With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

The History Tour

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 5, 2017

Wednesday, May 10th – 15th, 2017

Learning History Through Travel

In high school I was a pretty good student. I went to class, paid attention, did my homework, passed my tests, and passed all my classes. I did, however, put more effort into courses steeped in math and science. I thought of these as more absolute classes, with questions that have real answers. I did well in subjects like literature, religion, and history, but I saw them as less important. Their questions came with vague answers based on feelings and emotions or other very subjective foundations.

History was the worst of them all. Not only was it very subjective and most of the time one-sided, but history lessons were unforgivably boring. Even when I tried very hard to pay attention in class, I just couldn’t. To be honest I studied history just to pass tests. I didn’t think history had anything for me since it didn’t interest me in the least.

This was before Youtube, John Green, and even the History Channel.* For me history was dead and I never had a good teacher to bring it to life. Once in my freshman V. I. history class, I asked my high school history teacher why the Danish sold the Virgin Islands to the US. They sold three Caribbean islands for 25 million USD, which is not a lot. “What did the Danes get out of the deal, really?” I asked. My teacher responded with a curt, “That’s not going to be on the test, so don’t worry about it!”

This seemed like typical history teacher behavior. I felt their job was to get us through tests, where as science and math teachers were there to help us learn things. In high school I always got the feeling that most history teachers didn’t know much more than what was in the textbook. So, asking them anything too complicated was equivalent to harassment.

I did have some very bad history teachers. But I’m sure even the really good ones must ask themselves what the best way to get students interested in history are. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have found two. My methods would be hard to implement in a classroom setting, unfortunately.

*There was a time when I thought the “H” in the History Channel logo stood for “Hitler” because every other documentary they aired was about World War II. Then they started making really interesting shows like “The Universe” and airing non-World War II documentaries that were just down right fascinating. I would spend many Sunday afternoons watching documentary after documentary. They still have good stuff, but now, I think it’s better to watch their shows online where you can pick out the better shows. Ancient Aliens is entertaining and all, but there are only so many episodes of the show one can watch before it becomes repetitive.

Sometime after my sophomore year in college, I read a book. I liked it, so I read another one; then another one. I had read books before, but they were mostly books assigned to me by teachers or my mother. Once in a while someone would recommend a book to me and I would read it out of obligation. But, in my second year of college I started picking out my own books. I got a library card and I developed a taste for certain genres of literature.

I enjoyed biographies and historical fiction. I would read 3 or 4 books at the same time. There would be a book on CD in my car, a smaller book in my bag, a bigger book at my desk, and a more relaxing book to read before bed. Without realizing it, I began learning about the recent past. I learned about the Nation of Islam through The Autobiography of Malcolm X . I learned about life in China through many Amy Tan books. I learned about escaping a Russian gulag with The Long Walk. (Later I found out that a lot of that story was fabricated when I read Looking for Mr. Smith.)

I chose books because of some curiosity about a time, place, or person in history. Rather than learning about the past through a dry textbook, I saw the past through the eyes of people or characters. I had more of a feel of what life for that person was like. I could almost imagine being there myself and that these stories were distant memories.

After reading a book about one person in a time period and set in a place, I would read about another person in similar circumstances. This gave a more rounded view of events that felt a bit less one-sided than what my high school history classes offered. Take for example the books written about China during Mao’s rule. There are hundreds of them. Reading these biographies gave me more information about that time period than I could ever learn from just lectures. I could pick out any topic I liked and spend years reading up on them.

Traveling also helped me learn about history. Every city has a museum or two telling the stories of its past. But also, you begin to learn what the people who live there have known their whole lives. What is common knowledge about history to, say… a Korean, might be new information to other people who grew up elsewhere. Even if you did know more about the history of Korea, you will get a better hold of a Korean’s perspective after living in or visiting Korea.

Traveling and reading combined have taught me more about history and the world than high school ever did. Traveling to a certain city or town made me more  interested in that place’s history than in the history of areas I had not visited. Would I know as much about feudal Japan as I do if I hadn’t spent 7 years living in Japan? No. Was the Oxford Time series more exciting because I had lived in London once? Yes.

Before going to Cambodia, I knew a little about the genocide. There was an evil man named Pol Pot. He was an agrarian, like Mao, and believed that the country should be run by the peasants. He tried to kill all the intellectuals in the country. There was a ridiculous notion that intellectuals included anyone with glasses, anyone who had ever been outside Cambodia, and basically anyone of convenience.

I was vaguely aware of a place called the killing field. I didn’t know much about it. I just figured that many people died there. “Maybe, there was a mass shooting or something,” is what I thought. I would learn more after my trip to Phnom Penh.

Our first stop was at the Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S21. This used to be Chao Ponhea Yat High School. I walked through the place sadden that they turned a school into a prison of death and torture. The building still held many characteristics of schools in Japan where I taught. It even resembled my own high school in the Virgin Islands a little bit.

As I walked from one room to another, the museum told me stories of individual prisoners held here. None of the stories have happy endings. Almost all the prisoners died horrifically. Many did not die here, this was just where they were held and tortured. There are a few survivors, but they are far from lucky as most of their families did not survive the torture.

They were made to name others and to admit to the most insane things. They were forced to say they worked for the KGB, the CIA, and the Vietnamese all at the same time. The possibility of this would hurt the mind of anyone capable of logical reasoning. Almost no one here was guilty of the crimes they admitted to. No one deserved what happened to them here.

