Tamz Explores

Cambodia : The Scars of Khmer Rouge – A Survivor Shares His Harrowing Story

“I had a small happy family. I was a school teacher in Phnom Penh when it started. My two kids were too young to go to school then. One day some people with guns and machetes came in to our building and ordered us to move out as they were evacuating the city to save us from American bombs. I did not want to leave my home but they threatened to burn my house and kill us all if we don’t obey their orders. For days we walked further away from Phnom Penh towards the villages in North. I saw many old people dying of exhaustion, fever or heat stroke. Me and my wife carried my kids when they got tired but we kept on walking. At night we slept on the road and on many occasions I had to beg for water, so did the others. Some of us were beaten up when we said we want to go back to our homes.”


One of the perks of solo travel is that you meet up with a lot of locals who are as curious about you as you are about them. In Siem Reap, I chatted up with a friendly waiter Sang, who was quite inquisitive about tourists visiting Cambodia. I was more than happy talking to this nice bloke and asking about the city, Angkor, Cambodian culture, food and the Khmer Rouge. Little did I know that this would be the start of a life-changing journey and become one of the reasons I would recommend Cambodia to travelers out there.

The thing about talking to Cambodian people about the Khmer Rouge is that almost all Cambodians above 40 years of age have gone through the bloody times of the Khmer Rouge(1975-1979). They have been through and survived one of the worst times in the history of human civilization. So, you do feel a bit apprehensive while bringing up that topic with the locals. Hence, I was a bit hesitant when Sang , sensing my honest enthusiasm on the local history and especially after I told him that I would be travelling to Sihanoukville the day after, offered me to arrange two meetup – one of those would be with his very distant uncle who is a survivor from the civil war days. After much thought I said okay.

Sang met me on 8th August at Sihanoukville and we would have to travel to a village near Kampot which was quite near. On the way, he told me all the stories about his village and his family while we were travelling along the oh-so-beautiful countryside. But during the entire 30-40 minutes of the journey to his uncle’s place all I was thinking was I needed to be conscious and respectful of the man.

After we got down from the tuk-tuk, we walked through a village I was greeted by curious kids and onlookers. We walked further for another 10 minutes through a rice paddy field and Sang says “We are here”, pointing to a small weary-looking hut.


After we entered the hut, Sang greets an old man with Sampaeh – a Cambodian way of greeting. After a couple of minutes the man looked at me and with a smile on his face says “Welcome! Sang told me about you”, in proper English. “Are you a reporter?”, he asked and I said “No sir, I am just a traveler here”. He says “Okay, I don’t like talking to reporters. It is no good for people like me now”, while handing me a glass of water.I looked around the room and I could sense that the man lives a very secluded life. A few books in English and Khmer lying on his bed, a makeshift wooden chair, a very small trunk that I would guess contained all his belongings and a small stove with few utensils lying around.

As we sat down, I looked around the room and I could see a wall with several pictures of a woman, two kids and two other men. “That is my wife and children, and my two brothers”, he said with a hushed sad demeanor in his voice. “They were taken. They were killed by those butchers. They killed my whole family, my babies.”, he said. I looked at him as he spoke and I could see glimpses of the toll life has taken on him. There was a deep sense of pain and loss in his eyes; a piercing gaze that told a thousand stories.

“How old were you then? In 1975”, I asked him. “I was 33 and my two sons were 3 and 4 years old… You know till today I do not understand their motives, the Khmer Rouge fighters”, his voice getting a stern tone when he said that. “They said they wanted to protect us from American bombs but we were forced to walk miles to the north. They put up all of us in camps where they made us do farming all day. After three days, they took away my wife and kids along with the family members of many other people like me. That was the last time I saw them”, he continued.


I personally don’t know the entire history of the Khmer Rouge, except that it was a dark time that plunged the entire nation into poverty, distress, famine and irreparable personal damage. The seclusion from the foreign world, discarding the developing times and imposing extreme socio-economic sanctions on their own people, descending to the measures of mass Genocide were some of the insane actions of the Khmer Rouge.

