Visiting Choeung Ek Killing Fields is must when you are in Phnom Penh.
Background to the Killing Fields
Cheoung Ek, Cheunk Ek, or as the Khmer spell it Choeung Ek is the most famous, or infamous of the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
If you need a background to the Killing Fields i’ll give a very short introduction. It is estimated that between 1-2million, or up to 1/4 of the population of Cambodia were either killed, or died during the regime of the Khmer Rouge. The dead were then buried in shallow mass graves across the country. Typically these were in fields. As is the case when bodies are buried, come the rain cometh the bones of the dead. Hence the Killing Fields.
To read more about the Khmer Rouge click here
The word Killing Fields is now synonymous with the regime of Pol Pot, following the academy award winning film of the same name.
Background to Choeung Ek?
Choeung Ek was formerly just a normal piece of countryside on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was famously home to an orchards and a few Chinese graves. Both the orchard and some of the Chinese graves are still eerily present.
It is located around 17km from S-21. Again if you need an introduction, S-21 was the number one “prison” of the Khmer Rouge. Of the almost 13,000 people that passed through here, only 7 are known to have survived.
The majority of those killed were transported from S-21 to Choeung Ek, where they were either killed immieditely, or kept for one night. Those who managed a stay of execution merely managed it as the Khmer Rouge death machine could only kill so many people in one day.
Cheung Ek was the biggest death camp/killing field of the 20,000, or so known in the country. Around 9000 people are estimated to have been buried here.
For more information on S-21 click here
To read about one of the few survivors click here
What do you see at Choeung Ek?
It takes bout half an hour to get here from downtown Phnom Penh. On arrival it is immediately apparent that you are in the countryside. That being said there are shops and even a school next door, testament to how much Phnom Penh has grown over the years.
Similarly to how S-21 was formerly a school, you hit immediately by the fact that not was this formerly a farm, but that people are very much still seeking out a living.
There are 17 main spots, which vary from a museum and numerous mass graves to the “killing tree”. The killing tree was brutally used to beat infants and babies to death. Now people leave bracelets here as a sign of respect.
The centerpiece of the museum/memorial is a huge memorial filled with the skulls of 50,000 people. The kind of site that is simply indescribable.
What is it like to visit Choeung Ek?
When it comes to Dark Tourism spots different places provoke different feelings. For example I found Auschwitz gut-wrenching, but it also came across very much like a well-polished museum.
Sites in Cambodia related to the Khmer Rouge are extremely different. The sites tend to be not only very basic, but have a lot of real life going on around them. And here lies the rub, you are surrounded by beautiful scenery, families going about their lives and even the sound of school children. Yet you are standing in a place that was witness to some of the worst crimes of the 20 century.
In this respect the best way to describe it would be surreal, very surreal. But, I am extremely glad that I went there. It will never be possible for outsiders to understand what occurred during this time, but it is worth at least trying to understand.