on November 27, 2011
Of course no visit to Phnom Penh would be complete without a visit to the killing fields. No matter how gruesome it may seem this historical site of Choeung Ek is, in my view, a must see if you’re in Cambodia. The main attraction of the site is a first class audio guide that enables you to walk the site in your own pace and "drill down" into further detail if you’re interested. It’s a grisly experience because on this one site alone there were around 17,000 Cambodians (and nine westerners) killed between 1975 and 1978. Apparently across the country Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for the extermination of almost 1.7 million people. And if that wasn’t enough they were killed in horrendous fashion. Most had gone through pain and suffering at S-21 prison and believed that their ordeal was over and they were being moved to a permanent camp. They were transported by the bus load to Choeung Ek and most were executed immediately. Their executioner was also likely to be killed if he didn’t comply and as the prisoner was brought to the edge of a trench he or she would be bludgeoned with a club and then their throat cut, by another Khmer Rouge recruit, with the leaf of the local sugar palm tree which has saw like teeth on it. Of course not everyone executed by this method was killed outright but they were smothered with DDT, to reduce the stench of rotting corpses, and then buried, alive or dead. Horrific as this method sounds it was not the "invention" of the Khmer Rouge – they could refer back to similar executions from previous regimes.There are no original buildings on the site as these were torn down after the regime of Pol Pot was deposed but the audio tour stops you at the places where buildings used to be. Amongst the craters, which are the signs of the burial sites are some original tomb stones and it soon became clear that part of this site had been a Chinese grave yard. However, the Khmer Rouge showed no respect for that and tossed tomb stones out of the way. At points on our tour around the site we saw small bone fragments on the surface alongside remnants of clothes that the executed were wearing at the time of their death. Even after 30 years these are still rising to the surface and offer a chilling reminder to the savagery of that regime. Two sites at Choeung Ek were particularly macabre – the killing tree and the magic tree. At the killing tree many young children were murdered her by the simple technique of swinging them by their ankles and crashing their heads against the tree. After the downfall of the Khmer Rouge many different hair samples and fragments of skulls were found embed on the trunk of this tree. Just standing there, listening to the audio tour it’s still hard to understand how young men could perform this act of savagery on young children, some of whom they would have known personally.The Magic tree doesn’t have any mystical powers but it was here that speakers were rigged up and played loud patriotic music to disguise the screams of the victims. The locals apparently believed that this was a training camp and local headquarters of the Khmer Rouge. I reckon we spent about 2 hours at the site although I’m sure you could do it in much less time if you decided not to walk the perimeter and missed out the video presentation. We did the 10 minute stroll alongside the lake to the evocative sounds of Him Sophy’s "A memory from Darkness" I’m pleased, however, that we gave it the time as it gave me an insight into a Cambodia that I had previously known very little about and completed the story of Pol Pot’s atrocities from the Genocide Museum (see separate journal) that we’d visited the previous day.It’s certainly not a "fun packed" place to visit but it is a moving experience that won’t fail to touch the emotions of any visitor. I'm not sure that I'll ever forget the memorial stupa with its 7 floors full of skulls carefully ordered by age and gender.
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