I sat on the damp cushion on the couch. Reaching inside my camera bag, I re-counted the twenty-five dollars I had in USD currency: one 5, one 10, and ten 1’s.
Ten minutes later, I walked out of the outdoor hotel lobby, through metal gates, and boarded the minivan that was labeled “Killing Field and S21 Tour.” It was air-conditioned to 18 degrees Celsius.
The van arrived in front of S-21 Prison, which used to be a high school. Overhead water sprinklers were on. The 30 degrees Celsius water particles landed on my cheeks and the tip of my nose.
“Yes, I would like an audio tour.”
I handed in 3 one dollar bills and took the audio device from the staff. I put on the headphones and walked into the yard of the high school.
Towards my left was a row of classrooms. Inside the classrooms, the walls were of light yellow, some paint were peeling, some paint had stains of dark red and brown. On the wall, there was a 4 by 2 feet picture that showed a body. I walked closer to it and discovered that the face was blurred out. As I moved from every room, I saw that every room had a picture, on the wall- the body of the victim who had died in that exact room. And in every picture, the face of the victim was redacted.
“If you feel that you need to take a break, there are white benches outside,” the female voice from the audio guide said.
In the courtyard, there weren’t any vacant white benches. Most of the visitors wore dark sunglasses, not revealing their pupils. As I took a pause from my audio tour, I heard sighs around me and nothing else.
No voices, only brisk movements from visitors.
Towards the exit of the S-21 Prison, there were survivors of the genocide. One of them was selling a book he had written. Some visitors had asked to take a picture of him. Some were getting the book signed. I did neither. I looked into his eyes. He had the gaze of a three-year-old child.
We boarded the van to drive to the next and last stop, Killing Fields.
We all opted for the audio tour guide, placed on our headphones and walked through the fields.
I walked up five steps, took off my shoes, stepped onto the white floor and ascended a few more steps to the entrance of the glass memorial tower. From the outside, I saw skulls, one on top of another.
There was a sign in white, against a black background that read, “WOULD YOU PLEASE KINDLY SHOW YOUR RESPECT TO MANY MILLION PEOPLE WHO WERE KILLED UNDER THE GENOCIDAL POL POT REGIME.”
Inside the glass tower, there were sections of skulls and bones. They were grouped by gender, age and the type of weapon used to end the victim’s life. Red circular stickers on the skulls indicated were male victims. Blue circular stickers were female victims. No guns were used to kill them because bullets were too expensive. So instead, weapons such as iron bars, pickaxes, machetes were used. The path inside the glass memorial hall moved in a circular way. After the fourth turn of a corner, I was back at the entrance which was also the exit.
I stepped onto the white floor and looked for my navy colored flip-flops. There was a Caucasian male who handed some bank notes to a Cambodian man to purchase a yellow flower. He took off his shoes and approached the door I had just exited.
I looked around the open field. Everyone had on a headphone and held the audio device operator in their hands. Some were taking pictures. Some were using their eyes. Some stood still to gaze at a specific spot, some moved around.
Later that day, I entered a beauty salon for a pedicure. Several minutes later, the owner arrived. She had a French accent to her English.
“So how do you like Phnom Penh so far?”
“I really like it. It’s really modern, a big city.”
“And what did you do today?”
“In the morning I went to the S21 museum and the killing field,”
The pedicurist began to file the surface of my toes to remove the existing gel polish.
“So you didn’t exactly have a fun day.”
I shook my head, “No.”
She moved on to my second toe and I could feel the abrasion between the nail filer and the skin surrounding my toes.
“Young people in Cambodia ask me how could they do that,” she continued the conversation.
“I guess it’s fear. Kind of like what happened during the Holocaust, the Nanking Massacre in China.”
“Yes but what they don’t understand is this is Cambodia people doing it to their own people.”