Displaced Yankee Productions | The Road To The Killing Fields

Theresa and I are up early for our first full day in Cambodia. Theresa has in fact been up for hours due to the jet lag and the heat. Our air conditioner turned itself off sometime during the night and our room is stifling. I sense her at the foot of my bed turning it back on. I’m grateful but too worn out to even lift my head. Around eight we are back at the little café on the corner, getting coffee (Long Blacks) and connecting to the Internet to send information back. Again, for a moment, it is easy to forget where we are and imagine we are simply sitting back in Los Angeles at a Starbucks. We don’t have much time because we have a nine a.m. meeting with Kulikar from Hanuman Films. Kulikar has been a Godsend in the preceding months helping me organize this trip and acting as my Cambodia liaison. And for all of my family and friends who have been vocal in expressing their dismay over Theresa and I traveling alone without a guy to some of the more poverty stricken and dangerous areas of the city, Kulikar has been the rebuttal argument to ease their fears -our male guide who knows the city well and will act as our escort during our visit. So no one is more surprised than me when Kulikar turns out to be a woman. (Theresa: Not just a woman, a tiny woman.) Not being familiar enough with Khmer names to know, I just simply assumed the head of the only film company in Cambodia was a man. Shame on me and a good lesson in my own preconceived notions. She was wonderful and we had a very productive meeting seeing to all the details of what would be needed for the upcoming trips and filming. We also finalized the details of the jeep rental for our trip to Siem Reap. Theresa and I assumed the jeep rental meant we were driving ourselves. And to be honest, we’ve been a little nervous now that we’ve seen the insane way everyone drives here. Kulikar is horrified. “No way!” she says to us in no uncertain terms. We are NOT driving ourselves. She forbids it. She can’t imagine that A: we wanted to do it and B: we thought she would send us off on our own like that. We have a good laugh over it and secretly we are wicked relieved we don’t have to drive. We wrap up the meeting. We were supposed to go to the garbage dumps today but Kulikar was not feeling all that well so we rescheduled and opted to take this day to learn more about the history of the genocide that caused the abject poverty we plan to capture.
We hire a Tuk Tuk driver and negotiate for his services for the day – $15. First, we head to S21. Before Pot Pol and the Khmer Rouge came to power and committed their atrocities, S21 was the local high school. Now it is a stark reminder of the not so distant past. Turned into a prison for captured intellectuals and their families, as well as members of the Khmer Rouge who had fallen out of favor within their own party, it became a place of torture and murder. Theresa and I silently took in the narrow 3’x6’ brick and wood cells with the chains and blood still staining the floor. Photos of tortured bodies and people with numbers pinned to their very skin lined the walls. Dozens of skulls, images of soldiers throwing babies into the air and shooting them – the jungle gym bars where high school kids once exercised turned into a torture device to dangle prisoners upside down for hours till they passed out. I run into a woman from Nova Scotia who asks me if I am going to head to the second floor of the prison. It’s creepy and overwhelming here and she doesn’t want to go upstairs herself. She and I explore the second floor together, united in a friendship of shared sorrow at what other human beings are capable of doing to one another. We exchange email addresses and part ways.
Theresa and I stop for lunch at a small café nearby. Disabled beggars – one a father missing an arm and another a badly burned older man, plead with us for money on the dusty street outside. It’s hard to say no – as soon as you pull out your wallet others surround you in similar condition. We cannot help everyone and it hurts to know this.
After lunch we climb back into our Tuk Tuk and the driver starts the 30-kilometer drive to the Killing Fields. We’ve been told we’re taking the good road, so I cannot even imagine what the bad road must be like. Rough and pitted with potholes and garbage along the sides, we bounce along at a good clip. After a few miles the driver stops at a roadside stand and purchases masks for both of us. We’re extremely grateful. The dust from the dirt road is smothering us and reeking havoc with our eyes and cameras. Ramshackle shelters made of straw, old board and aluminum siding line the way. Naked and half clothed children play in the hot sun among free roaming cattle, chickens, mangy looking dogs and cats. The smell from the river is atrocious.