“Did you ever get to know what happened to your family?”, I asked him. After a long pondering pause he says, “Every day I begged to those men to let me know if my family is safe and every time they would beat me up. We worked for 12-16 hours on the rice fields, sometimes without any food or water. Months went by and I hoped to hear about my family someday. One day a few men from my camp were loaded onto a truck and taken away someplace that you now know as The Killing Fields. That is when I finally gave up all hopes of seeing my family alive. When I heard stories on the Killing Fields, about how innocent men, women and children were murdered there, I assumed the same had happened to my family…They killed children. After some days, I got to hear from new people coming in to the camp that thousands of women and children, who were taken away from their homes and camps elsewhere, were tortured and executed in those Killing Fields. That is the last time I ever cried in my life. I was broken after that and a broken man has nothing else to express, not even pain and tears”.

I spent the next hour listening to the horrific stories of his time in the labor camps where life was no less than hell. At such times you feel speechless when you are confronted with the harsh truth that everybody is so oblivious of. “It took 4 years and 3 million dead Cambodians for any nation to come forward and help us”, his most haunting statement from the entire conversation. At complete loss of words I said “I am sorry. I am sorry that this happened to you”. Inside, I was filled with disgust and guilt. The disgust of knowing what humans are capable of doing to each other and the guilt of spending my entire life in a make-believe-perfect-all-is-well world.


Listening to his stories, getting a live account from a deadly civil war survivor, it gave this journey of mine a new meaning as when I took this trip to Cambodia, I wasn’t ready for this. Suddenly I could realize the existence of scars in each and every aspect of this country. I could see it from his expressionless stoic eyes, the rust-filled huts across the villages, the innocent eyes of a 4-year-old child and the bullet holes in the walls of Angkor Wat. I said goodbye to him and Sang as I headed out back towards Sihanoukville with a wish to get immersed in the harsh and ugly reality rather than float up in the realms of fake perfections.



60 thoughts on “Cambodia : The Scars of Khmer Rouge – A Survivor Shares His Harrowing Story

  1. Alberto Calvo

    Beautiful writing, but such a sad story. I’ve always heard great things about Cambodians from everyone that has been to the country, I can’t wait to visit myself one day!

  2. Bethanny Sudibyo

    As travelers, we mostly experience the best of what the world has to offer for us. Sometimes we forget that there are horrible things about the world, or maybe we chose to ignore them. You opened up to this man and listened to his story. And now we know his story. Makes me think that our jobs as travelers is not just sharing how beautiful the world is, but also sharing stories like this.

  3. EG III

    Such a tragedy, but really incredible that you were able to hear his story and have a direct glimpse at the scars left behind by past.

  4. Vibhav B

    Wow Tamz! This was a hauntingly beautiful read! While I myself am not aware of the details of Khymer Rouge, my frequent visits to historical archives on Internet have informed me that they were one of the most atrocious bunch of people to walk the planet!

    Wonderfully captured.

  5. Michael Still

    The genocide was incredibly tragic. I remember first hearing about it in high school history class but to really understand how awful it was you need to have been there. Thank you for sharing Sang’s story.

  6. eostories

    I never thought of Cambodia as a place to explore but this article made me thingking that apart from the tourist side there is always something more to see and learn. And here it is the story of the people. I’ve always admired when people are travelling and have the time and interest to connect with the local people. The story was heartbreaking especially when talking about his family.

  7. Where Monica Goes

    This is a very timely read as I am off to have my indochina adventure starting tomorrow. Would go to historically rich Cambodia and would be both amazed and sad by its tragic past. The story is pretty sad, but hearing retellings from my Cambodian friends somehow made me prepared of what I am about to see once I get there. Overall, nice narrative, Tamz!

  8. Vyjay Rao

    The Khmer Rouge was one of the greatest blot on humanity. The post tells the poignant tale of one of the survivors, a reminder to the world of the depths to which Humans can stoop to.

  9. Swapnil Shah

    Cambodia is in my upcoming travel trips specially because is not too heavy on the pocket. I loved your photographs. I am too sad to have read the story though. Very touching. Thanks for sharing. Wish I could have been of some help.

