A visit to the killing fields of Cambodia at the memorial park at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh is an eerie experience. You don’t really know what to expect drawn as you are to a place where some of the 1.3 million people executed by Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge regime were found. When you add together those who died of starvation and exhaustion some 2m people, a quarter of the population died in that terror.
As you approach the entrance to the park, after a tuk tuk ride from Phnom Penh through suburbs and villages, the sombre attitude and downcast eyes of those leaving strike you. The ticket price is $6 to include an audio guide, which takes you through the park, its history and the experiences of those who both survived and worked there. People were brought here from the infamous S21 prison, a former school, and a visit to that before Choeung Ek is a sobering enough experience.
People were brought there from S21 prison having endured torture and horror simply to die and they were executed brutally and immediately at night. Every effort was made by the guards to make this exercise and cheap and as quickly as possible. You are struck by the simplicity of the place, there is nothing that immediately draws the eye there other than the Buddhist memorial set in the middle of the park which houses the remains of many of those 70000 people who were murdered in this place. The sense of quiet respect and reverence is palpable and embraces you as you wander through hearing the story. The site speaks for itself, these were indeed fields, and the graves, which have been excavated, leave hollow areas in the ground with still visible fragments of clothing and bone which appear most years when the rains come and the topsoil is washed away. In other places such items might just be litter, but here they have a very different significance.The undulations of the ground mark spots where mass graves have been excavated and left as simply as that. That simplicity throughout the site, is a very powerful exposition of what happened there, since it ignites your imagination in trying to visualise the horror.
Outside, the area and village continues its modern day life, and the site is fringed with fields that are worked by the very people who at that time might have been brought here to die.
The Cupola at the centre of the area, a Buddhist shrine to the memory of those who died, houses some of their remains, carefully excavated and recording the age gender and size of the person. It is simple and gives a strong sense of the sheer scale of the slaughter. The design is tall thin and simple, encased in glass with the skulls and bones visible to all who pass by or enter.
Possibly the most poignant moment is to stand in the shade of a big tree out of the hot sun, just a big leafy tree in a park, and realise that this is the infamous killing tree against which babies and small children were smashed to death before being thrown into the mass graves. That really makes you think, and you too leave with downcast eyes. We are part of that same human race that did this.