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Scars of the past: Students explore agriculture and human conflict in Cambodia

Beneath Cambodia's troubled history with the Khmer Rouge lies a complex agricultural legacy that reaches back centuries. A group of Stanford students traveled to Cambodia with Earth science and mental health experts to explore the ways food, water, and human conflict have shaped the country.

Students at the temples of Angkor Wat
Faculty and students traveled to Cambodia as part of the BING Overseas Program to learn about the intersection of agriculture an

One by one, a group of Stanford students stepped off an air-conditioned bus into the sweltering heat of the Cambodian morning.  As the heat took hold and beads of sweat began to form on their temples, they walked along a dirt path to a large metal gate, paid a small entrance fee, and passed through a group of trees into a large grassy clearing.  Nearly everyone remained silent.  One group of students walked to the far end of the field to a stream that slowly trickled past.  In the shade of a nearby tree, a sign neatly tied to a metal stake and adorned with bold yellow lettering greeted them with, “Warning! Don’t step on the long bones.”  This was the students’ introduction to the intersection of agriculture and social conflict in southeast Asia.

The large grassy clearing the students visited was one of Cambodia’s infamous killing fields, one of several sites where the brutal Khmer Rouge regime massacred and buried approximately 2 million Cambodians in the mid- to late-1970s. The students were there as part of Stanford’s Bing Overseas Studies Program to explore the relationship between human rights violations, food and water systems, and the country’s rebuilding process.

The following is the story of the trip as told by several students and faculty who were there, in the summer of 2015.

"[The scars] run so deeply that it affects not only the healthcare system, but it affects the drinking water."

The Class

The Bing Overseas Studies Program offers Stanford undergraduates the opportunity to study abroad all over the world. Most Bing programs take students to developed locales, such as Berlin, Paris, Oxford, Kyoto, Istanbul, or Beijing. But the Cambodia trip took students into the heart of a developing country with a troubled past.

Daryn Reicherter, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine: For more than 10 years, I’ve been working with people from Cambodia and practicing mental health and psychiatry with that population, and their mental health issues really tie back to the Khmer Rouge takeover and the violence that happened in the 1970s. That trauma has affected both the population that’s still there, and the population that emigrated away. My work deals with that trauma mental health.

Scott Fendorf, the Terry Huffington Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: In 2003, I started working in Cambodia to investigate the processes that were controlling arsenic getting into the groundwater there, but you can’t work in a country like Cambodia without immersing yourself into the culture. You recognize right away some of the difficulties that the Cambodians face in terms of food and water security dealing with natural arsenic contamination, but also stemming from the horrific legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

Reicherter: We wanted the students to investigate the question, “Just how deep do those scars run from what happened in the past?” They run so deeply that it affects not only the healthcare system, but it affects the drinking water.

Fendorf: We often think about the science and technology to meet sustainable food and water systems.  What we wanted to accomplish in the class was to have the students recognize the full suite of social, economic, and political factors that go along with science and technology to meet the challenges of the developing world.

The Ancient Empire

Student at Angkor Wat
Arjun Krishnaswami standing in front of one of the ancient water holding ponds, called a baray, that helped the Angkor Empire expand in the 9th century. (photo courtesy of Arjun Krisnaswami)

The course began in a Stanford classroom where the students spent a quarter learning the 1200-year history of the social and agricultural forces that shaped today’s Cambodia. One focal point was the rise and fall of the Khmer, or Angkor, Empire – the predecessor to modern Cambodia. The Angkor Empire lasted from the 9th century to the 15th century, and, during its height, was home to nearly 1.5 million people. Many lived in the capital city of Yasodharapura, home of the now legendary temples of Angkor Wat.

Fendorf: The rise and fall of the Angkor Empire is really the story of food, water, and drought. During the 800s, they put in an elaborate irrigation system of canals and holding ponds, called barays. Think of a baray like a vast reservoir. Those reservoirs were filled with water that was coming down out of the mountains, and then they could use the canals to move the water out into the surrounding areas where the population lived – an area roughly the size of Wisconsin. This allowed for irrigated agriculture, and they could feed a million and a half people with the rice crops.  If you look at the Mayan Empire in central America, they were only able to sustain around 100,000 people in roughly the same land area. So the Angkor Empire had an incredible production system for agriculture.

