I found it difficult just asking the tuk tuk driver to take us to the Killing Fields. Asking a Cambodian to take me to the Killing Fields doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t know why, it just doesn’t. It’s the darkest period in the history of their country, and I wanted to check it out, take some photos and tell my friends back home I’d been there. Meanwhile the young yuk yuk driver no doubt has family members who were murdered during the horrific Khmer Rouge regime, maybe some even surviving and passing on stories of the atrocities they suffered. Yet here I was asking to be taken there, all the while trying to haggle him down to get the cheapest fare possible. If I’d known how to pronounce it’s actual name, Choeung Ek, I would have said that instead. Little did I know this minor inconvenience would pale into insignificance after spending a couple of hours at the Killing Fields.
Just getting there is hard work. It’s about 45 minutes from where we were staying by the Royal Palace and the roads through the local community are in a terrible state of disrepair. Sarah and I wondered what it must be like for the locals to live so close to one of the world’s darkest places. There were school kids in uniforms riding home on their bikes, those that could afford to go at least. Parents were working in their shops, and others were going about their daily chores. But anyone over 40 years of age is an actual survivor, where between 2-3 million people, from an initial population of just over six million, were murdered between 1975-79. Many of them still living here in the shadows of Choeung Ek.
Arriving at Killing Fields
We arrived late morning and there were already many tourists there. Some were just leaving, their faces failing to hide the impact of the experience. On entry you’re given an audio pack that paints the picture well. As you make your way around you can listen to information about what happened, both by the narrator, as well as actual soldiers and survivors from the period. Before coming here it’s hard to comprehend how anyone could be a soldier in Pol Pot’s regime, but after listening to the soldiers themselves, most of who were just peasants working their fields when the Khmer Rouge gained power, it made much more sense.
Pol Pot’s deranged genocidal communist vision meant anyone educated was marked for death. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who wore glasses, had soft hands, anyone deemed intelligent and could think for themselves were considered a danger to the regime. They were rounded up, locked up and tortured at Tuol Sleng Security Prison (S-21), then transported to Choeung Ek for immediate execution. The bodies dumped in mass graves on top of each other, then doused in chemicals such as DDT to eliminate the stench of the dead bodies and kill off any victims who were buried alive.
A site with not much to see
The truth is there’s not a lot to see at Choeung Ek, most of the original buildings have long since been torn down. As you make you’re way around the site small monuments with information boards stand where buildings used to be. There’s an eerie feeling in the fields, not just because of the history, but because everyone is silent, audio guides filling minds with harrowing stories, faces reacting as the realisation of what happened here begins to manifest. There are mass graves where thousands of men, women and children are yet to be excavated, the bones and clothing of the dead clearly visible protruding from the ground. You literally walk on the crude, primitive graves of the victims, innocent Cambodians who clearly do not, or more accurately, can not rest in peace.
The Killing Tree
The most difficult part of the day for me was seeing the actual tree where children were bashed to death. Executions on adults were carried out with poison, spades, machetes and sharp bamboo sticks because bullets were expensive and the innocent victims deemed not worthy of the cost. Children and infants were killed by guards holding their legs and bashing their heads against one particular tree, often in front of their distraught parents. The rationale was to stop them from growing up and seeking revenge against the Khmer Rouge. Jack was there with us, asleep in his pram, and the thought of all those innocent children murdered so ruthlessly made me feel both angry and sad at the same time. I don’t recommend anyone take children who can comprehend what happened here until they are mature enough to handle it. Only a parent knows when the time is right for their children.
Human remains a constant reminder
The audio tour finishes at the tall Buddhist stupa, an acrylic glass monument filled with various weapons of death and over 5,000 skulls looking out over the tourists below. If you look closely you can see how each one died, a hole signifying a rod being rammed through the skull, a crack evidence of a machete attack. You can go inside and see the skulls and weapons up close, but I could only last a minute or so before I had to leave.
Listening to the excellent audio guide, available in many languages, I learnt a few things that shocked and appalled me, not only from what happened during that tumultuous time, but also after. This genocide lasted for four years before the Vietnamese invaded to liberate the Cambodians. Where we the big nations such as the USA, UK, Australia, Germany and France during this time? In fact, even after the Vietnamese invaded, these and many other developed Western countries continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the rightful leaders of Cambodia. They were funded by the United Nations and flown to New York to attend conferences and meetings. Pol Pot lived out his life in luxury, dying at the ripe old age of 82, a good 25 years above the current life expectancy in Cambodia. He and most others never paid for their crimes against humanity. It sickens me that my country sat on their hands during the genocide, then recognised that murderous regime after they were removed from power. I don’t know enough about it, so maybe I’m completely wrong, but on face value the reputation of the West took another beating here.
It was a tough day as a traveller, to visit the Killing Fields followed by the Tuol Sleng Security Prison (S-21). But for any visitor to Phnom Penh, these are must do experiences. And remember, while Choeung Ek is the most famous killing field, there were over 300 others across Cambodia during those four years of Khmer Rouge rule.