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The killing field- A dark page in Cambodian history

The Khmer Rouge under their evil leader Pol Pot set foot in Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975 and soon took control of the country. The day quickly became the darkest day of Cambodian history till now. It marked a murderous regime that lasted for 4 years.  

Their ill ideology aims to establish a classless communist state based on an agricultural economy. In the other words, the external world must be wiped out. The capitalism, the Western aids, the foreign languages, the education and health care are all erased in the blink of an eye.

Under the Khmer Rouge, there were 2 options. Option 1: you obeyed and lived. Option 2: you defied and ended up at one of the many prisons around the country; and ultimately, silenced permanently. Normal life was not an option.

Approximately 1.7 million Cambodians were believed to dead during that horrible crisis for many reasons such as starvation, diseases, malnutrition or publicly executed as the nation’s enemies.  

Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek genocidal center are two of those former prisons in Phnom Penh. For those travelers who look for a further understanding of the Khmer Rouge’s barbaric dictatorship and the genocide in general, these are the must dos. However, we suggest you not to do both in the same day as it might be too much to take.

It’s obviously not a gentle topic to talk about, let alone to visit and recreate all the scenes in your head. But for us, we’d rather face the ugly truth than avoid it. And maybe it’s a way for victims to be heard and remembered as well.

In this post, we’ll take you on a tour to Choeung Ek genocidal center or the killing field. Located about 15 km from the center of Phnom Penh, the field witnessed the murder of 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been tortured at Tuol Sleng were transported to be executed. There are 2 options available. You can either hire a guide or get a headset and a tape. We chose the second one as perhaps the silence is necessary in these places. All you can hear is bird song and see chickens wandering through the orchards. Travelers will be provided with a headset to quietly hear the story which sometimes featured the chilling account of a guard, an executioner or a survivor. You’ll see people walking around, drowning in their own thoughts. “It’s not an easy place to visit.” That’s the very first sentence for introduction. We chose the English one and the narrator did an excellent job in telling a horrible story in an emotional way. Through those words, everything around us became different, extremely harsh but real.

Mass graves lied thousands of people who were massacred. How they were killed will be specific in the audio and nothing is ever enough to prepare anyone of us for this. Fragments of human bone and clothes lay half-buried in the land vividly reminded us of the horrors once existed here.

The killing tree was probably the most horrendous part. It’s where children and women- the vulnerable ones get killed first in the most inhumane way. A lot of wristbands were left by the visitors as a way to commemorate the colorful lives that have been taken away forever.

Some parts of the tours can be warned for someone who can’t take the sorrow at its deepest level. Your choice, you can push to continue hearing or to skip. But it doesn’t change the fact that terrible things happened. Some memorable parts can be named as the music of revolution from the speakers to hide the screams from prisoners who have been executing at the same time, a beautiful piece of music to response to the cruel crime…

When it comes to the genocide and holocaust, “Schindler’s list” or “The pianist” are two great movies to educate us on that. However, nothing does this experience justice, as it is raw and genuinely disturbing. To take the site for what it is, we young generations should come there. Don’t feel guilty for taking photos since the purpose of the site is to experience the horror and understand what went on here and spread the words hoping it never happens again.

The Memorial Stupa stands in the middle of the field as a beacon to all the lives that lost decades ago. It houses more than 8000 skulls arranged by sex and age. The cracked skulls, broken bones and various killing tools are just too heartbreaking.

Other than that, there is a museum with further information on the Khmer Rouge and the criminal trials, some of which are still ongoing today; and a video room to show a short movie about that period.

More information

  • Opening hours:          8am – 5pm
  • Ticket price    :           6USD for adults
  • Transportation:         Private car, shuttle bus
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