Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cambodia - The Killing Fields (Phnom Penh city)

Many of us know this place because of the Hollywood movie many years back regarding the story of the two journalists caught in the midst of Cambodian civil war. The emotion-filled movie evolved between the two journalists. I am one of the millions that venerate these journalists. That was the story of the Killing Fields that I have known. I never thought that I would have the chance to visit one of the actual Killing Fields.

Coming from Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam by bus, I stayed at Phnom Penh for 6 days. It was a golden opportunity for me to visit The Killing Fields. I went there by tuk-tuk and initially haggled hard with the driver. From 20 USD, I was able to lower it to 10 USD for round-trip fare including waiting period. It took us around 45 minutes to reach the place. I was surprised to learn that the place was locally known as Choeung Ek.


I paid 5 USD entrance fee and was given an English audio guide with headphone. It didn't occur to me that a simple interest to see those thousand of skulls inside the Buddhist stupa would result to a very disturbing memory that would be tattooed to my mind forever. Further, I have learned the true story of Choeung Ek, the most known of all the killing fields.

I started my "exploration" of Choeung Ek by listening to my audio set at point number 1. You simply follow the instruction being narrated clearly by the audio set. 

As you go along those marked spots, a corresponding narration would be played by the audio set and sometimes if further explanations are needed you are asked by the audio set to press some number to hear them. There are some parts of the narration where the actual people involve on this genocide is telling what have happened in that area.

I don't want to expound the story on each numbered spot inside Choeung Ek because until now my mind is not comfortable to look back on those marked events. I can honestly say that my mind has been traumatized by the unspeakable actions by a government to its own people. Anyway, just to give you an idea on the history of Choeung Ek and other killing fields here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese (except for those already prominent among the Khmer Rouge themselves), ethnic Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant."[5] Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as "the purest genocide of the Cold War era."[6] 

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. You can reflect on these shots and I hope and pray that these pictures will not linger in your mind.

Choeung Ek is the most famous monument of the Killing Fields. This is where the political prisoners of Tuol Sleng (S21) are sent to be executed. On records, around 15,000 victims were brutally executed here.


Normally, when you cut the branches of a palm tree, you cut it at the base so as to prevent the branches from accidentally wounding anybody due to their sharp edges. However, for this palm tree, the branches were protruding because sometimes they used these sharp branches to slit the throat of the prisoners and dump their bodies in shallow graves.

450 victims in this grave




the children were forcibly taken from their mother to be killed

note the gift offering at the base of the tree

Khmer Rouge cleansed their own ranks as well. Those found or accused as traitors were beheaded and thrown into this grave.

150 headless bodies in this grave

To avoid suspicion in what was going on inside this compound, the Khmer Rouge used loud speakers that played local music or song to make it appear that some meeting or activities were on-going and to mask the cries and moans of the victims while they were being executed. From the audio set, I heard the actual music being played while the generator was grumbling at the background. The sound still lingers inside my mind.

This is the last spot before the Buddhist stupa. From here the ambiance was full of sadness. You won't see any sign of cheerfulness you normally see from tourists. As for me, I can hardly bring myself into remembering those events and narration.

This Buddhist stupa contains more than 5,000 skulls of the victims. There are still mass graves left undisturbed.

At the corner of the area is a museum. Inside it are some pictures of the victims and perpetrators. It would be nice to pay a visit to the museum as well. To add, picture taking is not allowed inside.

I strongly recommend this place to any tourist in Cambodia. This could be once in a lifetime experience. We can visit many touristy places but there are few places that can touch our inner being and make us evaluate our life.

I have visited Choeung Ek before Tuol Sleng (S21 the movie). For those who are planning to visit Choeung Ek, it is preferable to pay a visit to Tuol Sleng first. This is where the victims are interrogated and detained before being executed at Choeung Ek. If you are lucky you can have a photo shot with one of the seven Tuol Sleng survivors.

I spent around 2 hours inside this place. I searched for my tuk-tuk service and found it parked underneath a tree. The tuk-tuk driver asked me if I would like to take my lunch at nearby restaurant for it was almost 1 PM. I lost my appetite after what I have experienced inside. I decided to go back directly to my hotel.

Stay tuned for my S21 (Tuol Sleng) post.

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