A sad Monday afternoon in Phnom Penh

  • Monday, March 14, 2016

I have been wanting to write this article for several days now but couldn’t find the words and the strength to ponder on the experience I had a week ago.

It was a humid Cambodian afternoon when we arrived at country’s capital Phnom Penh after a 6 hour butt-numbing bus ride from Siem Reap. Mr. Sam, our tuktuk driver met us at the bus station and we headed directly at our hotel to check in and then we decided to go to the Choeng Ek museum. Located at the outskirts of Phnom Penh, it was already past afternoon when our tuktuk dropped us at the gate of the park after almost an hour bouncy ride from the busy city center.

More popularly known as the “Killing Fields”, this park has become synonymous with the Khmer Rouge regime ruled by its leader Pol Pot in the late 70’s. The entrance fee was 2 USD and you have an option to rent a set of headphones for 3 USD with an audio commentary that serves as your guide as you walk around the site.

But if you decide to navigate the place on your own they also provide a map of the park free of charge. There are signs with short descriptions of the area found throughout the field to ensure visitors will know what was found and what was done in this place.

The entire park was spookily silent that neither the trees nor the grass seemed to make a sound. All I can hear was the sound of my footstep moving along the cemented foot walk and our little chit chat about how difficult it was to look at this place and imagine it was a place filled with so much death.

The first thing that caught my attention was the towering stupa with a glass facade built in memory of those who died here.


One must first remove his footwear before entering the monument as a sign of respect to those who died here.

As we moved inside the tower, we already knew what to expect on entering, but again we were left speechless. It houses cracked and aged skulls stacked on top of each other, of men, women, and children who were shot, beaten, smashed against trees, and buried alive. It’s a shocking exhibit, and I personally didn’t know what to make of it.

I think it was a bit grotesque, because I felt they should have been given a proper burial.

As we move around the stupa, my stomach retched. Gen even complained she was not feeling well and have been having goose bumps all over her that she needs to rest for a while. So the girls decided to sit on the benches at the park to compose themselves but I continued the tour walking ditch after ditch.

It is said that prisoners from the Tuol Sleng prison, who are sentenced to be slaughtered were brought here for “disposal”. These are the people who opposes the new government; educated people like doctors, lawyers and diplomats; people of other races and religions; and the families of any of the aforementioned. On a weekly basis, prisoners from Tuol sleng were driven here during the night, stacked at the back of covered trucks.  In order to keep them calm during their transport, they were told they are being moved to another institution because the prison was already full.  On arrival, they were placed in a wooden shed serving as holding area then systematically led out in small groups into the fields where they are made to knell by the ditch and then slaughtered to death. It is said that they were not even worth a price of a bullet that an axe, hammer or other farming tools are being used to kill them. Since there was no steady source of electricity in the area, the site was powered by large and loud generators which cover up the cries of the people being slaughtered in the fields.  Patriotic songs are also being played on loud speakers to mask the screams of the people while they are being murdered so that nearby residents could not overhear the yelling and screaming of the victims.  A chemical is being place on the mass grave to make sure all those who are buried cannot survive and to hasten decomposition of the bodies so as not to produce a foul smell.

Just as I thought I’ve already seen the worst, but not until I approached this huge, old tree made colourful by the bracelets hanging around it labelled as the Killing Tree.

What was this all about? I asked myself. As I continue reading the signage around, I learned the brutal truth. The simplest way to explain it is to say it was used to kill babies and small children by forcefully smashing their fragile heads against the rigid trunk of the tree. It was a revelation that was hard to stomach. This was the part of the tour that hit me the most. I stared at the tree for five minutes, clenched my own teeth together and felt the tension around my jaw muscles.My chest tightened that I felt like I could hardly breathe. My eyes felt heavy I almost burst into tears as my entire being was filled with deep sadness. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Why kill the babies and small children?  The Khmer Rouge believed that in order to completely kill grass, you have to take it out from the roots. They did not want anyone to seek revenge for their actions, so they thought of killing the entire family with all its children and babies was the solution. These bracelets were placed there as simple remembrance of what had happened. Afterwards I walked around the grounds in a daze, silent and in deep sadness. How can a normal person do such brutal task? I could not think of an answer. I can feel the wind gusts but still nothing seems to rustle.

Still I continue walking and approached the Memorial museum.It was just a small hall near the entrance, filled with memoirs and pictures documenting how life was like during Polpots regime. There are glass casing filled with bones, clothing and trinkets used by the victims during that era.

The Killing Fields is absolutely a sobering place to be. It has affected me in many ways and will always be in my thoughts and mind.  It was an awful visit but I should say necessary. The things that happened here are some of the worst documented horrors in history.

It was an emotional Monday afternoon for me in Phnom Penh - a visit that broke my heart. So I advised everyone who plans to visit to the place to save this trip at the end of your itinerary. As I learn about Cambodia’s history, this visit has helped me reframe my thoughts on how important this young nation needs to come to terms to bring justice and peace to its people.But until this very moment, Cambodian people are still fighting hard to bring the perpetrators to justice through international courts. And sadly, cases like these takes time. And yet, the Cambodian people are strong and resilient. They are transparent enough to provide unadulterated accounts of their recent history, and even encourage tourists to visit this place so as not let these atrocities of the past be forgotten and for the entire world to learn from their experience so that this brutality will never happen again anywhere in the world.

Thank you for dropping by! I hope you enjoyed your time here. I am making a series of post about our trip in Cambodia in the coming days so watch out for it. You'll love it. Promise! Feel free to share this, drop a comment and share your thoughts about your experience in your visit in the Killing fields. If you like, you can check out my instagram @archieoffduty to find more travel ideas for your future travels. I would really appreciate it. Thanks! ;-)>

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