We navigated our way through the traffic and before too long had reached the city outskirts where houses and shops made way for trees and rice paddies. The Killing Fields are situated about 17km south of the city and it felt good to be getting a little rural. After driving for roughly 35 minutes or so, we pulled up outside Choeung EK and again I entered while my taxi man patiently waited for me outside.
The aptly named Killing Fields was the site where many of the Khmer Rouge's victims were buried. Originally an orchard covered by trees, the site was converted into a mass grave. Or many mass graves to be precise. Some prisoners were killed before arrival, like many of those who were interrogated, tortured and exterminated at the S21 facility. Others were trucked in alive where they were either shot dead into the already dug ditches, or as in some cases, were buried alive. After paying the entrance fee, I continued to walk straight ahead where I was met with a memorial to the dead; a Buddhist stupa which contained shelf upon shelf of skulls, as well as some of the clothing belonging to the victims. Many of the skulls displayed showed clear signs of trauma in the form of fractures and holes, which was the result of blows to the head by either riffle butts or other tools that were to hand such as cart axles and hoes.
From there I walked from one former grave to another, each detailing how many bodies were exhumed. One stated “mass grave of 450 victims”, another, “mass grave of 166 victims without heads”. I walked a little further to find a grave that had contained 100 bodies, woman and children, the majority of whom were naked. Quite often, once the bodies were exhumed, the rain would later bring up to the surface the victims decaying clothing. Sombre is putting it lightly, the emotions you feel whilst walking around Choeung Ek are quite intense, especially as the body count rises. I came across a tree which I was informed was used to beat children against. The cruelty was ceaseless and seemed to know no limits.
Towards the back of the orchard lies a nature reserve, of sorts, offering a serene and peaceful distraction from the almost constant horrors that you're confronted with when visiting Choeung Ek. The trees, plants, a large pond and wildlife, were all welcomed as I walked the path around this happy diversion. The back of the reserve looked out over rice fields, and further behind that, a river. I slowly made my way round and back towards the beginning of the site, where before leaving I took in the museum and was further educated about methods, numbers and the characters involved in the facilitating of such heinous crimes. The museum marked the end of the tour. The journey back to Phnom Penh was pleasant, particularly at the point where we pulled over to take in the sun setting over rice fields and wooden stilted houses. A nice end to an emotional day.
Looking back on the day, it's not easy to find words to describe how I felt about visiting these two museums, or tourist attractions, or historical sites, or whatever you choose to call them . An interrogation centre where thousands were tortured and killed, and a large field which is essentially a mass grave; to say it was fun would be incorrect as well as being a little distasteful. It was at times uncomfortable, upsetting, dark and a little depressing, but overall I came away feeling immensely glad I had gone, and I would recommend it to anyone. Horrific events such as this and the Holocaust, which of course was on an even bigger scale, should be remembered, and by visiting places like this it allows you to, on some level, and to a small degree, understand the suffering that others endured; to try and imagine yourself naked and chained to that metal bed whilst being tortured, or being lined up in front of what will be your grave, waiting to be shot. By remembering such atrocities and how much of an ordeal it must have been for the people experiencing it, we reduce the chances, or at least help to limit, any future repeats of this behaviour. Or that is the hope anyway. The psychology aspect of it fascinates me; what drives people to do such horrible things? Luckily in most cases, it appears to be only a few sick individuals in positions of power who coerce others to perform such terrible acts, usually through fear and intimidation. Or maybe I'm being a little naive in thinking that, maybe more people than I care to imagine believed in what they were doing. Or, even worse, they took pleasure in their twisted acts. Either way, the psychology aspect interests me and I intend to read up on the subject.
I did come away with some positivity and hope, which some may find surprising. The Cambodian people were in my experience, lovely people! And talking to other travellers only confirmed this, as in general they found Cambodians to be friendly, amiable and often helpful people, who always threw a smile their way. This, I think, says a lot about the human spirit. They have as a nation endured so much, and still do, but yet life hasn't beaten them, not even close. There will always be cruel and sadistic people who want to do harm to others, and it seems you never have too look far to find them. But equally, you can find acts of compassion and kindness everywhere you go; you just have to believe that the latter is ubiquitous while the former is less so, because to believe the opposite is to have given up all hope!