I’m copying a Facebook post I wrote on Dec 22, 2016, about Choeung Ek (the most famous of perhaps hundreds of so-called “Killing Fields” across Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge era of the late 1970s) and dropping it here so that this travel blog more fully represents my travels. I wrote this as I sat in the airport at Phnom Penh, preparing to fly to Siem Reap for my first international Habitat for Humanity build. Having visited this site and having it weigh on my mind for a long period afterward — as it continues to on occasion even now, four months later — helped deepen my fascination of and love for the Cambodian people I met in coming weeks. To have survived decades of brutal warfare, genocide, starvation, terror, etc. and yet remain so open and welcoming… honestly, it remains beyond my comprehension. Here’s my post from last December:

I believe what struck me the most about visiting this place was how beautiful and peaceful it is. One might suspect it’s a public park suitable for picnics. I found it disconcerting given the horrors committed here. 

I’m reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a survivor who lost the vast majority of her family. I wish I’d marked the passage when I encountered it so I could quote her, but she describes her resentment at how nature — with its colorful sunsets and blossoming trees & flowers — failed to reflect the brutality and hatred and fear that the people were experiencing. I read that portion the evening after visiting here, so it resonated with me far more than it likely would have otherwise.

Memorials placed on the tree to honor and commemorate the children
The Killing Tree (Warning: extremely graphic) This is easily the most upsetting part of the tour for the vast majority of people. The sign doesn’t give the true horror that occurred here. When the Vietnamese troops first found this site, they were confused by the bone fragments, blood spatter, and bits of brain matter found all over the tree trunk.
Buddhist spirit house
Buddhist spirit house
Buddhist stupa honoring victims. Contains thousands of skulls and other bones excavated from the area
View of the Buddhist stupa. This display goes all the way to the top of the structure. 5000 skulls total along with other bones, many of them showing method of execution.
Clothing that’s recently been exposed just off one of the walkways. Yes, those are human teeth. The government and various NGOs regularly find, collect, study, and catalog these items.
The Magic Tree The Khmer Rouge soldiers and guards went to great length to hide from local villagers what they were doing at the execution sites. Beyond the loudspeakers that played the typical propaganda and patriotic music to drown out the sounds of pleading & screaming, chemicals were used in the graves to mask the stench.
The Magic Tree The Khmer Rouge soldiers and guards went to great length to hide from local villagers what they were doing at the execution sites. Beyond the loudspeakers that played the typical propaganda and patriotic music to drown out the sounds of pleading & screaming, chemicals were used in the graves to mask the stench.
Another mass grave, this one containing women and children. Many of the woman appear to have subjected to extreme sexual abuse prior to being killed.
Pond where an unknown number of victims’ bodies remain. The decision was made to leave them. When body parts and fragments of clothing become exposed (a disturbingly regular occurrence), they’re collected, studied, and added to the archives.
Remnants of the fruit tree grove that had once been here
Another mass grave, this one containing women and children. Many of the woman appear to have subjected to extreme sexual abuse prior to being killed.
Mass grave where 400 bodies were found

One thought on “Visiting Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields

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