A mass grave for victims of one of the worst manifestations of control, paranoia and terror created by the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek was the preferred execution site for people who had been through Tuol Sleng, or S-21, 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. Choeung Ek is one of thousands of similar sites across Cambodia.
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.
They 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, they bring 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 — apart from the unmitigated arsehole who lit up a cigarette on the steps of the stupa housing the skulls of the victims. Please don’t be that guy.
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 they 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.
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.
How to get there
To get out here, a tuk tuk will cost about $15 (negotiable), or $5 for a moto.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 9th January, 2017.