Day 13 Phnom Penh: Tuol Sleng, Cambodian Cuisine, and Killing Fields

I wake up refreshed, as good as new, and full of nervous energy. Of all the countries on our trip, Cambodia is the only one I have secret doubts that I’m mad to travel alone to. The rest of Southeast Asia has been combed through with a fine-toothed comb-there’s not much surprises left. Cambodia is still a bit wild. The government doesn’t have the resources to do much enforcement of rule of law. But many, many people visit their with kids, and it’s long been a country I’ve wanted to visit, so it’s time to explore.


After a pleasant, small English breakfast, we’re off to visit Tuol Sleng.  It’s a prison camp where, out of 20,000 prisoners, only 7 survived. Two of the last ones are there-the other five have died already. I choose the more kindly looking one to get a picture and buy his book.


Chum Mey’s story couldn’t be sadder. He lost his wife and four children, one of whom was a three year old boy, and was arrested with no crime and tortured. He only survived because the Khmer Rouge wanted his skills to fix machines, as he was a mechanic by trade. He fixed sewing machines and typewriters, which his captors needed to gain false confessions from the other prisoners in the camp, who then would be deported and killed and buried in the killing fields.

Ryder meets yet another little girl here and we buy drink after drink. Hot climates reduce my appetite and instead I only partake in liquids.

Unique to Tuol Sleng is that Pol Pot required pictures of every single one of the inmates for documentation. He was afraid of a family member coming back for revenge, perhaps, and wanted to be thorough.



Prisoners were kept in isolation, could not bathe, defecated in ammunition boxes, and had to lick the floor if they spilled any.

My Big Take Away from Cambodia’s Biggest Prison Camp

The biggest thing that stands out to me from this experience is that we go and are shocked by the treatment of human beings in these places. We cry, we shake our fists at the evil that was perpetrated. Then we neglect to point the finger at our own countries and peoples in current times. The men in this camp were water boarded, starved, and tortured with no trial. The prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, a US military camp, experience the same. You may say that the Cambodians were innocent and Guantanamo Bay inmates are terrorists; I say, without a trial and legal representation, no one can tell the difference. If a political party can do it to them; one day it can happen to you. Recommended reading: My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me by Mavish Kahn.

Cambodian Lunch Specialties

We leave and begin walking back to the hotel. “Oh,” I muse aloud. “The Spider Restaurant.” “I want to go there!” Ryder says immediately. It has free wifi; I acquiesce. Lo and behold, there: number 16, Crispy Spider. They really weren’t joking. Ryder sees the picture and wants it. “You want to eat spider?” I say, incredulously. “Yeah!” It’s only $3.50. I order it. But I wasn’t expecting to see not one, not two, but three large tarantulas sitting innocuously upon a pile of red peppers, onions, and tomatoes.IMG_3599

Of course, I let Ryder go first.

I saw off a leg. He willingly partakes. “I don’t like it spider,” he announces.

I saw off another leg. Really, the most unappetizing part about it all is actually dismantling the spider for consumption. The leg is really burnt and not particularly edible, but not horrible either. I can see why Ryder isn’t interested in eating more.

Next, I poll my Facebook profile to see if I should eat the body. The answer is almost unequivocally no, but I do have one supportive friend. An expat at the restaurant with me has lived in Phnom Penh for 2.5 years and never had it. “It’s the texture that’s supposed to be…soft…I don’t want to try it,”she says.

Time is ticking. I sit staring at my three spiders. I can’t stop looking at them– that is, except to google about them:

They’re fried to remove the venom. They live in dark holes in the forest. Some Cambodians hunt them full time. They might go extinct because they’re such a popular treat.

I realize there’s never going to be another time I have three perfectly good spiders already prepared sitting right in front of me, ready to be eaten. No time like the present, I think, and dig in.


The taste is pretty similar to fried chicken. Truly, it’s edible, but nevertheless I wrap up the other two spiders and stow them away in a napkin. One tarantula is not only enough for a day, it’s enough for a lifetime. And I’m still recovering from my Vietnam belly.

