The Choeung Ek killing fields
At the Choeung Ek Killing fields Richard and I got two entry passes and one audio to share (because money). I strongly recommend that anyone who goes to this place gets the audio as the signs around the place have quite limited information on them.
There were advantages to this set up. Whilst my husband passed on information from the recordings to me, I got to take in the scenery and reflect on the place without any distractions. The only part of the recording that I heard was an excerpt of a piece of music called ‘A memory from darkness’ by Him Sophy, I will write more about that later.
My own experience ended up being really unnerving. the killing fields themselves are really peaceful. More so than many nature filled places I have been in Cambodia. There were butterflies and puppies as well as chipmunks, birds and frogs. The sounds of which contributed to the restful feeling of the place.
The area was a former Chinese cemetery and there is an orchard nearby. When I was there the trees were full of lychees, some of which had been protected, presumably for picking. There were large green trees, moss and mushrooms. The audio tour itself follows a winding path and parts of it are quite scenic, at one point it skirts around a large rectangular pond.
Of course, in the midst of this there are gruesome reminders of exactly what happened here. This was one of many execution sites throughout Cambodia and I believe it was the main one used for the prisoners in Tuol Sleng. It is believed around 20,000 people died here including many babies and children. At one point so many people were being brought over each night that the executioners were unable to kill them quickly enough and a building was erected to house the prisoners until the following night.
The whole site is basically a collection of mass graves (including the large pond that I mentioned). I am told that bones and teeth periodically rise to the surface and are collected by the custodians of the site. As I was there in the rainy season, the time when most bones rise from the soil, I was able to see what looked like the long bones of someone’s arm rising to the surface.
There were also Items of clothing poking out of the ground and a sign that read ‘please do not walk through the mass grave’ which I think will always stay with me. Something like that should not have to exist, for many reasons.
Two of the healthy, leafy trees in particular are of note. The magic tree, where patriotic music was played to drown out the screaming of the people being murdered, and the killing tree, whose trunk babies were bashed to death against.
The last stop on the audio tour is the large stupa filled with human skulls and bones. This is of course a shocking illustration of the crimes that took place here but it also acts as a place for people to pray and honour the dead. Particularly moving were the offerings that visitors left throughout the site; bracelets, flowers and cash that can be seen at the mass graves and the killing tree.
It’s apparent that the vast majority of people who pass through these killing fields want to offer some kind of comfort to the dead. I don’t know if that is why it felt so peaceful to me now. Even though what happened there was beyond appalling, because everything was so calm, I couldn’t think of it as a place where people were brutally killed, or where lingering spirits might be found. I thought of it as a place where the bones of the dead rest, in the knowledge their story is shared.