50: Cambodia > Phnom Penh > Choeung Ek’s Killing Field

Morning, April 5, 2008

Today we are in Phnom Penh, and at the top of the agenda is a visit to the infamous ‘Killing Field’ of Choeung Ek. Operated by the cruel Khmer Rouger regime of 1975-79, some 20,000 were thought to have been executed and buried there in mass graves.

From downtown Phnom Penh, we take National Road #2 and head south, and soon we spot the signage to Choeung Ek.

From downtown Phnom Penh we take Route 2 heading southwards

Some 15km later, along the parched ricefields, there’s a turnoff marked by a prominent notice. March is the start of the hot season, and the temp is in the mid-30s now.

About 15km later, there's a turn-off to Choeung Ek, the infamous Killing Fields

At the end of the 500m metal road, past houses, orchards and ricefields, we enter a compound and got ourselves entrance tickets.

The back of the ticket tells a brief story. Management of the place has been outsourced to a little-known Japanese company, thus inviting some controversy – see HERE.

Soon we come face-to-face with a tall stupa, with perspex door and windows.

Looking back at stupa

Upon closer inspection, we realise the stupa is full of human skulls, stacked in tiers.

A reminder of a grim past

Most of the skulls show horrific damages.

Display in the glass tower

Stacks of them, some 5,000 I read. It’s easy to dehumanise them and think of them as ‘props’, but these skulls used to be real people, commonfolks like you and me. That’s the hard bit to accept.

Tiers of them

This group belonged to 15-20-year-old girls. Note the broken skulls. Who, in their right minds, would horrifically murder these hapless young ladies?

Juvenile female, 15-20 yrs old, says the sign

When the bodies were exhumed soon after the Khmer Rouge was driven away in Jan 1979, they kept the clothes of the dead.

Clothes exhumed

To the side of the stupa, there’s a yard where buildings used to stand. At the far end, there’s a small exhibition building.

Compound in front of stupa of skulls

To the left of the exhibits, the area where mass graves were discovered only in 1980.

Across the yard, a small exhibition building

The front of the skull stupa looks peaceful and serene today …

In front of the stupa

… but during 1975-79, this is the beginning of the end for thousands of terrified people.

Truck-stop for prisoners

Healthy tamarinds abound, and they could have been a silent witness to the whole sordid event.

Healthy tamarinds, witness to atrocities

Further up, the site of the detention area for the doomed folks.

Detention site

I’m interrupted by two lively noisy kids playing on the vines, oblivious to the past horrors of the very place.

Kids play everywhere, oblivious to tragic history

Thirty years ago this was a place of death, now a place of life and zest.

Executioners' office site

I look back and try to comprehend the tragic happenings in such a small space.

Used to be buildings here, but demolished

It is a tad hot, and I soon find myself in the shade of the exhibition house, where an oddly prosaic intro to the whole pitiful story is unveiled.

A sketch of the Choeung Ek compound is laid out. They have uncovered 129 graves containing almost 9,000 bodies when exhumation work was stopped in 1980. It is believed another 9,000-10,000 still lay buried in the grounds which won’t be disturbed.

Plan of Choeung Ek shows location of mass graves

A brief description of Choeung Ek.

About Choeung Ek

And a map for orientation. Sadly Choeung Ek is just one of almost 5,000 killing fields found so far all over Cambodia. The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge had an extensive and systematic genocide programme. More than 1mil (some say up to 2mil) people were believed killed, out of a population of just 7mil.

Phnom Penh map shows location of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng

I look behind the exhibition area at an area of the orchard, yet untouched. There could still be undiscovered mass graves here too. Beware of snakes too.

Peaceful field now

Meanwhile a young family joins me.

Local visitors

I hope no more nightmares for these lovely kids, who have no clue what hit their elders.

Hope no more such nightmares for these kids

I saunter over the grass and enter the zone where the mass graves were uncovered. This one had 450 victims.

Mass grave of 450 victims

To save precious bullets, the most popular method to kill an inmate is to whack the back of the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, thus breaking it (imagine how it sounded). Since he or she was blindfolded and made to kneel next to a pit, the lifeless body would just slide into it, which became a mass grave.

Killing tools site, popular method was to smash back of victim's neck with cart axle

I glance back at the skull stupa. In front of me, pockmarked earth marks the excavated graves.

Another view of stupa

Further down towards the river, another mass grave.

Another mass grave

More victims of terrible deaths.

Sad description

More excavated mass graves.

Exhumed mass graves

With the river at the back, I wonder how spooky this spot is at night.

There's a river at the back of mass graves

Yet another mass grave …

Yet another mass grave

… for innocent people at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another sad description

Babies and kids were not spared – they were bashed to death against this tree. Note the pile of bones at the base of the tree trunk.

Kids & babies were bashed to death against this tree

This area is full of excavated graves.

More mass graves

Before becoming a killing field, Choeung Ek was an orchard and the site of an old Chinese graveyard, whose tombs can still be seen.

Remnant of old Chinese grave, this place used to be a Chinese graveyard too

Soil erosion will expose human bones from time to time, and these are respectfully collected.

Bones are unearthed all the time

Another bizarre landmark in the compound.

Another bizarre landmark

Families still come to offer prayers and offerings.

Family members still come to pray

More sites of mass graves.

Excavated mass graves pockmark the area

My fellow travelers have had enough. Aina says this is a crazy place …

My travel-mates have had enough

… and promptly walks back to the carpark.

Then I hear kids’ laughter, and surprisingly there’s a primary school barely 100m from the perimeter of Choeung Ek, which will remain but a chapter in Cambodia’s turbulent history to be studied by these same kids. I just cannot understand how fellow human beings can be so brutal and sadistic in this modern time.

Nearby, a primary school compound

Before I head back to the car, I take a final look at an undisturbed part of Choeung Ek, where many more poor victims may be buried. Rest-in-Peace, all.

Possibly more mass graves here

Soon we are entering the southern suburbs of Phnom Penh for our next destination – Tuol Sleng – another Khmer Rouge horror site. And yes, just like in tsunami-ravaged Aceh, one can do NGO-spotting here too.