Killing fields of Cambodia

The Horrors of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The Horrors of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

One of the most touching tours of my trip through Southeast Asia was the Choeung Ek killing fields of Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. An emotional experience I must confess, as I had no idea about what happened until I visited.

One way to learn about Cambodia’s recent past and to prevent such acts of cruelty from being repeated is to visit this site of extreme horror. “Be quiet please” indicates the plaque at the entrance to the Choeung Ek killing fields, an extensive and well-tended lawn signalled with wooden slabs and a memorial whose roof reflects the style of the local temples.  The weather here is sad and heavy, but more horrible are the stories I heard next, told by the soft voice of an audio guide distributed at the entrance of the enclosure.

Apprehensive of what I would see next, I pressed the play button and remained sober throughout the narration of a little more than four hours on the stories of that place.

Before continuing with the descriptions of the tour, I think it’s respectful to share some paragraphs with you about the Cambodian revolution and what it felt like learning about the killing fields for the first time and how.

Killing fields of Cambodia
Killing fields of Cambodia
Killing fields of Cambodia

A bit of context

The Cambodian revolution began on April 17, 1975, with the evacuation of more than 2 million people from Phnom Pehn. The capital was deserted, and families were randomly divided and sent to the forced labour camps to plant rice fields and dig irrigation channel; the goal was to make Cambodia a 100% agrarian society and to double rice production overnight, something that never happened.

As young men were trained to join the militia, older men, women, and children from the age of 6 were forced to work about 18 hours a day and were given small portions of food in exchange for forced labour. The pace imposed on the peasants was so hard that thousands of Cambodians suffered the hardest of deaths: hunger.

All Western consumer goods were destroyed, money was abolished, and all real estate belonged to the state. Then Pol Pot, the leader of the movement began arresting and murdering all citizens who possessed any education: doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. were arrested and killed along with all family members to avoid any future rematch. Most of the murders occurred in the Phnom Phen concentration camps.

The death toll of the Cambodian regime is unknown, an estimated 1.7 to 2 million people (~ 25% of the population at the time) had been executed in one of the most cruel regimes in history.

Graves from the killing fields

The visit to the extermination camps

The Killing Fields has only two buildings: a memorial to the victims of the genocide and a small museum with objects of the time. The climate is heavy and zero friendly, but rather reflects the harsh history that Cambodia has survived.

The audio guide

Right at the entrance visitors receive the audio guide and push the play button to plunge into the world of barbarities of an extremist regime that had existed. There are 18 different parades demarcated by wooden plaques that tell a little of what existed on the site during the times of the Khmer Rouge.

The first stop of the day is where the truck full of tied and bandaged prisoners would leave them. One by one, the prisoners were taken away by the “Khmer soldiers” and to save the bullets – something expensive at the time – were murdered in brutal ways like stonework on the head, hanging, cutting of throats were also done with the help of a local plant, or blows of hammer or of bamboo poles. Pretty brutal and even a little surreal.

Stories of survivors

Item 12 of the audio guide has 9 different stories, sad stories that will help you understand a little of what went on in Cambodia during those dark years. To hear the stories, I took a walk around the lake, but nothing helped ease the sadness and the agony.

Common troughs full of bones

Back on the walk, we were led through the poorly dug holes of the mass graves that housed hundreds of bodies (many of the large parts of these bodies were excavated and are now displayed in the memorial).

Some of the holes were demarcated and surrounded with bamboo racks. These ditches have plaques indicating the number of buried bodies, one of which has hundreds of headless bodies, another has bare bodies … and all have been decorated with coloured bracelets, a solemn tribute to those buried there.

Unfortunately, not all bodies had the chance to go to the memorial or earn a demarcated grave. During the journey you will see dozens of little bones that are still under the earth, wanting to gradually get out.

cambodias past

A tree as the stage of assassinations

Beside one of the pits is a large, beautiful tree, which is until you hear it conceals a terrible story. This tree served as support for hurling infants and young children to death. The Khmer Rouge believed that the best way to avoid future revenge was to murder the whole family, so little children and infants were not spared from extermination. On hearing this, my heart became small, aching and even now I struggle to understand how anyone could do such a cruel thing. What a tremendous ordeal.

Boxes with the clothes & bones of victims

On the visit, you’ll see the boxes full clothes from the dead, and boxes with bones. A sad and tense atmosphere, accompanied by the terrible explanations of the audio guide.

The magic tree

To relieve the noises of this brutality and not to frighten even the bandaged prisoners who were lined up to be killed afterwards, a loud volume box played an incessant musical melody. The magic of the tree was to camouflage the sad noises of brutal extermination.

