The Killing Fields – Cambodia

killing fields

Visiting The Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia should be a mandatory stop for all visitors to SE Asia.  Evolving from tourists to travelers requires a willingness to feel discomfort.  

Our time at Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum was uncomfortable. Mentally, physically and spiritually. Comfort and enjoyment aren’t valid reasons to visit the Killing Fields. Self-education, awareness, and remembrance are at the top of our list.

Approximately 20-25% of the entire population of Cambodia died between 1975-1979.  An entire generation eradicated. 

We see you, our brothers and sisters. We will not forget.

S-21 Tuol Sleng – A precursor to the Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge sent prisoners to Site 21 for “re-education”, otherwise known as torture and forced confession.  Torture continues unitl the prisoner confesses or dies. Confession completed, the prisoner is transferred to Choeung Ek.

The Killing Fields-stupa
The Killing Fields-Cambodia

Choeung Ek-The Killing Field

The sole purpose of the Choeung Ek facility is human extermination.  It’s a “facility” that’s only purpose is killing prisoners. There are approximatley 20,000 mass graves through Cambodia. Estimates place the executed at approximately 1.38 million souls.

Choeung Ek is the most preserved mass burial/execution site in Cambodia.

Arrival at Choeung Elk

Prisoners arrive at Choeung Elk several times each month in the back of a transport truck. The blindfolded prisoners are executed. There’s no need for housing.

The Killing Fields-unloading prisoners
Prisoner arrival

Execution Methods used at all Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets executing the prisoners.  Execution occured with hand tools.

  • Hacked to death
    • Hoe
    • Wooden pole
    • Axe
  • Bludgeoned to death
    • Farming tools
    • Rocks
    • Sticks
    • Shackles
    • Leg irons
  • Stabbed in the head
    • Bayonet
    • Iron rod
    • Bamboo sticks
  • Throats slit
  • Heads smashed on trees (babies)

Prisoner holding area

Two or three times a month, trucks bring new prisoners, which means it is execution time for twenty to thirty existing prisoners.  In the latter phase of the genocide, up to three hundred prisoners arrived at a time. The prison guards could no longer execute prisoners quickly enough to complete the task within a day.

 S-21 has rooms to “house” the prisoners, but there are no rooms for the prisoners at Choeung Ek. Since the executioners can’t kill the prisoners fast enough, they stay overnight in a building.

The Killing Fields- unknowingly waiting for execution
Waiting for death

The building has double walls to prevent any sunlight from infiltrating the walls. The executioners do not want the prisoners to be able to see or communicate with other prisoners. Prisoners are (literally) kept in the dark.

The executioners office had electricty and lights. This allowed the executioners to work at night processing the prisoners paperwork.

A chemical storage unit is onsite for storing dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT.) Follow executions, the executioners applied DDT to the bodies at the burial site to control the smell and to kill any victims that remained alive.

The Killing Fields-loudspeaker tree
Loud speaker

A loudspeaker blasted nationalistic music to cover up the sounds of death. A nearby generator powered the executioners shack and contributed to the din. The noise kept the prisoners from recognizing sounds signaling their own impending executions.

Mass grave sites

Certain locations throughout the facility identify mass grave sites, but nearly every area contains graves. There are 129 total burial sites, with approximately 90 of them being excavated to date.

The Killing Fields-excavated fields
The Killing Fields-Cambodia

The rolling hills hide a hellish secret. The excavated sites yielded the bones of approximately 15,000 condemmend.

Stay on the path

The earth continues to offer up bone fragments of those executed forty years ago. It’s almost as if the bones refuse to remain silent.

The Killing Fields-bones
Bone Fragments

The bones are colleted by the staff and stored. Most of the parks that we visit request that visitors stay on the walkways to prevent damage to the envirnment.

The Killing Fields-stay on the path
Walking trail

Here at the Killing Fields we’re staying on the paths to protect the dead. We’ve never been to a museum like this.

The facility is errie, it’s surreal to walk through it. We’re not talking to each very other much as we move from display to display. Honestly, what is there to say?

Small children were executed. The executioner swung the child by their feet and smashed their heads against this tree.

Child execution site

The children and womens bodies were thrown into this pit, right next to the tree where their heads were smashed in.

Killing Fields earth continues to surrender clothing

The bone fragments of those executed cry out for recognition. So do their clothes.

After periods of heavy rainfall the clothing/rags of the executed continue to work their way to the surface of the ground. Staff members collect and preserve the materials.

Stupa at the center of the Killing Fields

As we walked up to the stupa, I literally had no idea what it contained. As we drew closer the outlines of skulls became clear.

Seventeen vertical rows of skulls, approximately 9,000 total. The skulls are organized. It’s not a haphazard placement.

A post mortem was performed on the skulls. Based on injuries to the skull, the execution weapon was identified. Iron tool, hoe, axe, hook knife, nail, pike, bayonette, crowbar, bamboo shoot.

Color coding

The skulls are classifed based on their gender and cause of death. The classification of all of the skulls, based on their cause of death, is hard to view. This stop on the tour will stick with us for a long time.

Visiting The Killing fields

Here are details for visiting the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We watched the 1980’s movie The Killing FIelds prior to visiting. It’s a good primer on the Cambodian geocide.

Open hours:

The museum is open daily from 8 AM to 5:30 PM. We toured the entire facility in approximately three hours. 

Admission Cost (at time of our visit):

Adults (18 years and older): $6

Audio Tours:

A headset with multi-language audio: $3

We again found the audio tour to be invaluable. We sat and listened to the audio commentary, and/or the music, at each location. The audio provided a lot of background information that you’re not going to obtain from the posted signs. Money well spent.

Getting to The Killing Fields:

We hopped on a tuk-tuk from our hotel to the Killing Fields for $6 round trip. Our driver waited for us. We brought him a cold water.

The site is about 15km out of town. It’s a bit of a drive in the Tuktuk. Traffic was snarled. It took about 25-30 min to reach our destination. If had had to do it over again, I’d wear a good facemask in the tuktuk. The diesel fumes were a bit intense. I had a raspy cough for several weeks after our day at the Killing Fields.

4 Comments

  1. Liz

    I remember the movie, I cried for days thereafter. I remember colleagues talking about how family members escaped and how many didn’t. So tragic. How can humanity be so inhumane? Thank you for posting, a good reminder to not let myself forget.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      Hi Liz, It stuns me over and over how humanity can treat each other so poorly. I think Steve did a good job of capturing how it felt to visit there. It was similar to other places we’ve been where the sadness and grief seems to hang in the atmosphere. It’s certainly a good reminder of what can happen too easily.

      Reply
  2. Tony

    Wow, thanks for the education, I really had no idea. Such a testament to the events that took place.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      It’s the kind of tourism that we appreciate, even though it feels sad and difficult. It seems like humanity continues making some of the same mistakes, even though we try to remember.

      Reply

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