I first knew I had to come to Cambodia three years ago. I was traveling through Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam) with my sister and had been reading First They Killed My Father, a heart-wrenching and eye-opening memoire written by Luong Ung who was seven years old when the war took her family and tore apart her country. It was the first time I learned about the Cambodian Genocide, the first I had even heard about it. Strange, in a sense, considering it was just 40 years ago.
The book alone left a permanent hole in my heart. Even fictional works have a tendency to do that to me, and so stories like this — very real and very true stories of loss and survival — really get to me. I’ve thought about it many times since, and so when I was planning to make another trip to Southeast Asia, I knew I had to go to Cambodia.
And so I found myself in Siem Reap after a 13 hour trip from Koh Phangan in Thailand, and about a week after that, in Phnom Penh. It was the day before we were meant to cross the border into Vietnam, and I knew there was one last thing I had to do before we left Cambodia for good. I needed to make a trip out to the killing fields.
There was one last thing I had to do before we left Cambodia for good. I needed to make a trip out to the killing fields.
The name sparks both intrigue and burning curiosity, and unfortunately, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a grassy area (formerly an orchard) that was used as a grounds to brutally execute some 1.7 million people during the civil war. There are an estimated 300 ‘killing fields’ all over the country, but this one (known as Choeung Ek) is, sadly, the most prominent.
But before I go further, people tend to ask the question: “What was the war about?” The Khmer Rouge (a communist group that believed everyone should be equals) had overthrown the government after unrest between the US and Vietnam, and they despised anyone who appeared ‘better’ than a peasant. If you had a high-paying job, appeared to be educated, wore glasses, or even had soft hands, you were killed. If you were Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, or had the genes in your ancestry, you were killed. Pol Pot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) had a saying: “Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake.”
Pol Pot had a saying: “Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake.”
The tuk tuk ride to the killing fields took about 45 minutes from the city center, winding through some smaller villages and bumpy roads. Once you arrive, you’re given a headset that you can listen to at various stops around the grounds. They include both a narrative of where you are and what you’re seeing, and some first-hand accounts of people who were there and had survived. Their stories are chilling, to say the least.
I was surprised to see that none of the buildings that were formerly there remained on the grounds. Destroyed at the end of the war in 1979, sign posts now stood in their place, depicting what the building looked like and what it was used for. There was the first house (where the prisoners were taken before execution), the second (where the guards stayed), and the third and forth sheds (where weapons and chemicals were kept). From there, the tape brings you through mass graves, around a small lake, to the infamous killing tree, and to the pagoda at the end.
As I looped through the circuit, it all seemed surreal. The graves were now shallower than they once were, but some still had bits of cloth or bone laying at the surface of their pits, having resurfaced from somewhere deeper within. The tape explains that these remains are still constantly surfacing, and that ‘keepers’ of the grounds will regularly collect them and put them away in proper, safe places. It politely asks you to respect the dead and to not touch or move these items yourself.
The graves were now shallower than they once were, but some still had bits of cloth or bone laying at the surface of their pits.
There were displays of clothing, bones, and teeth. Signs showing numbers of victims that had been removed from each grave. Stray bones, that hadn’t yet been collected by a keeper, lying alongside the paths. And then, towards the center of it all, there was the killing tree.
I don’t think I’ve stood directly before anything quite as haunted as the killing tree. It’s a large tree, now covered in bracelets and offerings, that had then been used to kill children and infants. The Khmer Rouge would pick up these small, innocent beings by their feet and smash their tiny bodies against the tree, thus killing them brutally. At the end of the war, the tree was discovered for its use by way of brain, blood, hair, and skull fragments that remained on it. It was documented that often, this killing had occurred in front of the mothers.
At the end of the trail, you’re brought to a tall, narrow building known as the pagoda, or memorial stupa. This memorial was built after the war as a way to house some of the remains and educate those who visit. There are 9,000 skulls on display on shelves that soar far, far over your head. There are so many that it is impossible to see the ones at the top, and yet, it is only a small sample of the victims who died here. As the tape explains, there is simply not room enough to display them all.
I don’t think I’ve stood directly before anything quite as haunted as the killing tree.
Though haunting, the display is educational. The skulls are arranged by age group (under 20, 20-40, 40-60) and labelled by cause of death. Bullets were decided to be too expensive by the Khmer Rouge, and so they used whatever else was handy — hatchets, knives, leg irons, gardening tools, corrosive chemicals — to carry out the slaughter. Most people were killed next to the grave so that their body could fall directly in afterward, and many weren’t fully dead when they did.
It isn’t my intention to make you feel sick, but these stories are all true, and like I said, it all happened only 40 years ago. It’s a reminder of what mankind is capable of, and a lesson for us to be better. Being there, I was constantly amazed at how the Cambodians have picked themselves up, carried on with their lives, and learned to find happiness after such dark times. Their resilience is inspiring, and if you have the chance, I would highly recommend visiting.