The museum of the killing fields

The museum of the killing fields is quite small, but it has interesting things like photos of the movement’s leaders, uniforms used by the Khmer Rouge and the most common weapons used to assassinate the prisoners. The museum also has a small cinema that from time to time displays a film about Cambodia and the killing fields.

cambodia past

Memorial of genocide

And finally, we arrived at the commemorative stupa, built to preserve the memory of the victims of the extermination. A building whose roof refers to the temples of Cambodia.

The memorial contains hundreds of bones (skulls are catalogued by type of death) and clothing of some victims protected by thick plates of glass. This memorial is the end point of the visit and the beginning of a reflection in my heart on how to prevent such genocides from happening in other parts of the world.

In conclusion, not everything we see on our trips is nice. In Cambodia, a must-visit is the killing fields in Phnom Penh. As highlighted above, this site has its share of horror to tell and is also termed as one of the cruellest places in the country’s history

killing fields

Please take a minute to say a prayer for those that were taken and those left behind that had to witness this ordeal.

There is also a film that I would like you to go and watch ”First They Killed My Father”

things to do in Phnom Penh

Things To Do In Phnom Penh

7 things to do in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is a city that, contrary to what we think, invites us to discover it. In it we can find details of its French colonial past, details of the country’s spirituality with incredible temples and as unfortunately in the rest of the country, macabre details of its most recent history during the reign of terror of Khemeres Rojos.

All this makes it an ideal city to spend a few days in it, enjoying everything previously mentioned and more. If this appeals to you, below are seven things to do in Phnom Penh:

things to do in Phnom Penh

Admire the French colonial architecture

Although not as widespread as Hanoi or Saigon for example, Phnom Penh was entitled to its share of colonial buildings. The greatest concentration can be found in the city centre, in the streets surrounding the Royal Palace as well as close to the river’s edge. Built during the French domination, most of these buildings are obsolete, but some have been transformed into hotels or offices. There are beautiful examples at the main post office, at the UNESCO office right in front of the Royal Palace, and at the Raffles Le Royal, probably the best hotel in Phnom Penh.

Know the history of the prison S-21 Tuol Sleng

Great horror was experienced in this place, as more than twenty thousand people were tortured and killed. Therefore, the visit is almost mandatory to know the darkest time of Cambodia through images, rooms, and testimonies of survivors.

With the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese army, many of the last prisoners were executed, making for the survival of only 12 people. The testimonies of these survivors were also key to the subsequent trial against the leaders of the genocidal government.

The Museum was founded then, originally a school, conserving a large part of its spaces, such as the individual cells where the prisoners were confined with hardly any space to lie down, or the torture rooms where most of them died after confessing crimes that had not even been committed. These confessions were made only to get rid of the suffering their executioners caused them.

things to do in Phnom Penh

Discover the horrors of the Choeung Ek killing fields

Another place that reminds us of Cambodia’s recent history is Choeung Ek killing fields, a monument created to remember the victims of the genocide who lost their lives there at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Almost nine thousand bodies were found in this place, in common graves that the prisoners themselves dug.

Most of the bodies that were found here passed through the Tuol Sleng prison, suffering all kinds of torture to finally be executed in the killing fields.

It is not a pleasant visit like that of the prison, with the excavations of the mass graves, skulls classified by age and sex, simply to think of the horror that was lived in these extermination camps can hurt the sensibility of many people, but we can get an idea of what Cambodia suffered during those 4 years of the regime.

Tours to the killing fields are also supported by the local community to educate visitors and to show respect towards the victims.

Take a walk along the river along Preah Sisowath Avenue

Preah Sisowath or Riverside Avenue is an area where more local people gather, strolling, playing with children or simply resting on the banks of the Tonle Sap River. It is a perfect area to get out of the traffic chaos that exists in Phnom Penh and be able to relax after a day of visiting the city.

things to do in Phnom Penh

Taste Cambodian food

As in all of Southeast Asia, gastronomy is one of the attractions of Cambodia. Variety, spices, spicy and a lot of flavours. Always highlight the noodles, soups, and rice, but there are two dishes that you cannot stop trying.

On the one hand is the amok, a dish based on curry, coconut milk, and ginger, with a variety of leaves. You will see different types of amok, although chicken, fish or tofu are the most consumed.

The other typical dish is the lok lak, a whole dish based on veal or chicken marinated and cut into small pieces, rice and sometimes accompanied by fried eggs. A dish that despite being very basic, is very tasty.

