WARNING: This post is not an easy read and contains graphic content that you may find disturbing. I will not be offended if you choose not to read it.
Sitting in the back of our stopped tuk-tuk heading out of Phnom Penh, we peered out ahead at the endless traffic. Our driver finally hung up his cell phone and turned around to look at us. “Traffic not usually this bad,” he said. “Motorbike accident ahead, someone died.” A few minutes later, we rode past the scene in horrified silence upon seeing pools of blood still wet on the ground. This would set the tone for the rest of the day…
Walking into Choeung Ek, the most well-known killing field in Cambodia, you’d have no idea about the atrocities that occurred just four decades ago. The place is peaceful with a big green lawn, lush trees, and an interesting temple.
However, we’d later find out that the above picture is not actually a temple, but a stupa, within which thousands of skulls and bones of the genocidal victims are preserved…
We paid our $6, put on our audio headsets, and walked to Choeung Ek’s Stop 1, where the narrator (a survivor) began telling us the story…
In April 1975, leader Pol Pot led his communist party called the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh and seized control. Within days, all inhabitants were evacuated to farms to perform hard labor. Any intellectuals (specifically doctors, leaders, teachers, etc) as well as religious people and foreigners were eliminated in an attempt to “purify” the country and turn it into a brainwashed population of classless laborers in the fields.
Those eliminated from the farms were sent to the killing fields, where they were brutally tortured and murdered. Within the four years that the Khmer Rouge had control (1975-1979), they killed off an estimated 25% of their own people.
Mass graves were created for the executed or those who died of malnutrition or forced labor, and even today, especially after heavy rain, bones still rise to the surface of the ground.
There are big containers with remains of victims’ clothing and bones that have been found.
But the worst part is the killing tree, upon which babies’ heads were smashed before they were tossed into the closest grave. Pol Pot didn’t want children to grow up and be able to take revenge for their families, and he has been quoted saying, “It is better to kill an innocent than leave an enemy alive.”
While crowded with tourists every day, Cambodia’s Killing Fields are chillingly silent as visitors learn sickening facts about the horror that unfolded 40 years ago.
Though a disconcerting day, a visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Field in Phnom Penh is extremely moving and is necessary for tourists to fully understand Cambodia as a country.
To put things into perspective: any Cambodian older than 40 lived through and survived this harrowing tragedy. There’s a reason that when you walk around the country, the majority of the locals are surprisingly young. And there’s a reason that Cambodia, which was previously very well-developed in comparison to the rest of Southeast Asia, is now working hard to rebuild itself.
During my travels throughout Cambodia, I’ve come to find Cambodians to be the warmest people of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to yet. It’s hard to believe that these friendly Cambodian people have bounced back from such a dark history, but that just makes me love this country a little bit more.