Visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia
Why Visit The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) At Phnom Penh?
Of all the places I went to in Cambodia, the Killing Fields stood out as a sinister and tragic place. As my guide gently told me, “This is just one of many killing fields in Cambodia. They find them all the time.” The idea that a country can do such a thing to its own people is sad and terrifying. We can only hope never to repeat these grievous actions.
That is also the main reason to visit, to try to understand parts of this countries history so these kinds of acts will never be repeated. To see where totalitarian regimes with utopic dreams can lead to.
I didn’t take any photos as I did at Tuol Sleng. I don’t remember why, but it just didn’t seem like a place to enjoy taking pictures.
You don't have to visit the killing fields of Cambodia with a guide. You can get headsets with audio tours. You can also just walk, watch, read and remember.
Pol Pot and the Cambodian Killing Fields
But today I was at the main place at Choeung Ek where tourists go to see where thousands of Cambodians were executed under the cruel dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge. But how did this cruel regime come about?
Pol Pot was the dictator who led Cambodia under the fearsome Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. He was born Saloth Sar in a small Cambodian village called Prek Sbauv and his parents were fairly affluent.
Pol Pot and Marxist-Leninism
In 1949 he went to Paris on a scholarship to study radio technology and became involved in communist circles. In 1953 Pol Pot returned to Cambodia at a time when this region of Asia was revolting against French rule.
Pol Pot formed the Khmer Rouge Party which followed a Marxist-Leninism style of policy and when communism was outlawed he moved with his followers to the countryside. In 1968 he started a national uprising and gained strength in the North East of Cambodia. During 1970 civil war occurred when Prince Sihanouk was out of the country and a coup was declared.
The Khmer Rouge and Cambodia's Civil War
Over half a million people died during this civil war that was complicated by ongoing conflict with Vietnam. As the Vietnam War came to a close Pol Pot seized his moment. On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh.
Almost immediately the citizens were evacuated to the countryside and civil servants, professionals and intellectuals had their possessions taken away. These people were sent to the countryside to work in fields as part of an education program.
What happened at the Cambodian Killing Fields?
Anyone who complained was imprisoned, interrogated, and killed. During this regime it is estimated that 1.5 million people died of malnutrition as well as being killed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1979 the Vietnamese Army invaded and Pol Pot was overthrown but Cambodia suffered years of famine thanks to their incompetent agricultural policies.
Entering the Killing Fields was a surreal moment just imagining the thousands of people who would have been driven here blindfolded to be killed. Some walked from the city to meet their deaths. Today this was a garden of sorts but there were still many reminders of its bloody past. A path led to some palm trees and leaning against one tree was a palm branch.
“This is palm knife,” said my guide, “These were used to kill people.” I looked on in horror and had no idea that palms were so dangerous. It just looked like a simple branch. “Look closer,” continued my guide, “This edge is razor sharp. Farmers use them in the fields to cut crops.
Not Enough Bullets
But as the Khmer Rouge got short of bullets, they used these to cut off heads. Some people got a blow to the back of the head to kill them. The Khmer Rouge knew exactly where to hit.” This was something I had never really considered about palm trees and their many uses.
I walked on past the sinister looking blade and came to a sunken area. This was a burial pit where 450 bodies had been placed. At a second area, 100 people without heads were buried. Apparently, people with “challenging heads” were beheaded. This appeared to be the intellectuals and the people who asked too many questions.
I paused for a while, thankful that I have the freedom to write what I please and to speak out or challenge issues I disagree with. For these people, losing a life for asking a question just seemed another world away but it really had occurred and right here.
I continued along the path to a third burial area where 100 women and children had been stripped naked before being killed. Most probably these were families of those intellectuals and professionals who were no longer required. As I walked along the trail I almost tripped on a twig.
My guide turned and gently smiled, “Oh these appear all the time,” he said, “When it rains or when soil is moved, they find new bones.” I looked closer at this white twig and realized it was a human femur.
The Magic Tree of the Killing Fields
So many people had been killed here that it was impossible to know how many lay here. And sometimes a piece of clothing or a bone emerged that told the history of that time. Gardeners quietly removed them and ensured they were buried properly and with dignity. Those old rags poking from the earth were really the clothing left by someone about to be killed.
This really was a very troubling place. Ahead of me was a massive tree with a loudspeaker in the branches. This was the infamous Magic Tree. Apparently, when people arrived they were led to a waiting area to listen to a magic tree that played music.
The Khmer Rouge played loud music blasting it from the branches of the tree to drown out any noise of the killing machines just further down the trail. It seemed that everything had been thought of here but I had a further question.
DDT for Corpses and Smells
“Wasn’t there a smell with all these decomposing bodies? Didn’t people suspect anything?” I asked. My guide smiled softly, “The Khmer Rouge used DDT to disguise smells and they put this all over the bodies and where they were killing.”
Knowing DDT stays in the soil for generations I quickly realised that even today there must be contaminated land all over Cambodia that was having a poisonous legacy on the health of the population. What was the true legacy of this genocide?
There were more unanswered questions I felt. I moved on to a massive tower that was the centrepiece of this memorial. This was a four-sided glass tower filled with human skulls just staring out from their resting places.
Skulls and Bones
They looked out over the killing field and served as a sombre reminder of what had gone on before. Some skulls had holes where the person had received a bullet or blow to the head.
In a corner of the garden, there was a building to watch a film about the history of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia. This was very moving to see and told the story of what had happened during the 1970s when an entire generation of thinkers and professionals were wiped out. Some of the visuals were particularly distressing to watch.
In the neighbouring room, there was a photographic display outlining the events of this time. Somehow it was all too much to take in at once and I sat in the garden just reflecting on the place I had just visited. But there was one more question I had for my guide. I wasn’t sure how old he was but I was curious to know what the experience of his family had been.
A Tragic, Must-Visit Place for Remembering
“Were you born at the time of this regime,” I asked. He turned and smiled,”I was born right at the end so I did not see this. But it affected my family. Even today my sister cannot eat pumpkin because it reminds her of that time. My brother, he will not eat porridge for the same reason. They were children but they remember these times. We were in the country and somehow my parents survived. One sister died of starvation.”
Visiting the Killing Fields is one of those places every visitor to Cambodia should go in order to understand what happened and the impact on the country today. The more I looked at this the more I wanted to ask, like why no one resisted or complained. But that was obvious. Families turned on other families to save themselves.
Executioners found themselves executed by new generations of murderers and there was no media or communication. Apart from Pol Pot of course. Whilst thousands silently starved the world moved on and Cambodia is now recovering from years of famine and destruction. There are new businesses as the new generation of Cambodians encourage visitors and rehabilitate those maimed by landmines, war and conflict.
Today the Killing Fields are a place to remember the tragedy and crimes of the 1970’s and they must never be forgotten. After visiting both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng take time to reflect and be thankful for the freedom we have today. Do something positive and uplifting afterward, but do not forget the experience of your visit to this very special and tragic place.
© 2016 Sam Shepards