself, is charming and chummy in a non-smarmy way. Later that night, since we need to hire a tuk tuk to get to the Killing Fields anyway, my gut tells me to call Peter. So I do.

Even monks' feet get sore after a long day of touring at Royal Palace - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Even monks get sore feet after touristing | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The next morning, as Todd and I load into Peter’s red tuk tuk, he asks us what we’d like for breakfast. Having learned absolutely nothing from our near-rat soup experience in Laos, we ask Peter to take us to his favorite local breakfast.

A few smoggy, honky miles later we park in a sunny alley. As we walk into the restaurant, where all the signs are written in inscrutable Khmer, Peter sees a childhood friend who works for the government. Together, the four of us make chit chat over plates of bai sach chrouk, grilled pork and pickled vegetables over rice, and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk – the Cambodian breakfast of champions.

After we’ve said goodbye to his friend, Peter explains that because his friend is in the government, he cannot tell him about his life, his desire for a better job, or his worry over the country’s rampant corruption. He presents this separation as very matter of fact, but it’s obvious he longs for it to be different.

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek on the Killing Fields map - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Detail of handpainted map at Choeung Ek Killing Fields | Photo by Lauren Girardin

After a short stop to buy dust masks – a pulmo-precaution that Peter insists upon and pays for – we hit the road for Choeung Ek, the best known of Cambodia’s killing fields.

Before we gain sight of the entrance, Peter pulls the tuk tuk under the shade of a tree in front of a simple home. As the tuk tuk’s loud engine cuts off, the sounds of birds, wind, and perky Cambodian pop music from a distant, hidden radio take over.

Peter explains that he’ll tell us the story here because they don’t let unofficial guides like him into Choeung Ek. But, he’s come prepared with and is very proud of his books of historic photos, his hand drawn map, and the experiences that he’ll share with us.

Peter begins . . .

“You must be understanding.”

Offering at Choeung Ek Killing Fields - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Making an offering at the Killing Fields | Photo by Lauren Girardin

“Under Pol Pot, all from everywhere in Cambodia brought to countryside, to collective village, but families kept separate. Separate from mother. From father. During that time the people die from starvation. From malnutrition. From being shot. I tell you true. No have family. No have monk. No have teacher. No have hospital.”

“Your relation finished all. Sometimes the whole family finished. Only you left. In my family, my mother die. My father. My uncles. All my family finished. I the only alive.”

“Other work in farm. My job to collect human shit. For make fertilizer. Only 10 years old.”

“So we can say like this only in Pol Pot. All the people forced out from Phnom Penh to work on the rice field. If they think you steal something – food or water even – they hurt you. No questions. Maybe they kill you.”

“One day, I thirsty. I get drink when others still sleep. I see a small piece of dry rice porridge on the ground. I put it in my mouth. Then I leave and see officer. He sees me eat. Yell at me, ‘You are against Uncle Angkar!’ [Angkar: ‘The Organization’] He beat me. More slap. I do to struggle away from him. He pour hot porridge in my tongue. In my mouth. Look, it today has the burns.”

Choeung Ek Killing Fields - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Skulls at Killing Fields | Photo by Lauren Girardin

“In the city Phnom Penh – I say you true – the people ate the porridge eleven months. Four to eight spoonfuls of porridge. Eat the rice only one month. You eat the rice during the harvest of the rice. In Cambodia, that time hunger problem all. In Phnom Penh, you have only one spoon. One pot. One plate. You do only yourself. You steal the rice. Dig the land. Rice hide in a banana leaf. Use the fire. You cover with the wood, cook with the steam. In secret you cook. Scare all the time eating. Eat always hiding in Pol Pot time.”

“Many people die from starvation in countryside. Better than Choeung Ek, Killing Fields. Everyone die in Killing Fields. The officer take from the palm tree to kill by cutting head. Kill by stab with bamboo made sharp. If woman comes carrying with baby, they hold the foot and smash baby head against the tree. No bullets so kill with other things.”