Baray water holding pond
The Angkor Empire used vast holding ponds, like this one, to capture water used for drinking and irrigation. The complex system of ponds (called barays) and canals allowed the empire to sustain a population of 1.5 million people in an area roughly the same size as the Mayan Empire was able to sustain only 100,000.

Arjun Krishnaswami, ‘16: We went to Angkor Wat and saw one of the barays. It looked like this flat area. The thing that was mind-blowing to me is that these structures are huge. You can look out for miles. It seems endless. When you’re standing there looking out at this massive expanse of land that once filled with water, it’s crazy to think about its history. It’s this unreal, magical structure. It was very, very incredible to me.

Fendorf: The fall of the Angkor Empire was pretty complex, but there is definitely an environmental footprint in the story. During the 15th century, we went into a period of very strong El Nino.  When we get a strong El Nino, the monsoons that feed Cambodia become very weak. So back then, they went into a century of dominant drought conditions. They couldn’t feed the people and ultimately fell victim to warring factions. Water and social conflict, that was what then led to their demise.

The Khmer Rouge

Skulls inside of glass case
At the killing fields of Cambodia, tower monuments house the skulls of those murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime. (photo by Robin Maslin)

On 17 April 1975, Khmer Rouge forces captured Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh and installed their totalitarian dictator, Pol Pot, as leader.  Pol Pot quickly embraced a radical idea about how to implement communism in the Kingdom of Cambodia: people would move out of the cities, reject any ties to the West or to traditional Cambodian culture, and return to a rice-farming cultural ideology he upheld as the legacy of the Angkor Empire.  The Khmer Rouge brutally enforced Pol Pot’s plan, marching people from the cities at gunpoint into the agricultural fields as slave labor. Millions were taken to specified killing fields and murdered. In the following decades, these fields were identified and excavated to learn about the atrocities. The students visited one such field, Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh.

Krishnaswami: I guess the story really starts the night before when we had a little bit of a briefing of what was going to happen the next day. Daryn sat down and talked to us about what we were going to see, and how if anybody, at any time, felt nervous, or depressed, or upset about the things we were seeing, that we should really take that in, and that's a normal feeling, and to really talk about that.

Nick Hershey, ‘18: We took a bus to the killing fields, and we were already in somewhat of a somber mood. When we got there, we walked in and there’s this gate, and we walked up this paved area to this stupa-like structure in the center [of the field]. You take your shoes off, and you can walk right inside.

Aitran Doan, ‘18: It was a tower, and inside were these glass cases. The ones closest to the ground had weapons inside. And the rest were filled with skulls and bones.

"Seeing the magnitude, the gravity of history, that was important to me."

Krishnaswami: I felt weird walking into this place. Piled up in hundreds of layers in this tower are the skulls of people who have been dug up from this one set of fields.  At some point, halfway through your circle of this tower, it’s hard to feel anything but, “I need to get out of here. This is hot and enclosed and terrifying.”

Hershey: We put our shoes back on and walked the grounds. I was on this dirt path and I looked down to my right and I saw what looked like a femur sticking out of the ground. Seeing the magnitude, the gravity of history, that was important to me.

IFrameReicherter: One of the strongest impressions you get from visiting the killing fields is that they’re so raw.  There’s no other way that I’ve thought of to put that.  There is this experience of really feeling like this is a place that still needs police tape around it. It’s very, very powerful.

Doan: Here I was [in the killing fields], and I was supposed to be thinking about these horrific events from the past, but at the same time, I could see just outside the fields and was confronted with the poverty of the present. It made me wonder about how Cambodia came to be what it is today, and what role its history played.

Krishnaswami: After we saw the fields, we got a chance to meet and talk about what we had seen. And I kept thinking, “Now that I’ve seen this, how does that change who I am and how I interact with oppression in the world?” That was really useful to me, personally.

