The Killing Fields is rated the number one “Thing To Do” in Phnom Penh by TripAdvisor. When you encounter these two signs at the Choeung Ek Genodical Center, you will soberly realize you will be witnessing a horrific event: the Cambodian Genocide. Not a traditional tourist site.
For a riveting account, author Loung Ung recounts her family’s heart wrenching and deadly experience in her book, First They Killed My Father. Former totalitarian dictator, Pol Pot, exterminated approximately 25% of an 8 million population from 1975-1979. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, instituted Year Zero, which dictated that all traditions in Cambodian culture must be decimated and an entirely new culture must be created. Pol Pot forcibly drove the society to transition to a primitive, agrarian society. He emptied cities, executing the educated or even those with eye glasses who the Khmer Rouge deemed to be a threat to his agrarian utopia. During his reign, through a combination of executions, horrific working conditions, malnutrition and substandard medical care, nearly 2 million Cambodians perished. They are two chilling and stark memorials, the Choeung Ek Genodical Center and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that speak to this appalling time.
My tuk tuk puttered to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, navigating the busy streets, as I sweated in the roomy carriage. After forty-five minutes I arrived at the Choeung Ek Genodical Center better known as the Killing Field. There are killing fields located throughout the country, where over 1,000,000 people were executed. At Choeung Ek, nearly 9,000 remains were discovered in the mass graves. It was a sunny, bright day with a spattering of flowers decorating the grounds. There was a harsh contrast between the violence that was perpetrated here and the serene, sunny day of my visit.
I grabbed the audio guide narrated by a genocide survivor who hauntingly led me through the center. There were multiple areas where you were confronted with the mass graves.
Another grotesque sign depicting the horrors of the killing field.
Bones and remnants of clothes constantly fight their way to the surface. This is an incredibly chilling reminder of what happened here. Once a month the staff collects these remains.
A Buddhist stupa serves as a centerpiece to the center. Inside are over 5,000 skulls, the victims that were found here. Many skulls have been smashed or bludgeoned. You can see the evidence.
After my visit ended at Choeung Ek, I headed back to the heart of Phnom Penh to visit the nefarious . It was originally a high school known as Chao Ponhea Yat High School, but during the reign of the Khmer Rouge it was known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). Out of an estimated 17,000 people who passed through S-21, there are only 12 known survivors.
S-21 was used as an interrogation and torture facility. Prisoners were kept here in inhumane conditions. Through torture, the goal was to force confessions and to list known “traitors”, who would then be subsequently arrested, tortured, and executed. After the graves filled up at S-21, prisoners were brought to the killing fields of Choeung Ek to be executed. To understand the horror, consider watching the film, Killing Field, based on a true account.
At S-21 you will stroll through former classrooms they served as prison cells. Hundreds of black and white photos are displayed of the victims of S-21 that were recovered in the prison. These photos are extremely haunting with sullen eyes staring back. You can imagine these victims are anticipating their fate.
As you explore Cambodia, it is difficult to imagine that nearly every person in the country was directly affected by this inhuman event. You will be greeted by many smiles throughout your journey.
Here are some of those great Cambodian smiles.
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