There is nothing more potent than context. It fills in all the clouds with stark imagery. It can be brutal, upsetting and give you nightmares for life. But not the killing fields. Despite everything, there is a strange sense of calm at Choeung Ek. A sense that now this is a place of rest for the millions who were killed there by the Khmer Rouge just 30 years ago.
In the four years since I first visited the fields, I forgot a lot of the key facts. They didn’t fail to shock me again the second time around. The Killing Fields has developed as a cultural site over the last few years too. Once there were boards littered with overblown language trying to explain in broken English the atrocities of what happened just a few decades before. The language used was so hyperbolic that it made it difficult to really appreciate what had happened. Now they’ve stripped back the information to just the facts.
They’ve also added a really interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) audio tour. It walks you through the field telling you key facts about each area and what went on there, from the truck stop to the mass graves.
If you’re going to Phnom Penh or even Cambodia, this should be a mandatory stop. You can walk in to the country and fall in love with the warm and welcoming people, but you won’t understand just how amazing they are until you visit this place.
And for those of you who won’t be visiting, here’s some important facts you should know about Cambodia’s turbulent history.
- When the Khmer Rouge first took control people were excited as they thought times would be changing for the better. They were then forced to work in labour camps with little to no food and water.
- The Killing Fields were kept secret. People were often tricked into getting on the busses with promises of better jobs, more suited to their previous skills and experience.
- The Khmer Rouge ended in 1979. Pol Pot died without ever being convicted in court, although he was under house arrest. The remaining three of seven leaders are still on trial now. They may never be punished.
- Between 1.4 and 3 million people died at Killing Fields throughout Cambodia. At least 9,000 at El Chouk.
- The first people to be killed were academics. The Khmer Rouge feared anyone intelligent or educated in the city. They preyed on country folk with no education and created an army out of them.
- After the academics were killed they killed every relative and close friend as they thought they might want to avenge their parents later on. They even killed tiny babies, although this was probably more to avoid the hassle of raising them rather than fear of revenge.
- Now Cambodia is a very young society. There are very few survivors of the Khmer Rouge, only a handful were saved because they had a very specific skill like painting or working with mechanics. After they killed all the academics and professionals they were left with few who could keep them in the lives they’d become accustomed to so they fished through the prisons trying to find anyone with the right skills. If they thought someone wasn’t good enough though, they’d be killed.
- If you see an older person in Cambodia, they were more than likely involved in the Khmer Rouge or a survivor of it. (Or immigrants of course.)
- This last fact isn’t included in the current tour, but I remember it from four years ago. I don’t know why it’s been removed, maybe it’s not true but maybe it is just one of so many horrible facts that there simply wasn’t room for it. I found this particularly hard hitting though – whilst adult soldiers did most of the killing, child soldiers were made to kill other children. They were threatened with death and forced to destroy other humans by viscous and cruel adults. These children are now adults, trying to rebuild lives in modern Cambodia.
The suffering and torture of the millions of people who rest there will not be forgotten. They’ve been immortalised. A selection of their skulls rest in a commemorative building, whilst visitors wander past them and around the rest of the site. Bones, teeth and clothes still surface after it rains. But despite all this, a peaceful calm radiates. The bamboo shelters that section off some of the main graves are now adorned in friendship bracelets left as gifts by passing tourists and locals. A large tree that was once used as a tool for unspeakable violence is also adorned in bracelets.
I’m not spiritual, but of all the places I have been and of all the temples, gurdwaras, churches and Stupas that I’ve seen, this is the only place that I have come close to believing in something other worldly.
Perhaps that is because the history of the field is so terrible, I can’t comprehend it in my own rationalities. I want to believe that all the innocent children, women and men that died there have somehow found peace.