“Now, is also not good in Cambodia. I no have the contact so no have the job. You give money, maybe you get a job. You would say ‘give bribe money’ to someone to get the job. It is the corruption. So I take the tourist. I am very scared in the future of Cambodia.”

“Everything you keep secret for me. You tell high officer, I die. You must be understand.”

We leave Peter at his tuk tuk and enter Choeung Ek. As Todd and I walk the grounds, following Peter’s instructions and map, we see a patchwork of holes where thousands of bodies were uncovered from mass graves. We see skulls on display. Bones. Teeth. The tree where so many fragile skulls were crushed. Wildflowers, butterflies, and sunshine. Offerings left by visitors. We hear the disembodied laughter of kids carrying over from a nearby school.

Today, Choeung Ek is a beautiful, horrifying monument. An orchard turned into a graveyard turned into a sacred Buddhist temple that today intones the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, S-21 Prison

Where someone died in a moto accident - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Bloodstain from deadly traffic accident | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Before we set off, Peter explains that it is important for us to always pick a safe tuk tuk driver like him and never ride on a motorcycle in Cambodia. At least four people die in traffic accidents every day, making it the country’s second most common cause of death after HIV/AIDS.

As if we need proof, as we slowly tuk our way through a traffic jam on our ride back to Phnom Penh, on our left, a large patch of blood on the road is only partially covered up by sand and a towel. On our right, a quiet crowd looks down at a body covered with bamboo mats lying on the sidewalk.

The Khmer Rouge had a saying, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,” referring to the intellectuals, minorities, monks, and other outsiders and bourgeois so deliberately targeted in their genocidal frenzy. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known simply as S-21, is where the worst destructive torture took place. After the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge, the bodies were removed from S-21, but the blood stains were left behind and a museum was built.

Peter walks us through S-21’s rooms lined with black and white mug shots of prisoners. Past cells so small prisoners slept curled fetal, if they slept at all. Through torture rooms where blood pooled beneath bodies and spattered onto the high ceilings. Past outdoor cisterns where prisoners’ heads were submerged deep into shit and piss.

Cambodian student takes picture of children killed at Tuol Sleng Museum, S-21 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A child takes cellphone photo of child killed at Killing Fields | Photo by Lauren Girardin

“How they get you inside S-21 like this? In countryside they ask all, ‘Anybody want to work in Phnom Penh?’ They see your hand, the smooth hand and fingers. They think you artist, teacher, professor, lawyer – they offer you job. They were just cheating you. They bring you not from countryside to Phnom Penh, but to bring you to S-21. When they arrest from the countryside, they bring the victim with the blindfold. Step by step.”

“So we can say they lead you in with a group, tied to a rope. Lock one in cell each with short shackle making ankle to floor. After ten days, they start to torture information from the victim.”

“First time they do torture by centipede. They do by scorpion. Some they do by electric discharge. Some by water. Other they hang. They torture you until you die. They kill 17,000 here, including children, including officer.”

“In Pol Pot time we know they kill the people. Because when they kill they keep photograph to keep document. These pictures – you see this man, this woman, this boy? – are the ones that die. The Khmer Rouge, they out of they head. So I explain to you. You must be understand.”

“If you no die at S-21, they bring you to Cheung Ek Killing Fields. And all there die.”

“In Choeung Ek there are 8,895 skulls they dig up from ground. Many more still in ground. In Cambodia, many more other killing fields all over everywhere. By document, before Pol Pot, say 2 million die in Cambodia. But there is the starvation in the countryside. I say must be more 4 million die. Too many.”

“You must be understand. From 1975 to 1979 Cambodia came to Hell. I tell you true.”

To contact Peter Tuk Tuk Driver for a tour of Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields, and S-21

Peter Tuk Tuk Driver believes in safety first - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Go to our contact us page and send us an email requesting Peter’s contact information. Please include a link to your travel blog, Facebook profile, or other authentic factoid that proves that you are the curious traveler you claim to be.

Photos from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.