As much as it may seem that all I do when I travel is eat, drink and eat and drink some more I actually have a passion for history and always make time for local museums or places of historical interest when I travel. My trip to Phnom Penh was no different and whilst the Killing Fields is not an easy trip to make, it was one I felt compelled to take. *Some of the photos in this post are of a sensitive nature. Cambodia suffered an intense civil war in the early 1970’s culminating in the formation of “Democratic Kampuchea” in April 1975 by the Communist Party of Kampuchea or the “Khmer Rouge” Between 1975 and 1979 when they were finally liberated by the Vietnamese, Cambodia was ripped apart from the inside out.
The state seized all land and underwent mass agricultural reform in order to become completely self sufficient – this meant they needed to increase rice production threefold (in a similar vein to that of other communist nations such as the USSR and China) which was an impossible task. The state forbade everything from money and possessions to education and religion and the war on so called “intellectuals” meant that even wearing glasses could be reason enough to find yourself singled out for brutal punishment. In a truly spine chilling statement, Pol Pot their leader declared “It is better to kill an innocent than spare an enemy by mistake”
As many as 1.7 million people are believed to have been slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, many of those deaths were at Choeung Ek. Arriving in the middle of the night on transporters from Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, no one could possibly have foreseen the horrors that lay in store. Blidfolded and gagged they were hacked to death with anything the Khmer rouge cadres could get their hands on from hack saws to bamboo spears – no one wanted to “waste money” by using a bullet to shoot them with. Body upon body was thrown into mass graves before chemicals were scattered over the bodies to hasten decay and reduce the smell which would have alerted neighbouring farmers.
In 1980, after the liberation 129 mass graves were discovered at Choeung Ek and after excavating just 89 of these 9,000 bodies were found; men, women, children – no one had been spared. In 1988 after years of excavations and Buddhist ceremonies held to try and give some sense of peace and closure to the people and the land, a museum and a memorial statue were built commemorating the victims of the Khmer rouge at Choeung Ek.
We had taken a tuk tuk from outside our guest house for just $15 who drove us down the bumpy, dusty roads (many undergoing repair work) and waited outside for us to finish before bringing us back. Whilst guides are also available, for just a few dollars you can take an excellent audio guide around the site as well as visit the small museum dedicated to telling the victims stories.
For the nearly two hours I spent at the Killing fields the only sounds I heard were that of the audio guide and the wind rustling through the leaves on the trees around us. No one spoke, no one seemed capable of words. All around me tourists of every age and every nationality walked or took a moment to sit and reflect in utter silence as they tried to contemplate the horrors that unfolded here less than 35 years ago. As I said, the Killing Fields is not an easy trip to make but with genocide still committed even today, it is non the less an extremely important one.