Warning! This post is going to be difficult to Read. I don’t want to cheapen the story or descriptions of such a real place with pithy commentary. What follows is my best recollection of the killing fields and the emotions they stirred inside of me.
It has taken me a long time to write this article. There’s something about death that escapes description; at least, within my abilities. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around my visit to the Killing Fields, and if you’ve been to that unassuming former orchard outside of Phnom Penh, you can understand why. Formerly a location specialized for the mass murder of thousands of innocent Cambodians at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge, this site has been converted into a memorial and museum for all of those lives lost. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum, also known as the Killing Fields, is one of many locations that served this purpose.
The Killing Fields
From the first moment you step foot in the Killing Fields, an invisible weight gets lowered onto your shoulders and your stomach tightens. The open sky and green grass aren’t what you notice, in fact, they will silently frame your focus as you quietly tread along the paths, listening to your audio tour guide for details from the not-so-distant past. With every step you’re reminded that the excavation of this area was never completed and that there are likely still bones beneath your feet. Even if there aren’t, it is almost guaranteed that blood once soaked into the dirt beneath you. In every step, you’ll wonder about the unsettling number of bones yet to be found and wonder if they ever will be.
The hardest part of experiencing the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is continuing onward as you visit each location on the audio guide and hearing yet another horrific tale of what went on 10 feet from where you are standing. You will probably stop the tour at some point to sit down and collect yourself, but the silence in the heavy air is sure to be as hard to stomach as the history you’re avoiding. The tour guides you through pits in the earth that once held thousands of bodies, unceremoniously piled onto one another after each grizzly execution. And they go into detail about the executions; pointing out specific trees that have sharp edges to their branches, perfect for the use on throats of women and children.
If you’re still standing after feeling the chills run down your spine as you touched the sharp edge said branches, you’re led to dozens of more pits in the ground where Pol Pot’s regime attempted to wipe out Cambodian culture and education in favor of a harmonious communist state. You will probably forget about this murderous madman’s motivations as you continue through the maze of holes, sure that nothing is so important as to commit such horrendous crimes. You become sure that his purpose was lost when you get to the Killing Tree. This is the tree, just two or three feet from you when the audio track gets into specifics, when Khmer Rouge murderers would swing children by the ankles to smash their heads against the thick, strong trunk. Thousands of innocent babies died on that tree, and before you look away you’re almost certain it’s still red. You will probably tell yourself that it couldn’t be, but you’re too upset to look back and check.
Toward the end of the tour you’re probably light-headed and needing a rest from the heat and emotional turmoil but there aren’t really and benches for you after the pond. The heat enhances your experience, adding a certain desperation for relief from the Cambodian sun. Plodding along, tired from the heat and the emotions you thought you were prepared for, you’ll eventually come to the Buddhist stupa where your tour ends. Inside this glass sided structure are over 5,000 human skulls that were once buried just outside. At this point you’re not absorbing new information and you’re retreating mentally. The skulls and bones are arranged according to something. You won’t remember if it’s size or cause of death. It doesn’t really matter. There isn’t a lot of room inside the stupa. People will politely squeeze by you when you stop at the section with baby skulls, transfixed on the clear injuries to the top from blunt force. You’ll ask yourself redundant questions about “who” and “why” but there aren’t always answers to these kinds of questions.
Back outside, you’ll fight having that empty expression on your face and avoid staring off into the middle distances. Giving one last bow of respect to the stupa and the fields, the deepest and most sincere bow you’ve ever done, you turn toward the exit. The Cambodians working at the entrance will smile faintly as you pass and you’ll wonder if they appreciate your meager attempt at understanding their history.
Back outside you see people differently. Instead of people you’ll see survivors. Children play in the street with that unmistakable tinge of innocence in their laughter. The adults, though; what they lived through changes your understanding of this country. You’ll notice more that they are a people that don’t demand sympathy or reparations for their people’s genocide. They’re just happy to have lived when almost a fourth of Cambodia’s population did not.
Places like the Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum aren’t for the faint of heart or the immature. They’re almost guaranteed to make you emotional and alter your understanding of humankind. Many people tour these sites not fully aware of evil’s reality, and to this end it serves as warning. While it seems unnecessary to some, your time visiting these sites of mass execution and suffering will absolutely leave you with a changed heart. The extent of Pol Pot’s genocide probably can’t be felt by anyone other than those who survived, but you’ll feel differently about the country of Cambodia and appreciate how much they’ve overcome in the recent past. Places like Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields serve a very real purpose in showing the world what can happen if people don’t look out for each other. You’re certainly not going to walk away with a smile, but you can better understand what other people have gone through as they pursued the same happy life you’re reaching for. Although you may not like the term “Dark Tourism” because it makes these places sound fun, you’ll walk away grateful to Cambodia for baring it’s horrific past to an outsider. You’ll feel more connected to the people around you after seeing these places and better understand what Cambodia has overcome since 1979. Thank you, Cambodia, for sharing your story and showing the world how to remember compassion and kindness even after experiencing such inexplicable violence.