The Killing Fields
Published: 12th January, 2019
A mass grave for victims of one of the worst manifestations of control, paranoia and terror created by the Khmer Rouge, haunting and disturbing Choeung Ek was the preferred execution site for people who had been through Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious detention and interrogation centre.
At the former school, more than 14,000 men, women and children were kept and tortured until they confessed to “crimes” against the regime which, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they most certainly could not have committed. Once those confessions were extracted, the victims were summarily killed, first at S-21 but then, as the numbers grew and became unmanageable, at this site just 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh which had once been a Chinese cemetery and orchard. Choeung Ek is but one of thousands of similar sites across Cambodia.
Prisoners were brought here under cover of darkness, many under the belief that they were being transferred to another location, and to the discomfiting churn of an electricity generator and blood-soaked nationalistic songs, they were lined up and had their heads were smashed in—more cost-effective than bullets. Then they were pitched into a hole. The bones of almost 9,000 human beings have been pulled out of the earth here, and many more remain, which is all the more awful when you look around and realise how very small the site really is.
Bodies must have been piled upon bodies, with nothing but a skin of red soil between them, and it is impossible to really imagine the stench, the flies, the scene as it would have looked under harsh sunlight. But the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre has done an excellent job of painting a picture of what went on here, and how.
Once you enter and pay for your ticket, you will be offered a headset which gives an audio-guided tour in 15 different languages. We can’t recommend the audio tour enough—don’t even think of passing it over. Through eyewitness testimony, scientific analysis, painful research and bare-bones digging, the audio tour brings this site to life in all its horror. It is a little surreal to wander around surrounded by others who, like you, are locked into this narrative as it unfolds, all in their own outwardly silent world. But it seems to add a layer of respect that this site demands.
The audio tour takes you around the different parts of the site, from where the victims first arrived, the burial pits, the infamous tree on which babies’ heads were smashed, to the place that many are now enshrined in an unusually tall stupa, adapted for the task of housing more than 5,000 skulls. If you have recently been to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, then these are the people from those photographs that you saw and that realisation can be stomach churning. This site is probably not advisable for the very sensitive. It is important, but deeply harrowing.
Towards the rear there is a large lotus–strewn pond with a dirt trail running around its length. Dotted with chairs, this is a good contemplative area to grab a seat and listen to the four survivor stories on the audio guide. The last story, that of Youk Chhang, who went on to become the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia—is just incredible.
Once you are done listening, double back around to location 13 (the mass grave which contained 166 victims without heads) or continue around and approach it from the other direction. As you wander, watch around where you walk. The scraps of clothing slowly surfacing themselves from below are not plants. Look for the glass case containing bones which continue to be retrieved as they surface—the centre has a team of guardians who look after this.
Location 17 is perhaps the most stirring of the entire presentation. Referred to as the “Magic Tree”, it was from here that the Khmer Rouge hung a loud speaker through which they played propaganda at a high volume to hide the screams of the people as they were murdered. The audio tour has a sample of what this may have sounded like, with the sound of the generator playing in the background. It is quite simply awful and evil in about equal measure.
Once you have completed the tour of the grounds, there is also a small museum tucked away in the southwest corner that is worth a visit. Here there is a permanent exhibition that examines the Khmer Rouge, its structure and some of the personalities involved, as well as some of the tools that were found in the grounds of Choeung Ek. There is also a film-screening room, with a short 15-minute film screened on a loop at regular intervals throughout the day.
The Killing Fields are roughly 15km to the south of Phnom Penh and most independent travellers visit by tuk tuk. Except to pay around $15 for a round trip (including waiting time) and the drive takes around 30-45 minutes depending on traffic. Many hostels offer visits to here on a shared basis starting at around $7.50 a head (excluding admission). These trips often including Tuol Sleng, which is not a bad deal if you can stomach that much horror in a single day. On that topic, if you have sufficient time and want to see both Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, we suggest seeing them on separate days as the two sites can be very distressing for some visitors. Visit Tuol Sleng first as then you’ll be visiting in the natural order of the horrors. If you only have time for one of the two sites, we’d lean towards Tuol Sleng.
To get out here, a tuk tuk will cost about $15.
Address: Choeung Ek commune, Dangkor, around 15km south of Phnom Penh
Coordinates (for GPS): 104º54'7.2" E, 11º29'3.94" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: $6 including audio tour
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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