Since I decided the main criterion to use in determining which shots would qualify as ‘best’ when it comes to travel photography are those that are the most evocative of time and place, this photo has to rank among the top of those I’ve taken in Cambodia. Perhaps ‘outrageously cool’ should be an additional qualification for a photo’s ranking in the upper echelon too; sure a snapshot of a pile of human skulls may not be the first thing you think about when cool comes to mind, but you gotta admit it’s not a subject many amateur photographer get the opportunity of capturing on film. And when it comes to Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields is/are what pops into my mind first.
I’d visited the awesome ancient temples of Siem Reap several times before deciding to visit the country’s capital city. You can never completely avoid the bloody period of Cambodian history when the Khmer Rouge held sway, but in Siem Reap it’s more about land mines. As in avoiding those that still lay buried waiting to claim some more human flesh, and feeling properly shamed at the sight of locals who didn’t manage to accomplish that feat. In Phnom Penh it’s a bit more in your face. Because for some odd reason the locals have decided genocide makes for a top touri attraction. Ask any native for suggestions on what to do and see when visiting Phnom Penh and – with a wide smile and obvious delight – their #1 pick are the Killing Fields. If a Cambodian was running things at Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle would be razed and replaced with an attraction featuring Walt’s frozen, disembodied head in their place.
Visiting a few sites – there are three – that tout the mass murder of a country’s population was not on my list of must-dos. In fact, I tried to avoid those excursions. But then a too long trip out to a much more tranquil site by tuk tuk, and the insistence of my tuk tuk driver that I needed to see the killing fields, conspired to put Choeung Ek on my list of Cambodian experiences. The Cambodian Visitor Bureau really needs to rethink its strategy. You can’t help but gaze in wonderment at the architectural splendor of Angkor Wat. And you can’t help but wonder at what it is in the Cambodian collective psyche that resulted in the atrocities committed at Choeung Ek. And you have to wonder too why they continue to take so much pride in showing off that part of their history. Nor can you not wonder if their obvious enjoyment of bloodsport is something safely in the past.
I can’t think of any place I’ve visited that affected me as much as experiencing the Killing Fields did. It managed to cast a pall over the remainder of my stay. I couldn’t help but think of just what level of responsibility any Cambodian over the age of 40 I met afterwards held in those deaths. Fortunately, you don’t run across many Cambodians over the age of 40. For obvious reasons. And the warmth and friendliness of the younger locals almost made up for the history of atrocities committed by their elders. Almost. Because just when my opinion of the Cambodian collective consciousness would start rising, there would be some little occurrence that provided a too real glimpse into their darker side once again. They say the past is prologue to the future. Which isn’t a very reassuring thought when visiting Cambodia.
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