After an absence of 8.5 years I finally returned to Cambodia with my wife in tow and first up on our itinerary was Choeung Ek a.k.a. the Killing Fields. Ideally, not the greatest way to spend my birthday but as this was to be our only full day in Phnom Penh, there wasn’t much choice.
One of my only regrets from spending so little time in the capital city all those years ago was that I never got to go to this grim place where such monstrosities took place in the late 1970’s under the Pol Pot regime.
Warning: Some readers may find some of these pictures and stories disturbing.
Having taken a tuk-tuk for 15km from the city centre we arrived mid-morning and paid the $6 entrance fee which included a listening device that is available in many languages. I’m not usually one to bother with these kind of things but as it was included in the price I obviously took one and to be without one would make for a fairly pointless visit.
Although there are sign boards around the place, it is very much an audio-based tour and to an onlooker the place is generally just a load of people standing around in the countryside with their headphones on. Not so unlike in the cities these days I guess but what people were listening to here was very different.
Today, it is a peaceful place with chickens roaming freely amidst the swaying branches of the trees and cool breeze passing through the area. All a far cry from four decades ago when about 17,000 people were exterminated on the same site. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth still remain untouched having been exhumed naturally over time due to weather conditions and so on.
My wife and I watched ‘The Killing Fields‘ (1984) just a couple of weeks prior to the trip and the impact of that inspirational movie was still apparent as we wandered and listened to the audio guide. In that film, the protagonist Pran becomes a forced labourer under the “Year Zero” policy of the Khmer Rouge, tries to escape and at some point slips stumbles upon these infamous killing fields where rotting human corpses fill the area. That may have been filmed in Thailand but with the green fields of today masking the past horrors those screen images were very much in my mind.
The audio tour of the area takes you around the various places where such barbarous, cruel crimes were committed by the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime. Such stops include chemical substances store room, killing tools storage room, the executioners’ working office, the bones of victims and the graves.
One of the most harrowing places was the magic tree from which a loudspeaker hung playing out sounds that would drown out the noises of the victims as they were being executed. A spirit house nearby is today covered in memorial bracelets placed there by grieving tourists and locals alike.
The tour ends at the Memorial Stupa where your shoes have to be removed as you enter a building possessing the skulls of over 8000 victims which have been reverently preserved behind the clear glass panels. Each skull was carefully examined and organized by means of death within the tower.
Back in the city and our tour of Cambodia’s depressing past continued as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was next up. This prison was more visually disturbing than the Killing Fields as it was more in-your-face and each visitor is confronted with the conditions that each prisoner suffered.
First impressions were that of it being a high school and it turned out that it did used to be one before it became the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) from the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. This was just one of at least 150 execution centers in Cambodia.
The site has four main buildings which are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Building B holds galleries of black and white photographs as the regime kept extensive records (though not complete) of the estimated 17,000 prisoners who passed through the prison. Buildings A and C were the large and small cells respectively whilst Building D housed instruments used to torture and kill prisoners. Eventually, they ran out of space at Tuol Sleng which is why from the end of 1976 onwards, the prisoners were taken to the aforementioned killing fields of Choeung Ek to be put to death.
Our tuk-tuk driver then took us on to a far less depressing location by the Tonlé Sap River where we could reflect on what we’d seen that day and move on to some more pleasant ways to spend my birthday.
You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt II: Main Temples Of Angkor‘ here