The Killing Fields: Discovering Pol Pot

Meanwhile, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of taking Ryder to the Killing Fields. Online says no for kids, of course-I’d agree for elementary school students. But I decide to go for it with a toddler. Ryder won’t know what is going on. And as it turns out, I was right. It is just a big field, and there is a family living there that has a little girl who Ryder has a blast with chasing their chickens and throwing a dance party. It’s irreverent; but they live there, and perhaps that little corner of the world could appreciate some joy and laughter after such a tragic history.


The audio guide is really informative. I stay stoic until I reach the tree in which they’d smash babies against to kill them.


I walk away from this experience, like every other person, thinking: WHY?

Why don’t Americans learn this Cambodian history? Why do we only learn about the Germans and the Nazis, when the events that unfolded were directly related to US involvement and policy?

U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered a secret bombing campaign as part of the Vietnam War. Over the span of four years, U.S. planes dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, more than three times the amount dropped on Japan during World War II.  This created a power vacuum for the Khmer Rouge to assume. The Khmer Rouge received political support from the US because of their opposition to Vietnamese forces. In a speech Pol Pot said: “Cambodia’s economy was under the blanket of US imperialism…a semi-colonial country…Cambodia was a victim of foreign aggression in economic, cultural, social, and political and military fields. Imperialism did not [involve] armed aggression against us, but it launched economic, cultural, social and military aggression by taking control of everything.”

Why did Pol Pot have this ghastly idea?

1975-1978, the Khmer Rouge enforced a new communist government under which 3 million, 25 % of the population died. Pol Pot’s vision? Inspired by Mao and Stalin, and anti-western. A classless peasant society. No elite, no skilled workers. No private property, no money, no religion. Everyone was forced to work in agriculture on farms. Many died of malnutrition. The Vietnamese deposed him, but he was never brought to justice and died an old man.

Khmer Rouge was run by four principles.

1. Total independence and self-reliance

2. Preservation of the dictatorship over the proletariat

3. Total and immediate economic revolution

4. Complete transformation of Khmer social values.

Why did people go along with it?

“To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” Khmer Rouge mantra

Most of the perpetrators were young uneducated boys brought in from provincial areas to the cities. I believe men, much more so than women, have the ability to compartmentalize. I think they can say, “This is my job” and then come home and hug their own families. Still, I don’t know how you become the kind of person that can knowingly harm a baby. Perhaps, as Chum Mey says, it is because they feared for their own lives if they didn’t do it. And of course, it’s possible to see babies like this: babies become children and children become grown men, so it’s all the same.

My Take Away from the Killing Fields

I walk away more certain than ever: There is capacity for evil and good within ALL of us. The side who wins out, as Joseph Seberenzi says, depends on which one you feed. Humans always deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what actions they have committed, or you risk becoming that which you condemn. Ideology and groupthink are very powerful, more powerful than any of us realize. When political parties, religious leaders, or other positions of authority can override personal integrity and independent thought terrible things can happen.


Inside that beautiful building are 8000 skulls

A dinner discussion with a German on American education

We get back to the hotel and share dinner with a young German lad of 19. He’s traveling before university. I regale him with favorite destinations; he confesses: “In Germany, we think Americans are stupid because so many don’t go to school.” “There are a lot of hicks,” I agree. “Still, Americans are proud of their entrepreneurial spirit. My own husband is a university dropout.” “But so many Americans know nothing about the rest of the world: they only care about themselves,” he says. “True,” I say, “But school in America doesn’t help that at all.”

In truth I hope and plan for Ryder to attend school at some point, mostly because I think he’ll enjoy it. I don’t think it’s the superior way to become educated, but I think it’s a great way to learn some discipline and make some friends-plus, most importantly, I don’t think it’s right to go through your life and only have one teacher and one viewpoint for every subject. Ryder is going to be a smart boy, no matter how his schooling is achieved. I don’t worry about that. Though that is almost the number one question I get when we are asked about our lifestyle.

When we get back home the first thing Ryder does is pretend to eat his toy spider.


Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 369 awesome articles for us.

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