The Killing Fields of Cambodia
NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS IMAGES AND DESCRIPTIONS THAT SOME MAY FIND DISTURBING
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are not a place that everyone would choose to visit, despite being firmly on the tourist trail in Phnom Penh. But this is part of the recent history of Cambodia, still vivid in the memories of its older generation, and if they can’t run away from that past then arguably nor should we.
I started our day thinking that it might feel inappropriate to take photos here and at Tuol Sleng, the Geocide museum; but as we started to explore I realised that I felt strongly that it was important not only to take but to share them. I understand however if you would prefer not to see them; in that case you are welcome to stop reading at this point.
I shared a brief history of the Khmer Rouge period in my earlier post about Tuol Sleng so I won’t repeat it here. But do read it, or read the history up elsewhere; it’s so important to understand how these appalling events came about.
During the Khmer Rouge regime more than 17,000 civilians were killed and buried in mass graves in this former orchard a few miles from Phnom Penh. Most of them were transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. The site, and others like it elsewhere in the country, became known as the Killing Fields. The prisoners were made to wait here for up to 24 hours before they were killed by a blow to the head after which their throats were slit. Babies were killed by bashing their heads against a tree. There were separate graves for men, for women and for children.
After the collapse of the regime the full horrors of what happened here became apparent; and in 1980 the remains of 8,985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed from 85 mass graves, while 43 of the 129 graves discovered were left untouched.
On arriving our guide Van gave us a thorough description of the site first before leaving us to look around on our own. It was clear that she still found it very unsettling to visit these places. But at the same time she obviously felt it was important that visitors are shown them and taught about the country’s recent past.
The memorial stupa
After Van’s talk we went to pay our respects at the memorial stupa. We bought flowers and incense to place as an offering for those who were so brutally killed here.
The memorial holds the bones of the bodies excavated from the mass graves, carefully preserved and displayed according to gender, age and method of execution. According to Buddhist teaching it is important that the dead are acknowledged in some way; and these excavations were the Cambodian way of showing that these people were all individuals even though they were buried en masse.
From the stupa we went to the small museum where Van had told us a short film would be shown at 10.10.
This covered much of what she had already told us but also included some moving interviews with a couple of men who had lost family members here and one who had been involved in the first discovery, soon after liberation, of the atrocities committed here.
The Killing Fields
We then followed a walking route around the site. Van had already described all the main points on this tour, and there were information signs at each. We saw the spots where previously the detention building stood, and the one that housed the executioners. Many of these were just young children who had been easily brainwashed by the regime into believing that these people were enemies, spies etc., and had to be killed.
The path led between the excavated mass graves, now just grassy hollows. One particularly horrifying spot was signposted as the grave where the bodies of naked women and children were found. The other graves all had scraps of clothing, which have been saved along with the bones of those buried there. The care and empathy with which this has been done is testament to the present generation’s desire to honour those who were killed here and preserve their memory.
A nearby tree, now festooned with friendship bracelets and ribbons, and at least one rosary, was found on liberation to be smeared with blood, and worse. Here babies were killed by having their heads bashed against it before being tossed into the grave with their mothers.
Perhaps making these scenes all the more horrific to recall is the fact that this feels such tranquil spot, with a small pool dotted with lotus blooms and many shady old trees. It was formerly a Chinese cemetery; and although the Khmer Rouge destroyed that when they took over the site for their mass executions, a few old gravestones remain.
A local perspective
When we re-joined Van at the entrance there was time for a cold drink and some further conversation about the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and the impacts that are still felt today, especially by the older generation. She told us that on the days she brings tourists here she doesn’t tell her mother where she has been; it would be too upsetting for her. But for herself she feels it is an important part of her job to tell people about these things in the hope that they may not be repeated in the future.
As she talked about the fact that all school classes (secondary school age) are brought here to be shown these sights for themselves in the same hope, I remembered our visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima a few years earlier. We had met many groups of school children who were taken there for just the same reason. Cambodia and Japan seem to think alike in their commitment to telling the story of the past in order to avoid its repetition in the future.
I visited Cambodia in 2020
The idea of Van not telling her Mother is very touching. The facts may be sliding into history, the pain not so much. A difficult post beautifully written.
Thank you Helen, and I agree – I found that comment of Van’s spoke volumes about the impact the genocide had and continues to have on those who lived through it.
What an eloquent and profoundly moving post you wrote, Sarah. Steven and I made sure to make our own pilgrimage there and Toul Sleng to try and understand the horrors committed upon the people. It’s impossible not to see the comparison, even to an admittedly lesser degree, of what is being perpetrated on the Ukrainian civilian population by Russian forces.
Thank you for this thoughtful comment Annie. Something seems to be amiss with my notifications and I only just spotted it. You’re right, visiting these sites is a form of pilgrimage in a way.
Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter
Horrific. I remember this coming to light in 1980. I was a student then with not much money, but it was the thing which prompted me to take out my first charity subscription.
I’m old enough to remember it too although I don’t recall that it got the breadth of news coverage that it should have done – maybe I blanked it out to some extent?
Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter
Wouldn’t blame you!
It was interesting to read and see your perspective of Choeung Ek, Sarah. Tastefully done, while your sentiments echo my own in the pieces I wrote about Cambodia’s genocide sites. To me it almost feels like a disservice to Cambodia to visit and shy away from this history. Nevertheless, the whole place just leaves this awful feeling in the pit of your stomach. I remember when I got to that Killing Tree that it almost became too much. Thanks for documenting it through your own eyes.
Thank you Leighton, I totally agree that shying away from this aspect of the country’s history feels wrong – probably because for the people there it is impossible to do so?
Such a powerful and emotional post Sarah. Painful as it is I agree it’s essential we don’t forget such horror. I too saw the film ‘The Killing Fields’ years ago and I’m old enough to remember some of the news reports of the atrocities that were committed 😢
Thank you Margaret, I appreciate you reading and commenting. I hesitated for some time before posting about my experiences here but just as I felt it was important to visit I also decided it was important to share.
A difficult topic to cover, Sarah. I saw a movie about it years ago but I’m guessing most people do not know about it. The Killing Tree is a fitting way to draw people’s attention. Thanks for ending your post with the peaceful image of lotus flowers.
I never saw the movie but I remember when it came out and for a while it stimulated acknowledgement and discussion of these atrocities, but of course only for a while. But in Cambodia they are not forgotten even if the rest of the world has done so.
It’s so deeply disturbing when you can see just how capable mankind is of brutality. To reach a point where people think it’s normal to torture and murder in the most horrific way, still knocks you sideways when you read or hear the harsh words. We were due to visit the Killing Fields on our COVID-aborted trip. If we get to resurrect that journey, we will go there. No doubt we will be as shocked and disturbed as you were.
Yes, do go if you get the chance. It may not be a pleasant experience but it’s an important part of understanding today’s Cambodia and its people.
Last week, we visited Dachau, so your post and reaction to the Killing Fields really interests me. The juxtaposition between the past and what’s happening in the present hit me the hardest. We saw evidence of racism and the desire to ignore the past. It was so disturbing. I admire the Cambodians for honoring the dead and revealing the horror of genocide.
I know what you mean – it would be some comfort if we could visit such places and believe that the world is a better place today than it was then, but sadly it seems there is always at least one atrocity of some sort being committed somewhere in the world.
Yes. That’s it.
Places like this are so heartbreaking, but important to remember and to honor those that were lost.
Yes, I totally agree.
I visited S-21 and Choung Ek with a Khmer lady who had lost most of her family to the KR, it was one of the most difficult days I have ever spent in my life and, having been brought up in Northern Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s with all that entailed, that is some statement to make. I really did not think I was capable of being shockedany more, I was wrong. It affected me for a long time.
I can imagine 🙁 Van hadn’t lost any direct family members, as far as I know, but her parents had lost friends and had been badly scarred. She clearly found it tough to visit these sites but did so in order that she could show them to visitors and explain their significance.
Ive been thinking about travelling to Cambodia as a chance to escape for a week and get some warmth. Maybe around september. I dont know abiut visiting here though…. The thought of seeing this stuff for real makes me sick. I feel shaky just reading about it!
A good choice and there’s loads to see there apart from this if you prefer not to go. But if you can, do – it’s stomach-churning but important.
Hmmm i will think about if i get there. I dont know… since having my own child i just cant do cruelty, especially to children. That killing tree with the kids, ufff….. i just cant even imagine.
Then maybe just go to Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum / former prison. It’s just as chilling but less graphic and less focused on the treatment of children.
Thanks for the tip Sarah x
Agree…the truth must be told…however bitter it may be!
Yes, that’s how I feel, and Van too
I heard of Killing Fields for the first time through the movie. Now reading of it in your post just reminds me of how much cruelty man is capable of. In sharp contrast, as you said, the place looks so tranquil now.
Sadly yes Sheetal
Thank you for sharing your experience here.
Thanks, you are welcome
This is a very moving place and your post brings back the emotions of a visit in 2017 to Choeung Ek and S-21 prison. How people can participate in things like the Killing Tree is beyond my comprehension.
Beyond mine too, but some interesting studies have been done into how people can be dehumanised to that extent under certain extreme circumstances. In this case, they were so young and somehow quite easily convinced that these people were their enemies and deserved their horrific punishments. There’s some sort of herd mentality that takes over normal decency in these situations 🙁
Sarah, I read ‘The Killing Fields’ a few years back and prior to that book, I knew very little, if anything about the atrocity. You have done the place justice through your words and photographs. My husband is Armenian and his grandmother was a survivor of the Turkish genocide. Will civilization never learn?
