Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

The last couple of days my wife Marcie and I spent in Cambodia were spent exploring the Killing Fields. Even though the focus of this trip was about seeking fantastical inspiration by exploring the temple ruins of Angkor and exotic cultural experiences, we knew it was incumbent upon on to examine this aspect of Cambodia’s history. When it came to the Killing Fields, this was not about finding inspiration, but about increasing our awareness.

We made visits to two different sites related to the Killing Fields: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of Phnom Penh, and the Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum, which is located within the city itself.

Both visits were difficult experiences. That probably goes without saying, but our visits coincided with the storm coming out in the news of certain presidents referring to developing countries as “sh*thole countries.” There’s been a lot of debate about what was actually said, but to me, it’s not the specific words that matter—it’s the sentiment. And that unthinking, unfeeling attitude pervaded my thoughts as we trudged through the grounds where thousands—thousands—of people were killed because they did not fit a political leaders view of what fit. Men. Women. Children.

I had read quite a bit about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and, in preparation for our visit, had rewatched the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Still, nothing had prepared me for our visit.

I knew that there was a memorial “stupa” at the Choeung Ek Genocidal site, and that it was filled with the skulls and bones of victims. I had seen photos online. The ones below are the ones we took:

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The bones and skulls have all been exhumed from the grounds. They are all real and grimly categorized by researchers who have tried to determine the sex of the victim and the means by which they were killed. There are over 5,000 skulls in the stupa.

So, yes, I was prepared to see the stupa. But what I didn’t know was that the grounds themselves are still scattered with human remains. It’s a testament to just how many people were slaughtered there between 1974 and 1979. Cambodia lost one-quarter of its population during the time and there are dozens of killing fields scattered throughout the country.

Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields and because there are so many bodies buried there in mass graves, human remains are still rising to the surface. You can see them as you walk about—bones, clothes, teeth. They boil to the top of the ground, especially during the rains. It’s overwhelming, shocking, eerie, and heartbreaking to see them as you tour the place. There are not just one or two. They are everywhere.

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There are so many in fact, that the caretakers go through every few months to gather the ones that come to the surface. There are many display cases throughout the site, containing rags and human remains, and even on top of the cases there are piles of bones and teeth, newly-discovered and waiting to be put away.

There are many specific horrors described on the tour. We found the ones involving children and babies especially difficult to comprehend and absorb. Actually, I’m not sure we have absorbed it yet.

And now? The site is quiet, green and peaceful. Chickens wander the grounds. There are cattle grazing beyond the fences. Blossoming flowers. The shallow depressions in the ground, the remnants of the mass graves and the scattering of bones and rags are the only things that reveal the tragic nature of the site.

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After visiting Choeung Ek, we climbed into the tuk-tuk we had hired for the day and headed back into the city. We were actually meant to visit Tuol Sleng Prison afterwards, but when our driver pulled up, we just didn’t have it in us to do it. We had our driver take us back to our hotel and worked up the fortitude to visit the prison the following day.

Which we did.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is situated in one of the most famous prisons that was used during Pol Pot’s regime. It was once a high school, converted into a prison and torture chamber. People did die here, but that was never the regime’s intention. This was meant for detention and interrogation. It’s estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (also known as “S-21”). Many people, after torture, were sent to the Killing Fields to die. There are only twelve people confirmed to have survived the horrors of the prison.

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I’m glad we went to Tuol Sleng, but I’m also glad we didn’t do it in the same day as Choeung Ek. It allowed us to manage it emotionally and to give us a fighting chance to absorb it.

Here, you can see the prison cells and torture chambers, many of them in the exact same condition as when they were first used.

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Rooms once used to educate high school students were converted into individual or mass cells, hastily built with wood or bricks. Holes were punched crudely into the walls to allow guards to see down the entire chain of cells. Many of the floors are still stained with the result of gruesome torture.

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There also many rooms in the buildings that showcase exhibits related to the genocide. One of the most overwhelming aspects are the photos—there are hundreds of them, the mugshots of the people who were detained there. Every single prison (man, women, and child) were photographed and catalogued. You can see into their eyes in the photos—going to Tuol Sleng, it’s impossibly to escape the grisly reality of the genocide.

And that is a good thing. Nothing about the prison—or Choeung Ek for that matter—is sanitized.

Marcie and I are still thinking about our visits to these places and trying to rectify the Killing Fields with our other experiences in Cambodia. We have found the people here so friendly, kind, and generous. How can this possibly be after having gone through such atrocity?

When we attended a show of cultural dancing, the host of the evening said that it was Cambodia’s hope to be known for its art, and not the Killing Fields. That made me ponder. In truth, the first thing that always popped into my head about Cambodia was the wonders of Angkor. And I think that will still be the case in the years to come. When I remember our time in that wonderful country, I think I will dwell on the temples first. But it is certainly hard to not think of what we saw at the Killing Fields.

My former student, Dona, is currently volunteering in Cambodia and learning more about it’s culture everyday. After parting with her, she messaged me to say, “I hope that you two had a good time in Cambodia and find inspiration but also knowledge on how this country has been shaped and continues to persevere. I hope you take back your learnings to the communities you meet everyday.”