  10. Indrani

    Oh! How sad! Reminds me of some stories my uncle told me when the moved from EB to WB. But this was too sad, can’t even imagine the sorrow he is going through. Wars dread me.

  11. wanderlustyleblog

    Very interesting story! It’s amazing the people you meet while traveling. Awesome to hear the story. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Gareth

    Cambodia can be an odd place to visit. On the one hand, there is so much fun to be had and plenty of shamelessness that backpackers so often get up to. On the other hand however, there is this horrendous chapter in the country’s past that is shockingly recent. I think many foreigners never really recognize this given how happy and friendly the Cambodian people are today and I’ve seen more than a few reduced to tears when confronted with the reality of it in the museums or sites. Your post was very well written and dealt with the subject with compassion and no little flair. Kudos.

  13. Olena Kagui

    Thanks for sharing! I remember learning about Cambodian history in school. I’m really curious about visiting and seeing the beautiful sights that survived so much violence. Thanks for refreshing my knowledge 🙂

  14. Luca

    Very touching words. I know that Cambodia went through very difficult times under the Khmers Rouges, but hearing it from some of the people who lived in that period is completely different.
    I don’t know if I would have the courage to speak to those people.

  15. Jojo

    I would not have been able to sit there and listen to Sang and his uncle’s story. I would have broken down so quickly and would not have been able to stop. I try to always focus on the good, happy things in the world and in life. I know stories and tragedies like this exist everywhere in the world but it’s so heartbreaking to think about them.

    At the same time, people need to know so we can understand and take actions to make sure things like this doesn’t happen again .. Thank you for sharing Sang and his uncle’s story with all of us.


    Sometimes I watch documentaries, watch YouTube videos. But nothing compares to the feeling of reading this from you. Somehow, as part of the blogging community, I consider you to be an online friend, and that being the case, and you narrating, makes it all seem more real.

    I know, it was real, the horror did occur and the scars live on today. But seeing it on the news, reading or watching about it, it is hard to find a connection. But you, Tam, is the bridge.

  17. ASKSonnie

    You’re a good writer, you can create a novel with your writing skills.

    To say that this is a horrible story is an understatement, I can’t imagine the pain that this man has to go thru each day, knowing his precious wife and kids were killed mercilessly. And I admire you too, for holding yourself together not knowing whether to get angry or cry.

  18. Carola

    Very touching story. Heartbreaking. I had never heard of the history Khmer Rouge before. But this man’s story is so impressive. It’s terrible what happened to him and it’s not even imaginable how he feels/ must have felt. I think you wrote the story very well. It reads well and it still feels very authentic.

  19. Rowena Rose Conde

    Loosing a family and have no idea how to find them is very hard. It’s like loosing something that will make you whole again. I can’t imagine the pain he have to get through but I must say that he is a tough one.

  20. den

    Such a heartbreaking story of a father who lost his family. I never really knew the extent of what happened in Cambodia. Your post is so informative and makes me want to travel even more to Cambodia.

  21. Kat

    I felt teary eyed reading this. I hope the dark times are behind us now. I’m not familiar with the history of Khmer Rouge, but I was greatly touched by this old man’s story. You never really get over that kind of traumatic past. However, I hope he was able to make a living for himself somehow. What has he been doing the years after that period? Did he find a new wife and family? Has he found forgiveness and peace of mind? I hope he did.

  22. Roselle C Toledo

    This is so sad. Reading about the stories of people who had to deal with what they went through for as long as they live. I was born in 1976 and wasn’t aware that this dreadful thing happened during that time in Cambodia. Thanks for sharing this.

  23. Me-An Clemente

    Reading this felt like I was reading an engaging book. Great post!

    Your post reminded me of the dark age that Cambodians had to go through. After being able to visit the Killing Fields myself at a young age of 15 years old, I had a deeper appreciation and love for our country, the Philippines. This may be the reason why I have developed a great sense of nationalism despite being able to travel to developed countries. I have Cambodia to thank for.