Make purchases in the central market

This market which was built in 1937 is in itself a monument, with a huge dome under which you will find a large number of stalls and from which emerge several corridors where other stalls of all kinds are concentrated. Clothing, souvenirs, electronics, and crafts are all you can find in the central market of Phnom Penh, also called the Great Market.

things to do in Phnom Penh

Spend half a day cycling away from traffic jams

Renting a bike or even a scooter in town is at your own risk. As a result, you can find agencies willing to give you bikes for a day or half a day in the countryside. You can cycle through the Mekong Islands just north of Phnom Penh. The shortest distance is about 25 km on flat and empty tracks. You can as well discuss with the locals and learn more about their life here, between orchards, vegetable gardens, etc.

In conclusion, Phnom Penh is an excellent city, to say the least. The enchanting sounds and smells would surely remind you that you are in Southeast Asia. Also, Phnom Penh contains a mix of genres and cultures that give the Khmer capital its charm as highlighted above.

things to do in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is full of different adventures around every corner, no matter what your interests there are plenty of things to do. Do you have a favourite thing you like to do that I’ve missed? let me know in the comments you must do thing whilst in Phnom Penh.

things to do in cambodia

7 Things To Do In Cambodia

7 things to do in Cambodia

Located in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a must-stop for travel in the region. From the charismatic capital Phnom Penh to the beaches of Sihanoukville, the Mekong River Delta to Battambang and the surrounding mountains, not to mention the architectural masterpiece of the buildings and the nearby city of Siem Reap, trips to Cambodia allow immersion into rich and fascinating cultures and encounters with a more hospitable people. To this end, 7 things to do in Cambodia.

  • Enjoy the serene atmosphere of the Cambodian Countryside

If you are in love with nature, Battambang, Kampot, Kratie are the destinations that will charm you to discover the hinterland and the Cambodian countryside. With a guide, by scooter or Tuk-Tuk, you can walk on dirt roads to admire the beautiful landscapes, traditional villages and taste the fresh fruits of their plantations.

  • Visit the Tonle Sap lake

This gigantic pond is a fisherman’s paradise, as it contains thousands of varieties of fish. It is one of the most fish-rich lakes on the planet. In addition, the site deploys an atypical landscape. In fact, fishermen who stay there live in small cabins mounted directly on floats. The latter thus draw the portrait of a village floating on the water, which wobbles with the currents. If you are lucky and you have an adventurous spirit, you could visit or perhaps to stay in these warm shelters.

  • Visit Sihanoukville and its beautiful beaches

If you are planning a trip to Cambodia, it is unthinkable not to include the sublime beaches of Sihanoukville in your list of sites to visit. This city, whose name pays tribute to King Norodom Sihanouk, has many beaches, as beautiful as each other, which attract thousands of boaters each year in search of relaxation and release. The most famous and most served are the islands of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Chaluh and Bamboo Island. However, the beaches of Serendipity, Otres, and Orcheutal also have their notoriety.

  • Get involved in nocturnal parties

At the edge of the beautiful beaches of Sihanoukville, nightclubs run by expatriates are a delight for the night out enthusiasts. Different activities such as dances and music are organized with great attention to details. These activities usually begin in the evening and sometimes last until early hours of the morning.

  • Have a taste of Cambodian gastronomy:

The local cuisine of Cambodia is made up of a sweet mix of different Asian specialities, and it would be a shame to miss out. The country’s specialities result from a sweet blend of Asian recipes, mostly Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese in large part. To titillate your taste buds, test the amok first. This baked fish dish is garnished with lemongrass, chilli and coconut. Then try the succulent Kep blue crab, simmered with vegetables and infused with Kampot pepper. For the most adventurous gourmets, the street-food markets at night offer noodles filled with unusual ingredients such as insects and tarantulas.

  • Get in contact with the wild landscapes

Cambodia is famous for its wild landscapes. Put on your explorer’s cap and head to the north-east of the country, specifically to the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri so as to meet the isolated tribes in a more or less primary world. If you want to discover the Cambodian fauna and flora, visit the nature reserves, the best known are the Bokor National Park located 8 km from Kampot and the Ream National Park in Sihanoukville. At the chance of a visit, you will meet monkeys or eagles.

  • Enjoy a nice family time at the lovely beach of Sihanoukville

The tropical beach of Sihanoukville is ideal to end your stay in Cambodia. On your visit, laze on the beautiful beaches of white sand on the edge of an ocean with clear blue waters. You can also visit the lush islands, see some waterfalls, and discover many traditional fishing villages by boat. The turquoise waters of Sihanoukville rarely leave indifferent travellers.

In conclusion, Cambodia is one of those countries suitable to travel with a backpack, get lost and discover yourself. Still little known to many travelers, the country fascinates with its ancient culture, beautiful beaches and grand architecture as highlighted above.

What are your favourite things to do in Cambodia? Of course, there are many more things to do that I have included in this list, this list doesn’t scape the surface of things to do.

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