Cambodia is a country I never thought too much about when I was planning my trip to Asia.
It was a stop that was common to most travellers but I really had little knowledge and absolutely no expectations for my visit.
It surprisingly ended up being one of my favourite places for many reasons, including the incredible beaches of the Koh Rong Islands, the culture of Siem Reap where you can visit the astonishing Angkor Wat Temples and of course, the extremely dark but relatively recent history of Phnom Penh.
A Little History
The Communist party Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took power in 1975 and started on their mission to destroy and kill anything of western culture, any religious group (destroying over 95% of Cambodia's temples) and other minorities.
They evacuated towns and made people walk miles to camps where they were stripped of any belongings, worked to the bone and ultimately murdered.
The reign only lasted three years but in that short time a huge amount of damage was done. Although they can't put an exact figure on how many people were killed, it's estimated it was over two million people.
That shocking number is hard to imagine in such a short period of time and it accounted for a quarter of Cambodia's population.
Visiting The Killing Fields In Choeung Ek
Upon arrival you are greeted by a huge unmissable monument, but you pass by this to begin with and get a proper look inside at the end.
Grab your audio tour headset and begin on your journey but be warned - this is an emotional rollercoaster. One I was definitely not prepared for, but I thought after visiting Auschwitz, how much worse could this be?
Well, step by step, story by story, the true history and dark stories are unearthed much like the bones in the mass graves at the site.
The mass graves can contain over 400 people in an area marked out by a wooden fence that isn't much bigger than a bus, but runs quite deep. Because this history is relatively new, bones are still unearthed everyday due to weather.
The most shocking and disturbing part of the Killing Fields is learning of the horrific way people were murdered.
Guns were not the popular choice as it was seen as a waste of good weaponry and even knives were low down on the list to use.
Instead they opted for hangings off the surrounding trees, hacking people with axes, repeatedly hitting them with bamboo sticks (it's hard to think how many times one must be hit to die from a bamboo stick) and even using the sharp leaves off a palm tree to cut throats.
Unfortunately, they didn't see the need to use such glamorous techniques for children; instead, they opted to have a dedicated tree on which they beat them.
This one piece of nature is by far the most disturbing part of the tour and you will see many people stop here for a long time, take of their headsets and just stare at the tree which is now decorated with hundreds of bracelets.
Continue on and you'll learn of horrendous living conditions, numerous mass graves and more torture techniques.
There are trees where they used to hang speakers which were once used to blare music of the communist party. Not only was this a way of brain washing, but it was also used to drown out the sound of suffering so other occupants wouldn't know what lay ahead for them.
It's extremely hard to try and explain the feeling you get walking around this area. As everyone has their headsets on, it is deafeningly quiet which adds to the eerie atmosphere.
You can't help but feel completely emotionally drained and saddened as you exit and arrive back the monument you passed on the way in.
It only takes a split second to realise what you're seeing as you edge closer to the door of this memorial monument. It is completely packed full of human skulls from the mass graves.
Each skull is marked with different coloured stickers to indicate which way they were killed.
Although visiting the killing fields will leave a mark on you, it is definitely worth visiting to learn about the terrible years in Cambodia.
On top of that, you must visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which will help you understand the history better, but also tell you more tales in which people were kept captive.
It was once a school, which you can easily see on first look, that was then turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge reign.
The procedure here was to take prisoners and torture them until they confessed to a crime they did not commit.
One story that sticks out is of a young New Zealander who was sailing off the coast of Cambodia when he was taken prisoner. He was just completely in the wrong place at the wrong time and taken to this prison.
As they forced him into a confession, he kept his wit and told them he worked for the CIA and his superior was Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken). He was completely taking the piss out of his captors, but in a final word he mentioned 'S Tarr' which was one last message of love to his mother Esther. (Read more about that story here.)
It was at this point I looked at my two mates and all three of us were in floods of tears.
Cambodia is rich in history and it should definitely be on your Asian bucket list.