There were some rooms dedicated to the stories of some of the guards. Many of them were prisoners here too. Some were teenagers conscripted in the Khmer Rouge taken from their families who would never hear from them again. They too were forced, not to admit to crimes, but to torture their countrymen. Some of them did not last long as guards and found themselves shackled along side those they had helped torment. Many of the guards ended up with the same fate as most of the prisoners.

Listening to the audio guide that comes with the ticket.

The first thing I learned at the killing field was that there was no one killing field. There are many throughout Cambodia. Many towns and villages had one. There were over 300 killing fields in Cambodia.

The one in Phnom Penh called, Choeung Ek was once an orchard and a cemetery for Cambodians of Chinese ancestry. This was where many of the prisoners from S21 and other prisons around Phnom Penh ended up.

The guards, not wanting the victims to scream or yell, told them that they were being moved to a bigger prison. Some people from nearby villages who were under questioning were told that they were clear, but were being moved to another town for their safety. They were made to dig huge ditches.

At the site, you will see many tourists standing or sitting around the place. They are listening to the audio guide. It tells several stories about witnesses and survivors of the Khmer Rouge. The stories are very immersive and gives you information of the different sections in Choeung Ek. There are areas where visitors are sitting down and crying as they listen to Ros Kosal’s voice. Ros Kosal is himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and escaped the killing field. He lends his soothing voice to the audio guide along with others who tell their stories.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Choeung Ek was discovered to hold more than its expected old Chinese graves. The people were not buried very well and after heavy rain, many of them would surface. It took years to collect all the bodies. There are still more in the fields to this day and remains still get unearth after a hard rain. As I walked along the designated path I saw clothes and bones of victims.

According to Wikipedia, 8,895 people were buried here. They were placed in mass graves that many of them dug themselves before being murdered. They were not shot. That would have cost the government too much money to pay for all the bullets. These people were bludgeoned to death.

The guards used the same tools they had for farming and repeatedly hit the prisoners with them. Shovels, hoes, axes, sometimes even a simple bamboo stick was used. It took a lot of effort and hate for these guards to keep up the killings.

Some guards didn’t have what it took. Their hatred either waned or it was never there to begin with. If a guard was just working here to not become a prisoner himself, his lack of enthusiasm would show and his fellow guards would become suspicious. Sometimes, all it took was for the other guards to dislike a coworker for a guard to be labeled a spy. The guard would be beheaded and tossed in a mass grave dug for treasonous ex-Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge uniforms for women and men.

The government was so chaotic and so blood thirsty. Many Cambodians did not make it through the 70’s. A quarter of the population died in camps, from starvation, or from sickness because all the doctors were murdered. Being on the side of the Khmer Rouge was no guarantee that your life would be spared.

Unless you were firmly on the top. The head of this whole movement, “Brother Number One”, Pol Pot, never received any form of punishment. “Brother Number Two” a man by the name of Nuon Chea wasn’t held accountable for his actions until 2014. He was placed in jail in 2007 and received life in prison after a trial in 2014 along with Khieu Samphan, another Khmer Rouge official, for crimes committed in the 70’s.

Many of the officials running the S21 prison either received no punishment at all or very late in life. In the 80’s many of the people who had positions of power in the Khmer Rouge held legitimate power in the new government. The Khmer even kept their seat in the UN until 1982, which made it look like the world was okay with what had happened in Cambodia.


How to get there:

  • You can enter Cambodia by bus, plane, train, or boat.
  • You will need visa to enter. You can get a visa at the border, get an e-visa, or go to the nearest Cambodian embassy or consulate and get a visa.
    • I got my visa at the border, so I don’t know what advantage an e-visa would give you.
    • The cost of a Cambodian visa at the border or at the airport is 34USD. I know all the websites say 30USD, but it’s actually 34USD.
      • It’s not a scam, because everyone pays 34USD. If it is a scam, it’s a very consistent one.


  • Emergency Numbers:
    • Fire 118
    • Police 117
    • Medical Help 119






  • The US dollar is the main, however unofficial, currency.
    • Only paper money; no coins.
    • When getting money from retailers as change, check the bills.
      • Return anything that looks suspicious and ask for a new better looking bill.
      • If you have a suspicious bill, you will be stuck with it. No one will take it from you.
      • Refuse to take anything with rips, writing, or stains.
      • Refuse to take anything that looks fake, even if it’s a one dollar bill.
  • The local currency, the Riel, is used mainly as change less than a dollar.
    • Pay for things in rial, is like paying for things in quarters.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 11.549347, 104.917658


  • St 113, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


  • +855 93 388 988



  • 3 USD
  • 3 USD for an audio guide


  • Daily 7:00 – 17:30




  • You can probably meet Chum Mey. He seems to hang out here signing his book and answering questions.
  • Bring lots of water.
  • Check the times for the movies and special lectures for the day.
  • There are a few rooms with some air conditioning.
    • One is a library where you can sit relax and take in all the things you’ve seen.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
(Killing Fields Of Pol Pot)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 11.484441, 104.901967
  • You will need to take a tuk-tuk or get a tour bus.
    • The tour bus costs about 10USD per person.
    • The tuk-tuk should cost about 15USD for the ride.
      • 1-4 people can fit in the back of a tuk-tuk.


  • Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


  • +855 23 305 371




  • 6USD with audio tour included
  • The tour bus costs about 10USD per person.
  • The tuk-tuk should cost about 15USD for the ride.
    • 1-4 people can fit in the back of a tuk-tuk.


  • 8:00 – 17:00 daily




  • The audio tour is very good.
    • You might start crying.
  • There is a museum that your ticket covers. There is air conditioning in the movie room there.



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