Such a wise person (and isn’t it humbling when your student becomes the teacher?). Perhaps what I will take away from Cambodia is not a visual memory, but an emotional sentiment: Empathy.

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Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.

In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).

The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .

We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!

The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!

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There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.

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The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).

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So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.

Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.

In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.

I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.

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Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.

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The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.

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After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.

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The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .

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That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!

After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.

A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .

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This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):

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One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.

After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war.  There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.

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The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:

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I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.

Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.

The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .

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After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.

We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.

 

Exploring Montréal ~ Day 3

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Day 3 in this city was my last full day, so I decided to try and make the most of it by swooping in on anything I might have missed.

I began by visiting the Marguerite-Bourgeoys museum at the Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours chapel. We had paused here during my ghost tour, so I thought it would be worth it to come back and explore the inside of the chapel. Once I found my way around the construction (I’ll repeat, Montréal seems to be currently under siege by every construction company in eastern Canada) and through the door, I learned that there was both a crypt and an upper balcony to explore, so decided to pay the fee and explore.

I was not disappointed!  The museum is focused on the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys, a famous daughter of the city. She founded the first uncloistered religious community in the Catholic church and was instrumental in educating girls, the Amerindians, and the poor in New France.

I won’t say too much about the life and times of Marguerite Bourgeoys—you can read up about her! But I will post this picture of, which is her “true” likeness:

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The portrait was painted immediately after her death in 1700. The picture was painted over, and so there was a contentious time in the early 19th century when people argued over the authenticity of the likeness. Eventually, the painting was painstakingly restored and the true likeness revealed.

My two favourite parts of the museum were the top and the bottom (this is always the case with me when I visit old churches). In the crypt below the chapel, you can see the early foundations of the original chapel, which was destroyed by fire in 1754. Photos were not permitted in the crypt, but I could take them from the top, where I stood by the angels and the belfry and gazed at the Saint Lawrence.

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After a quick lunch, I carried on to a second museum, which was at Pointe-À-Callière. This is the “birthplace” of Montréal, for it is the site of the original fort. Actually, many different buildings stood at this point. Now it is the museum, which looks like this:

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The exhibit is mainly underground. After watching a very good multimedia show detailing the history of the city, I descended into the exhibit and wandered the early cobblestone streets. This is an authentic archaeological dig, so the floors are uneven and all the stone foundations and accompanying fixtures you see are the originals.

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I saw remnants of the old sewer system, the ancient fort wall, and even the exhumed graveyard.

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It was very neat to explore the foundations down there while the modern city bustled above, unawares.I like to spend a lot of time on world-building in my books, so this experience was very inspirational, helping me to imagine how a city and a culture evolves.

The exhibit featured a lot of relics from the past. My favourites, by far, were an old key and elephant escutcheon.

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I confess that I did desire to possess them. So it was probably a good thing they were behind glass and under . . . er, lock and key.

At the end of the exhibit, I climbed the stairs and explored a temporary show that the museum was hosting: “Des Chevaux et des Hommes” (Horses and Men). This exhibit features some 250 objects on loan from the Émile Hermès Collection in France. The grand finale was a GORGEOUS life-size sculpture of a pegasus by Christian Renonciat. The detailing was incredible, especially in the wings.

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After this exhibit, I wandered around Old Montréal some more, taking in Rue McGill and Rue Saint-Jacques. I visited the Bank of Montréal headquarters. Founded in 1817, it is the oldest bank in Canada.

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Everything inside was quite luxurious, include the front door and the ceiling . . .

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There is a small museum inside that is worth visiting. You can learn about the history of Canada’s first bank and also see some old equipment, such as a telegraph machine, a cheque writer, and a heavy-looking “pencil pointer” (sharpener).

A kind local told me to check out the Aldred Edifice, which is an art nouveau-style building located on Place d’Armes, near the bank. She advised me to go through the door and check out the elevators. So I did!

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Right next to the Aldred Edifice is the brick NY Life Insurance building—otherwise known as Canada’s first skyscraper, with all of eight floors. It looks dwarfed these days, but it still is a pretty building, especially with its distinctive red bricks.

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The day ended with meeting up with some good friends who are also visiting Montréal from back home. Rob and Sarah are dropping off their daughter Brianna at Concordia University, so it was neat (and a little surreal) to see good friends we see often, but in a city on the other side of the country. It’s their family tradition to take a “bad” selfie, so I obliged:

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We ate at a really good gluten-free restaurant called NINI Meatball House. Obviously, the speciality is different styles of meatballs. I had the buffalo chicken with blue cheese sauce, and they were divine.

This was the moment I especially wished Marcie was here! But she is on her way and will get to spend a half-day with me in Montréal before we take the train to Québec City and spend a few days there. So the trip is soon about to get “Marcified”—which means a lot more quirky and fun (because that’s how my wife rolls).

Well, as usual, I collected a few details from throughout the day: doors, sculptures, windows . . . so here they are:

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