    Anyway, I really admire the Cambodians for being able to rise back up again and for striving to restore their nation. I wasn’t able to speak to victims of the Khmer Rouge, but I was able to hear the stories from the younger generation. I heard that the educated people were the first ones to be put to death. The horrors of the mass genocide is truly unimaginable. It may be difficult to absorb but the stories are for us to appreciate the state we’re living in and also to learn from them.

  24. etsyexplores

    Thanks for sharing this, Tamz. I’ve visited Tuol Sleng and the Genocide Museum twice (once on my own, and once with my students), and each time I left with a hollow sense of despair. It is unfathomable that human beings can do this to each other, and really sad to know that this beautiful country lost an entire generation of intellectuals to these senseless acts. But what has given me encouragement each time is the persevering spirit of the Cambodians. They are one of the happiest and strongest people I’ve met, and really a joy to spend time with. I hope they’ve touched your heart as well (:

  25. Amanda (@HotMamaTravel)

    Very sad story and as a mama for a 4 & 5 year old I’m particularity affected by this story. It is sick what people can do to each other and how that poor man continues to wake up each day without is his family is beyond me.

  26. Marta - Learningescapes

    I am always humbled by stories of survivors: the idea that a person, a nation, can go through something like this and survive, physically and mentally, is something that always touches me deeply. Still, it is so important to tell these stories and remember how easy it is for horror to happen again. Thank you for sharing this touching story.

  27. Sanket D.

    Its virtually impossible to really empathise with or understand what people like this must have gone through, but its always moving to hear such stories on your own journey. Helps you keep it real sometimes.

  28. Sarah @ Expat of the World

    Oh, wow- I don’t know where to start. Very, very moving. Well done for capturing it beautifully with your story-telling.

  29. Bernard Tan

    I can totally relate to this story! I was in Cambodia last year and visited the Genocide museum, it was horrifying to know that so many Cambodians were killed, and were treated inhumane.

    1. Tamz Post author

      I could not visit the Genocide museum. I just could get myself convinced for that experience after this conversation.

  30. travelerettenyc

    This is such a heartbreaking story. I still don’t understand how people can do things like that. I m glad that you were able to help this man share his sadness. From my (limited) experiences speaking with Holocaust survivors, having someone listen does seem to help in a small way.

  31. Liana

    When I started reading your post, I didn’t know if I could handle it. As truth being said around here, I’m quite familiar with the Genocide horrible happenings – I’ve been confronted with my own story, being part of the people who’s been through the Holocaust, and I’ve promised myself to share all of their stories for people not to forget and to remind myself that Humans are somehow the best and the worst kind of beings on planet earth. We didn’t know what they’ve been through, and we still think the world can heal itself, but I believe, somehow, that if you don’t share it, the next generations will never know what happened to the Khmer Rouge or the Jewish people of the Eastern Europe. I do believe we have a duty and as traveler, I think it’s up to me to thank you for doing so. I can’t believe I’m about to say this – but I wen through very emotional states reading his testimony, and I can’t believe it took 3M people for the nations to do something..

    1. Tamz

      Dear Liana,
      It feels really nice to know that I could make you relate to this story.
      Someday, I would like to know about your connect to the Genocide and also know more on the Holocaust. I completely agree on the need to bring out such stories because majority of the world population turn a blind eye to these happenings. Thank you for appreciating this post.

      Tamshuk 🙂

  32. Free As Lost

    I feel very touched by your story, it is mind-opening. Such a sensitive topic, I cannot imagine how you emotionally have withstood taking part in these conversations.
    There are different strings of thoughts in my head and I don’t know which to start writing about here, but then that means you’ve done a great job with engaging my thoughts.

    It was very well-written. I am looking forward to read more post of yours.


  33. Jen Morrow

    A stark reminder of the horror of war, and that there is nothing civil about it. Sad, touching story.

  34. Nikki

    Beautifully written piece that really moved me. It’s so harrowing to think this happened not even that long ago. I remember visiting the Killing Fields and feeling so overwhelmed by it all. I’d like to link this from my post about Phnom Penh if that’s ok with you?

  35. Swati

    This is so well written and very informational. Cambodia is on my list and this makes me explore the remote villages even more. Happy travels and story-telling.

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