A Visit to The Killing Fields

by - 3:00 PM

One day in 10th grade geography class a heap of human skulls stared at me from the pages of my textbook. 'Many Cambodians were killed on the Killing Fields by the Khmer Rouge' the caption said. We were studying Southeast Asia that semester and to better understand the current social-economical situation we had to understand the region's past first. Cambodia's past turned out to contain a genocide in more recent times than you'd think. I turned the page; I didn't want countless empty eye sockets to stare at me while I took notes.

Six years later I found myself in a tuktuk in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, on my way to the Killing Fields. I had insisted on going there, bringing it up in every Cambodia related conversation. I remembered the heap of skulls from my textbook, the short paragraph next to it that didn't do these lost lives any justice. I had to go to the Killing Fields and learn more about the tragedies that had taken place there.
The tuktuk raced through one smelly street after another, somehow squeezed itself into a small alley where I was sure we'd crush, then stopped at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the many Killing Fields the Khmer Rouge used in the 70s. When people say they visited the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek is where they went.

As we passed the gates we immediately ended up in a queue to pay the (pretty high) entrance fee. We wanted to go for the simple ticket without audio tour, which apparently isn't an option anymore. We were asked where we were from, then got a brochure in Dutch and an audio tour, also in Dutch. I wasn't so sure about the latter, I honestly feared it'd be a robot reading Google Translate lines... but it was the complete opposite. A pleasant male voice, clearly a native speaker, filled my ears when I started my audio tour and told me about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields.

The Khmer Rouge was what the followers of Cambodia's communist party were called. They were led by an incredibly hypocritical man called Pol Pot, who rose to power in 1975. He'd gotten a great education in France, but upon return to Cambodia decided that everyone with a degree was unworthy of this life. People living on farms in the countryside were the true Cambodians, he decided, so when he became the country's leader he ordered everyone to leave all the cities and evacuate to the countryside. On top of that he deported everyone who disagreed with him and all people who didn't live up to his idea of the perfect Cambodian. You could end up in Choeung Ek for living in the city, for being a teacher, for wearing glasses, for having gone to college. I swallowed a lump in my throat away when I heard that. As a bespectacled former teacher from an urban area I would have been triple doomed in 1970s Cambodia. Suddenly I understood how it could happen that one in four Cambodians died between 1975 and 1978 as a result of genocide.

As I listened to the gruesome history of the Khmer Rouge I wandered onto the grounds of Choeung Ek. All the buildings of the former genocidal camp have been torn down. There are signs showing what they looked like and the audio tour will tell you what they were for. That's the easy and calm part of the visit. When I arrived at the first mass grave my emotions got the better of me.
The people who'd met their end here had been killed with whatever blunt object was at hand, as bullets were expensive and not to be wasted on lesser beings. They were dumped in holes by the dozen, their decaying bodies causing the earth to rise and then slump back, making much of the grounds of Choeung Ek look like a morbid golf course today. You can't walk on these parts of the grounds and wouldn't want to either: to this day bones, teeth and clothes resurface. About once or twice a year these are collected and brought to a better resting place, but still there's a big chance of spotting human remains during your visit.
I blinked back tears as I stood at one of the fenced-in mass graves while listening to the stories of people who'd been in Choeung Ek in the 70s and had lost loved ones there. The fence around the grave was covered in friendship bracelets in remembrance of those whose lives had been taken there. I tugged on the knot of one of my own bracelets, trying to loosen it up. The knot was too tight, but if it hadn't been I would have left one of my own hand-made bracelets there.

With these stories weighing heavy on my mind I walked on. The worst was yet to come. Soon I found myself in front of a tree, which was also covered in bracelets. Here the Khmer Rouge made sure babies wouldn't grow up to become a threat to their ideology by smashing the infants' heads in against the massive tree trunk. When Choeung Ek was dismantled there were still pieces of bone and brain tissue stuck to the bark.
Again I tried to take a bracelet off, but the knots wouldn't budge. I walked on with a bad taste in my mouth.

Near the end of the walking route I noticed my dad almost stepping on a random piece of cloth coming out of the ground of the path. It took my brain a while to register what my eyes were seeing: clothes. Clothes from unfortunate Cambodians who'd met their end right where we were standing. It was surreal and heart-breaking. The dead will never find peace on the grounds of Choeung Ek; their clothes and bones are still trying to escape the earth.

My visit soon ended after that at the Memorial Stupa, where many of the bones of the Khmer Rouge's victims are laid to rest. This was the thing I'd seen all those years ago in my geography textbook. I bought a flower and left it there in honour of all those who'd died on one of the many Killing Fields in Cambodia. All I could think was: 'I'm so sorry this happened to you.'

I left Choeung Ek with a heavy heart, but also hope for the future. Cambodia went through genocide only 40 years ago and is no rapidly developing. It's got so much potential and the Cambodians are making sure their country lives up to its potential. I'm a firm believer that history is there to be learned from, which is why I hope every single one of you visits Choeung Ek if given the chance. If nothing else, it will inspire you to do whatever you can to never let something like this happen again.

x Envy

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8 Fellow Ramblers

  1. My boyfriend is actually traveling to Cambodia in January and he's looking for places to visit, this post could not be better timed! I'll have to send him to your blog! Thanks so much for sharing :)

    Mary Lane @NewYorkCliche

    1. I hope he enjos Cambodia! It's amazing, but a bit smelly... The Killing Fields is a must in my opinion.

  2. Too bad this is already happening several times over in this day and age. The people who have the power to change the present do not learn from history- or even education, as you've pointed out.

    I'll take my pessimistic approach elsewhere lmao.


    1. You're not allowed to take that approach with you on the #SpacePoliceRadio boat D:
      It's true what you say though, but maybe raising awareness will help a little in the long run.

  3. How does your blog not have thousands of followers?!?! You are such a good writer!! Beautifully written and so interesting. This place sounds right up my street...does that sound bad? I just mean it in a similar way as to why people visit the likes of Auschwitz, to pay respects and the like.
    Such a sad history.

    Danielle xo

    1. Aww thank you so freaking much! I honestly don't know why my blog isn't bigger, I guess people just aren't all that interested in this type of content. I love writing it though and it feels amazing when someone like you comes along and appreciates my work so much!
      It doesn't sound bad when you say it's right up your street. In fact, I totally understand it. I feel the same when I visit places like this one.


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