Thank you Suzanne. I’ve not read the book – maybe one day I will, but for now this visit, and the one to Tuol Sleng, was enough. We seem sadly hard-wired not to learn from these things, or at least, to forget them under certain situations 🙁
Truly chilling history..well posted
Thank you Sue
Around a decade ago, a bit less perhaps I was due to go to Laos and Cambodia, but it never happened as my health was beginning to cause problems….
Oh that’s a shame – Laos is one of the loveliest countries I’ve visited. But it too has suffered, primarily during the Vietnam War 🙁
Yes, I had read a certain amount about this ar ea and the horrors of war… I was keen to see the Colonial architecture of Vientiane….I think I need to meet you and see some of your images of that region, Sarah!!
Ah, Vientiane is one place we didn’t get to unfortunately, other than to change planes. It would be lovely to meet in person for sure 🙂 I do however meanwhile have a fair number of my Laos photos scattered across a number of blog posts here!
Although it is not pleasant to learn about such things, we should remember them, and ensure they are never forgotten. Hopefully the humanity learns something from its history, and tragic stories will not be repeated.
Hopefully so Christie, but as others have said, somehow we never seem to learn. But even if we can’t ensure such things are never repeated, we owe it to the victims to ensure they are never forgotten.
100 Country Trek
We were there a few years ago but such a tragic site to see. I saw images of these people on walls and shoes in the glass container..so horrendous.
Yes – I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of the people themselves, it felt intrusive.
Very important post dear Sarah, and somewhere Cambodia brings me to tears for what happened there, quietly. Also, that this country allowed me to work on a story in 2019 which i was only searching. It was a beautiful time with the country people, knowing them so closely, so well. I hope you will not mind me sharing that one month of my research there with you, in a short Photographic Essay here : https://road-to-nara.com/2020/08/28/singsong-finding-the-father-with-the-golden-voice-of-cambodia/
Thank you so much Sarah. This country remains very close to me.
I don’t mind at all – what you shared is so relevant to this and I hope some of my readers will find their way to your post. The singing in your video is beautiful and many of your photos haunting. I hadn’t heard of Sinn Sisamouth and I’m glad to have been introduced to him. His story, sadly, is that of many but I can see that he lives on through people’s affection for his songs.
Now you heard him, and that too from a local’s voice, it isn’t Sin Sisamuth’s. He was exemplary, a rebel and naturalist as i learnt. Thank you Sarah.
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Interesting but grim history lesson, Sarah. I (Kellye) am always amazed by your photos, and they really brought this post to life. I agree with Van: we should be shown and taught. Those who died should be remembered. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Kellye. Initially I wasn’t sure about taking and/or sharing photos but I wanted people who might be unable to visit here themselves to at least see and understand it a bit through my sharing, as Van hoped we would.
This is quite chilling. But I hope I can visit it one day.
Chilling is a good word for it, yes.
In Germany too, schoolchildren are taught the full facts about the Nazi past. Sadly, in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, the Far Right seems to be on the march again. When I was at Auschwitz, our guide told us he had been taught much of what he knew by a former prisoner there – it was an essential part of their training, and of course those inmates are now themselves too old. Another young person whom we met on our holiday in Poland told us she too had been guide there for a while, but like most, had needed to leave after about six months for her own mental health. I can understand that. My day there will stay with me forever, and not in a good way.
I haven’t been to Auschwitz but I did once meet a former inmate, back when I was managing children’s library services in Westminster. She’s written a book about her experiences for young adults and through contacts at a publisher’s I arranged for her to speak to some school classes in one of our libraries. The impact she had on the young people was remarkable, as you can imagine.
I also visited the Killing Fields and the school. I also noticed in Phnom Penh that there was a real shortage of older people and we know why. I always seek out the darker side of tourism in learning about the history of places I visit. I don’t think that by visiting sites we have much of an impact on further atrocities. Need we say the Balkans, Rwanda etc.
I would like to think that if enough of us visited it might have some impact but I suspect you’re right Katie. Maybe as Kellye says above, it’s more about showing respect and remembering.
A chilling place to visit indeed! Like you, I’m the sort of person that would visit places that had a sad history because, like you say, we can find out what happened and why. It’s supposed to educate us so that these things don’t repeat themselves – but it seems that nobody’s listening.
Maybe if more people visited places like this, and if more people travelled more generally, some of them at least might listen?
I agree that it is important not to forget all this.
Indeed – thanks Don
I was in Cambodia in 1994, just after the UNTAC mission to oversee elections and bring peace and civilian government to the country. No comment can convey the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Nor any blog post. And yet it feels important to try, for Van and everyone else in the country who wants to ensure this is never forgotten.