Visiting Choeung Ek Killing Fields

There are no old people in Cambodia.

Or at least, there seem to be far fewer than in other countries we have visited up until now, to the extent that I actually noticed the first time I saw a lady visibly over 65. There are a few reasons for the lack of aged folk – poverty and poor healthcare are not generally conducive to getting old – but the events that unfolded at Choeung Ek Killing Fields and across Cambodia in the late 1970s were also pretty devastating.

Around a quarter of Cambodia’s population were wiped out during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but the accepted guesstimate is that somewhere in the region of 1.2 – 2 million people were brutally, systematically and deliberately exterminated. To produce the “pure” society of rural, uneducated rice farmers demanded by Pol Pot’s particular crazy-ass brand of Maoism, the educated classes – lawyers, doctors, teachers and so on – were persecuted, tortured and murdered en masse. This gradually extended to anyone considered a possible “threat” to the regime – speakers of a foreign language or even people who wore glasses.

Victorious in Cambodia’s Civil War, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April 1975 to excited greetings from the locals, who were blissfully unaware of what was about to unfold. The excitement of victory and anticipation of change vanished quickly. The urban population – including the old, the sick, the young and the weak – were soon marched, starving and scared, into the countryside to become the rice farmers of Pol Pot’s vision, while the Khmer Rouge busied itself purging Cambodia of those it was most afraid of.

Choeung Ek is the best known of Cambodia’s many “Killing Fields” – sites where political prisoners and other doomed souls were taken on their last journey on earth to meet a grisly and brutal death, often at the hands of a blunt instrument whilst kneeling in front of a mass grave. Now, Choeung Ek is a peaceful orchard with a tranquil lake. Butterflies flutter among the grass and the trees. The Cambodian curators have done a good job of rebuilding the serenity of what was a former Chinese graveyard – free audio tours are provided as part of the entry fee, meaning you are guided around the site in respectful, contemplative silence.

Choeung Ek
The peaceful lake at Choeung Ek

The entry to Choeung Ek is innocuous enough; you begin at a dusty yard which marks the site that transport trucks pulled in to and buildings – long since torn down – housed the “administrators” of this home of horror. It is only when you come across the first remaining relic – a serrated palm tree used to slit throats – that you begin to realise the scale of brutality that took place here.

Choeung Ek
A serrated palm branch – used as a knife by the ever-inventive Khmer Rouge

As you walk through the shady, dappled orchard, a sign politely asks you to take care not to step on human bones. They aren’t being dramatic – Choeung Ek housed some 8,995 bodies and, each year, as the soil is disturbed in rainy season, more bones and scraps of clothing rise to the surface. The curators respectfully don’t disturb them by digging them out, but wait until they have emerged enough to be easily retrieved and taken to the stupor where the rest of the human bones are held. As I read the sign, I looked at my feet. Sure enough, to the left was a small human bone poking out of the soil. It was the first human bone I had ever seen.

Choeung Ek
Signs remind you to be mindful of where you tread at Choeung Ek

Walk a little further and you come to the pockmarked earth, which mark the sites of the multiple, slapdash, shallow graves hastily dug and hastily filled. Even the old trees in the orchard were forced to play their part for the Khmer Rouge; the “killing tree” was used to beat babies to death before they were slung in the same pit as their mothers. I’ll spare you further description. Prayer beads are now hung on the tree and railings as private, yet cumulative, tribute to the dead.

Choeung Ek
The Killing Tree of Choeung Ek

The audio tour deftly moves between explaining what you are witnessing and accounts of those who had first hand experience of the Khmer Rouge, along with a recreation of the spine chilling last sounds inmates arriving at Choeung Ek would have heard – thundering diesel generators to power floodlights (so killing could take place around the clock) and loud, haunting propaganda songs played over the top to hide the screams. I hope never to hear anything so blood curdling again as long as I live.

The last stop on the tour is a tall and elegant pagoda, erected to house all the recovered bones into an appropriate final resting place, in hope that the victims can be at peace. The recovered bones are so numerous that they fit over five stories of the pagoda. The skulls often have dents and holes in them.

Choeung Ek
The Choeung Ek pagoda

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Whilst Choeung Ek now has an oddly peaceful atmosphere, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum lifts the veil to show the Khmer Rouge’s horrors in all their preserved glory.

A former school, the Khmer Rouge adopted it and turned it into a prison and interrogation site. The long corridors and echoing stairwells feel oddly familiar to – if more severe than – my own former high school. Until you look inside the former classrooms. Beds, still with restraints attached and metal bars discarded on them, have misshapen slats and dents where it appears a heavy object has smashed into it with force. The tiles around the bed are strangely discoloured.

Choeung Ek
A room at Tuol Sleng

Perversely, the Khmer Rouge were diligent and thorough record keepers. There are rooms and rooms filled with boards of countless black and white photos of their victims.

Choeung Ek
One of the many rooms showing victims at Tuol Sleng

The faces that look back are haunting – scared, confused and in some cases defiant. For most, it will be the last photograph ever taken of them. Surprisingly, there are even one or two Westerners in the records; a handsome, bouffant-haired Australian gazes back from his photograph, accompanied by a typed (and rather suspect) “confession”. These photos are chilling in themselves; the photos of half-dead torture victims even more so.

Choeung Ek
Photographs of the victims of Tuol Sleng

Some rooms were divided into cells, presumably to accommodate the increasing number of people being arrested by the paranoid Khmer Rouge. The cells – crudely thrown together from cement and breeze blocks – are barely wide enough for me to stand in them sideways but were home to prisoners awaiting their fate.

