Disclaimer: In case the title didn’t tip you off, this article is going to be a real bummer.
One of the most amazing things about traveling is how much you learn along the way—about people, about culture, and about the world itself. Reading about something in a book is a far cry from seeing the remnants of history with your own eyes, and as we explore we uncover parts of the past that are often fascinating, sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing, and occasionally downright horrifying.
However, knowing the misdeeds of the past teaches us what to avoid in the future and so there is no history that should be forgotten. No place is this more true than in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
A Bit of History
The Killing Fields are a dark vestige of the Khmer Rouge Regime, which took power in Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot from 1975 – 1979. During that time, nearly 3 million people were executed in a country of only 8 million total. The cities were emptied and those who weren’t arrested were sent to agricultural projects as the government sought to both “purify” the population and bring the country back to a simpler time. Much of this was accomplished through the use of crude prisons and mass graves, which still exist today as a haunting reminder.
Choeung Ek was originally an orchard that was turned into arguably the most notorious extermination camp in Cambodia, containing thousands upon thousands of bodies. Located outside Phnom Penh, there is an entrance fee of $6 and includes an audio tour which guides you through the site providing the grim details of the events that took place—many patrons are moved to tears while listening as they solemnly walk the grounds.
You’re continually reminded to watch your step, as teeth and bone fragments still regularly make their way to the surface. Upon arrival your eye is immediately drawn to the memorial stupa, a Buddhist monument with towering windows displaying more than 5,000 human skulls that have been recovered from the site.
Those carrying out the executions were not well-equipped with weapons or ammunition, so executions were to be done quickly and cheaply often through barbaric means. For this reason, you will immediately notice how many of the skulls on display are cracked or smashed in.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the site is known as the “Children’s Tree,” against which the youngest victims were beaten. Today the tree continues to grow and is covered in bracelets and ribbons visitors have left in memoriam to those lost.
Within the city limits sits the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. The classrooms were divided into crude, tiny cells; the windows were barred and the grounds surrounded by electric fences & barbed wire. Inmates here were each photographed and ordered to provide the details of their life, only to be tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Wall upon wall of prisoner photos line parts of the museum, with gaunt faces of men, women, and children staring back at you. This prison was a true house of horrors, the site of everything from waterboarding to medical experimentation. Many of those not executed at the prison itself were eventually marched 15 kilometers to Choeung Ek, where they ultimately met their demise.
It’s baffling to think something so horrific had taken place in such recent history, but a truly eye-opening experience for those visiting Cambodia.