In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians are still dealing with severe mental health trauma. Reicherter felt that it was important for the students to get a small glimpse into the traumatic history to help them empathize with the healing and rebuilding processes. One of the most prevalent mental health issues he and others have identified in Cambodia’s population is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Reicherter: The most common symptom is what we call these intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience. No matter what you’re trying to do, you’re just playing out that violence in your head. It’s not that you remember it, it’s that you can’t stop remembering it. We’re talking about a third of the population with a diagnosable mental health entity like PTSD. That’s a huge statistic, and it’s not like anything that we’re seeing in other populations. We need to find ways to rebuild the support communities in Cambodia to help them process this.

Fendorf: One of the other big outcomes of the Khmer Rouge period is what I would call a knowledge vacuum.  They killed the people who were educated, the people who had any type of power.  Where we normally think of agriculture as being something that is passed down from one generation to another, so much of that generation was killed that we lost that transfer of knowledge of common agricultural practices.

Healing and Rebuilding

Student with muddy hands
Arjun Krishnaswami shows his hands, muddied while drilling a safe drinking water well in rural Cambodia. (photo courtesy of Arjun Krishnaswami)

To experience the country's healing process, the students were given unprecedented access to the attorneys prosecuting and defending the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for their alleged roles in the Cambodian genocide. After meeting with the attorneys and discussing the victim's rights and desires (including increased access to mental health), the students traveled to the Cambodian countryside to see how communities are dealing with the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. According to Reicherter, a lot of progress has been made by establishing safe communities, especially in rural areas. And according to Fendorf, many of these communities have joined around access to safe drinking water. Fendorf took the students away from the city center to help a local family drill a water well that avoided dangerous arsenic contamination common in the region.

Three men standing around a well
Three Cambodian laborers helped teach the students how to properly drill a drinking water well. (photo by Nick Hershey)

Krishnaswami: We basically went to this house in what seems like the middle of nowhere. It was a house that was just a small wooden structure.

Hershey: We get there and there were three day laborers who we watched get everything set up to drill the well. And Scott is explaining everything about the chemistry and soil science and processes that allow arsenic to move into the groundwater, which we were obviously paying attention to. Eventually, we were begging Scott, “Oh, please! Just let us go and help dig the well!” It’s a hand drill, so there’s nothing mechanical about it. We were literally pushing a bar back and forth while the bit dug 40 meters deep.

Fendorf: The students just kept manually turning the cutting blade with the crossbar and kept pushing down and pushing down while the water oozed up around their feet.

Doan: It’s one thing to learn about soil chemistry in a classroom, it’s a totally other thing to drill a well 60 meters down by hand and see the soil change colors. The darker the grey, the more arsenic was trapped in the soil there.  It’s hard to have those experiences in a classroom. But Scott and Daryn have been working there for so long that this had a much stronger feeling of familiarity.

"It's one thing to learn about soil chemistry in a classroom, it's a totally other thing to drill a well 60 meters down by hand and see the soil change colors."

Hershey: The experiences of drilling the water well and visiting the killing fields were more connected than what immediately meets the eye.  Since roughly 1979, Cambodia has been rebuilding from near zero. There’s mental recovery, and there’s physical and health recovery.  Those are intimately related.  These are what they have struggled with throughout history.

At the end of the trip, the students gathered in groups to discuss their experiences, what they had learned, and what they saw as the best path forward for the people of Cambodia. It was a chance to reflect on the role food and water security has played on shaping Cambodia in the context of the country’s history with social conflict.

Reicherter: It really wasn’t a history class.  It was really a living history class where the students were urged to take a look at all these different aspects, and then, synthesize them together as best they could.

Fendorf: We asked the students, “If you were going to advise Cambodia on food security and water security given their history, how would you do that?” And one of the best answers they came up with was: Don’t think about the water issue or the food issue as separate from education.  Come back and restore that.  Get a higher education system really up and running again to build back that knowledge base so that it isn’t just outsiders telling them what to do.

Krishnaswami: That was pretty eye opening for me. I was thinking about, “How do we solve these problems?” The solutions, in terms of science, are all there. It’s about how to heal the community.

From left to right: Arjun Krishnaswami, Aitran Doan, Nick Hershey, Scott Fendorf, Daryn Reicherter.


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