We arrive at the Killing Fields and hire a guide to take us through. Like every other Cambodian we have met and talked to, he has lost family to the Khmer Rouge genocide. His parents, grandparents and brother were all killed. We walk through acres of land filled with deep pits – the remains of mass graves of those who died there. One tree is marked “The Killing Tree” as a spot where children were dashed against its trunk to kill them. Bits of bones and clothing line the way. There is an old man working nearby. Our guide explains he is a surviving victim of the fields. He rakes a memorial site with one hand. The other arm, scarred and stumpy from where they chopped off his hand. Children of the poor families of the rural area are everywhere. They certainly have the tourist trade down pat. They run up to us and surround us chanting “Picture? One two three Smile!” They want us to take their pictures and then charge us a dollar for it. A few dollars and a dozen children later we catch on and have to start saying no. Our guide leads us down the path toward a small pond. We are drawn to the screams of laughter. About a dozen boys are splashing and playing in the water. Children like any other, they joke and wrestle and throw one anther into the pond. We decide it is well worth another dollar and film them in their play. They are happy to oblige us and show off, grinning. The guide explains the pond they are swimming in is a burial spot. We watch as the boys splash around. There is something both devastating and innocent about these children at play in a place where their families have been murdered and buried.
By the end of the day, we are dusty and drained and ready to go back to the hotel for some much needed water, reflection and rest. Theresa looks at me and dead pans “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when we get home, I’m never sitting next to you again.” 72 hours side by side on a cramped plane, a bumpy Tuk Tuk and hovered over our computers editing shots and blogs…. it’s hard to believe it is only Monday.
This evening after a short rest we meet Kulikar for dinner and drinks. We want to have some traditional Khmer food so Kulikar brings us to a nearby restaurant. Theresa and I have tried very hard to follow the traveler’s guide for eating safely so it is with a lot of dismay that the beef dish I ordered that sounded so good is actually made of raw beef marinated in lime juice with shredded lettuce. I’m positive I am going to die. While we are enjoying our drinks the power goes out. Kulikar explains that power is a problem here. The government planned very poorly when building the water powered plants that service the city and when it is dry season, the water gets too low and the power often goes out. Soon the restaurant gets its generator going and we are back in business. I hear a meow and notice a mangy little kitten sitting the bar behind me. I recognize it as the little fur ball I had seen the night before that Theresa forbad me to pick up and cuddle. She knows my love of animals and also knows the doctor warned me not to touch any of them before I left. I’m here to keep her from wandering off into the woods to snap photos on her own and she’s here to keep me from dying of rabies.
Our conversation soon takes a somber turn. We ask Kulikar about herself. At thirty two she is so young, but not young enough to not remember or have been a victim of the genocide. She comes from a large family and after the Khmer Rouge, the only ones left standing were her and her mother. She cried as she told us of her uncle who had been tortured and died at the very prison we had been at that day – S21. Every Cambodian, she told us, every single one – have similar stories. It is humbling to hear one so personal.
After dinner we pack up our leftovers and Theresa and I head out in search of children to give them to. It isn’t long before we spot a familiar figure. It is the young girl from Sunday evening with the baby slung listlessly at her hip. She is wandering the streets at night as before, begging for food. She is becoming a fixture for us. Theresa had seen her that morning and given her the leftovers from her lunch. We catch up with her and wordlessly hand over the boxes. She finds a spot next to a large potted plant and sits down. We watch her from afar feeding the baby. I resolve to ask the CCF if they can’t look into her situation. We have no idea if she has parents, but it is clear she is the primary caregiver for the baby. I have no idea what she makes of us. Day to day, the only thing she probably thinks about is how to get through it. We head to bed.
Okay, this is going in the blog. I know it’s mostly Heather’s place to write about our experience, and she’s doing a wonderful job of it. In fact she’s at the coffee shop right now, uploading her latest thoughts. And me? I’m here alone in the dark, with no air conditioning and I’m locked in the room. That’s right, not out of the room, but in it. They have a very unusual key system at this hotel. You get only key one per room. And then when you get inside the room, it neatly slips into a “key switch” that turns on the electricity in the room. No lights will go on without it in its little slot. This system was obviously developed in the “pre-digital” era — it’s been a balancing act to charge all of our various electronics, as it’s impossible to do while we’re out of the room with the key.
So today after our dusty tuk tuk trip, I felt like shutting my eyes on the bed in the air conditioning for a few minutes while she went out to the internet café. Thoughtfully, Heather said she would take the key with her so if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t have to get up or even hear her knock to let her in. Neither of us remembering about the small matter of needing it to power the A/C. Or the lights. Darkness is falling and at least I have the glow of the computer screen (thankfully holding a charge). And she locked the room from the outside as she left. Again, neither of us remembering about the odd configuration here where you need a key to open the door even from the inside.
Naturally, I got my second wind shortly after she left and since it was dark in here, I thought I’d just join her at the café. But as I gather my things, I realize… I can’t get out. Alternatively, taking a shower (which I desperately need) in the complete darkness holds no real appeal. So here I am. “Resting”. In the dark, non-A/C-filled room. One can only hope that there is no fire while she’s out, because she’d have a hell of a time sifting through the ashes upon her return. But we all know that she could.
P.S. Heather just got back. Turns out she took my wallet too…


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