Choeung Ek
A Tuol Sleng prisoner cell

Revulsion at the brutal genocide that took place in Cambodia is a natural and obvious reaction. Anger at Pol Pot and his cronies is clear in the defaced photographs around the museum.

Choeung Ek
A defaced photograph of Pol Pot at Tuol Sleng

The West, however, were surprisingly slow to catch on. Right up until the late 1990s, the Khmer Rouge were given UN recognition and a seat on the UN counsel, and the British government – in perhaps their most slow-clap worthy action of all time – even provided aid funding. Aid funding!! Even today, justice feels frustratingly thin on the ground. Pol Pot died an old man in his late 70s, in his bed, with his wife at his side. To date, only three people have been tried and imprisoned for the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. Three people. For over a million deaths.

I debated whether to write this blog post. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng have been covered far more articulately and sensitively than I could ever manage by many other travel blogs, and my initial thoughts were that the last thing Cambodia needs is my navel gazing travel blog dredging up a painful and still-raw past. A conversation at the Choeung Ek pagoda with a Khmer man changed my mind.

“How does this make you feel?”, he asked quietly as we stood side by side, quietly surveying the rows of smashed in skulls
“Heartsick” I murmured, unable to articulate my feelings any better “how could people do this?”
He nodded, understanding. “I’m glad people come” he replied “people should know. They must know.”

Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng aren’t the easiest places to visit. The day we spent there felt like a day spent staring into the darkest corners of human nature. And yet, at the same time I was overcome by the dignity and courageous thoughtfulness that had gone into preserving these places, and the small gestures of humanity such as the pagoda and the prayer bracelets that lined the mass graves. There is much to learn about Cambodia’s long and interesting history – it is so much more than the Khmer Rouge – but to ignore this dark period would, I think, be doing the country (and the victims) a disservice.

Choeung Ek
Prayer bracelets left in tribute to those killed at Choeung Ek

It would be easy to write the Khmer Rouge off as a dark mark on the pages of history, and to consign these sites to the past on the basis that we have nothing to learn from evil regimes of the past. Genocides are not the stuff of today.

Except that they are.

In North Korea (not to mention other countries cheerfully destroying their own people) a secretive, murderous regime continues to imprison, starve and repress its citizens. And what does the world do? Very little. Oh, except make a mediocre Hollywood comedy.

Must try harder, humanity.

If you want to visit Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng

Firstly, I really do recommend that you do. Despite my rather grim write up, it is a thought provoking, educational place which also helped me to understand Cambodia today a little better, and I’m very glad we went.

  • Arranging a visit to the site is easy – most Phnom Penh tuk tuk drivers know the route and will happily take you to both as part of a day trip. We paid $15 for our driver, who waited for us at both sites and then dropped us back at our hotel. I think the going rate is about $11-15, so no need to pay more than we did.
  • The journey out to Choeung Ek is a half hour tuk tuk ride along an often dusty and bouncy road. If you can, wear a pollution mask or a scarf around your face in dry season
  • Although the sites aren’t religious, they are obviously solemn places of remembrance and reflection. Dress appropriately – shoulders should be covered and shorts or a skirt to at least knee length
  • The entrance fee (in January 2015) to Choeung Ek was $6 each, which included the audio tour. Entrance to Tuol Sleng was $3.25 each; we were short changed on our entrance fee here (accidentally I’m sure) so it would be wise to carry the exact change, or as close as you can.
  • Plan the timing of your visit within your Phnom Penh stay, and do make sure you visit other attractions to get a more rounded sense of Cambodia – it is much more than Khmer Rouge and atrocities. We went to the National Museum of Cambodia the day after, which allowed us to learn about other aspects of Cambodian history and was a good “antidote” to the rather heavy subject matter of the day before.

5 Comments

  1. Amy said:

    I found our visit to the killing fields really disturbing but important too. Even though there’s a lot of information out there about what happened in Cambodia I still think it’s important that you wrote about what you learnt; so many people still don’t know much about the Cambodian genocide and remembering the people who died will hopefully help us all prevent future genocides.

    February 22, 2015
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Thanks for commenting Amy. I couldn’t agree more – people should know the brutal, horrible truth.
      The small details such as how victims were killed disturbed me (how can humans be so calculatingly cruel?!) as well as the fact that our own government gave them financial support. I was so upset and ashamed then.
      I hope lessons are learned but when you read about some of the stuff happening in the rest of the world I’m not that optimistic 🙁

      February 22, 2015
      Reply
  2. Allison Chaloner said:

    Thank you for writing this post Katie. Your description of the sites is fantastic and certainly brought back memories of our visit. As you said, it is so important that people are reminded of such events, in the hope that even just one person will change the way they act in future. When Duch was tried, I wrote a post on Facebook about it and couldn’t believe there was not one single response – not sure if this was out of ignorance or denial or indifference or people just being caught up in their own little perfect worlds – but I am so glad you have raised awareness of it too. Oddly enough, seeing these sites is a big part of what has made Cambodia one of my most favourite travel destinations to date, I suppose because it makes me so grateful for all that I have – and more importantly, for all that I have not had to ensure, that others unfortunately have.

    May 3, 2015
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Thanks for your lovely comment Alli. It was a very moving place and I’m so glad we visited, heartbreaking as it was.

      I too am surprised the Khmer Rouge regime doesn’t get more attention when you compare it to, say, the Nazi regime in Europe. I do wonder whether it is because it happened Far Away or whether its because people outside the country only really found out when it was too late and so it seems a bit more removed. I do feel sad that Cambodia won’t have more legal justice, but hopefully that won’t hold them back from rebuilding and healing as a country.

      May 5, 2015
      Reply

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