Half an hour by motorcycle outside of Phnom Penh. A peaceful spot by the riverside. A place where fat lazy bees buzzed, and where crickets sawed songs in the grass.
A dirt pathway wound through this scene. I followed it until I met with the overgrown pit of an exhumed grave, its sides eroded like elderly gums or the caved-in face of a hobo. There were dozens of them, choked with stagnant water and mud. Once they were each choked with a hundred or more mangled bodies.
On the ground at my feet, pieces of coarse blue cloth were embedded in the dirt. A human ulna bone and several perfect molars had been revealed by heavy rain. When I crouched down to touch them, I saw that the ground around me was scattered with teeth.
The still air echoed with the sounds of a thousand primitive deaths: half-starved men bludgeoned with rifle butts and shovels; babies thrown into the air and caught on bayonets, the smothering pain of the drowning tank. In a peasant’s war, bullets cost the same as mercy — both were in short supply. The people who did this now live back in town, just down the street from the families of the disappeared.
Afterwards, my driver wanted to take me to a shooting range run by the Cambodian military. He bounced from foot to foot with excitement, his face split by a smile. I could fire handguns, AK-47’s, an M-60, or a Russian rocket launcher. For about a hundred bucks more, they would buy a cow from a local farmer and shove it onto the shooting range for my enjoyment. We had just visited the killing fields, but no one saw the contradiction in this.
Phnom Penh is a long way away, mister. Its symmetry is disturbed. Its collective psyche has been shattered. It’s a place whose soul has been horribly blighted. It’s not the kind of place you want to go back to. It’s the kind of place you escape.