A visit to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh

Looking out over the killing fields at Choeung Ek. Fenced areas are mass graves.

As I walked from one stop to the next listening to the Cambodian man speaking in my headset, I tried to visualize the events here at Choeung Ek some 40 years ago – the truck pulling up to the gate, Khmer Rouge guards, many of whom were just teenagers, unloading blindfolded and partially-clothed prisoners. They had just come from the prison at Tuol Sleng; otherwise, known as Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short. It wasn’t a long ride – just 15 kilometers. The prisoners were told they were being transferred to another facility. However, this would be their last stop. Most were executed within hours of arrival.

A sketch shows where the prisoners were temporarily detained at Choeung Ek

The man speaking in my audio headset spoke with very good English. He indicated that his entire family, of nine, was uprooted from their home, separated and taken into the country to do forced manual labor. Years later, when the murderous regime, led by Pol Pot, was routed from power by the Vietnamese Army, only five of the nine family members remained – he never saw two brothers and two sisters again. It’s hard to imagine a society that eliminates 1.7 million of its own people – about one-fifth of its population.

As I continued my walk through the killing fields, as they are known, I could almost hear the loudspeakers blaring the Khmer Rouge victory parade-type music – the sole reason was to obscure the nearby sounds of the prisoners as they were beaten to death with crude tools. With my headset on, I felt in another world – a time warp so to speak. I was listening to the Cambodian man and looking for the things that he was describing, visualizing as I continued forward.

As I neared stop #12, I sat down on a bench. I gazed at a small lake directly in front of me and listened to three Cambodians describe their experiences. As I listened to the stories of their experiences, I looked out over the water and the nearby landscape. Over the last 40 years, I don’t imagine the local scenery has changed much. This is a rural area, outside of the big city, where farmers tended to their crops. The only thing different is that the wooden buildings, sheds and tools of the Khmer Rouge were removed long ago.

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, which are located about 15 km outside of central Phnom Penh, were just one of over 300 similar killing fields throughout the country. This area was so calm and peaceful. It was hard to imagine that such horrific things happened right here in the not too distant past.

There were a number of other visitors the day that I walked through the fields. Each appeared to be in their own thoughts and seemed intent on the stories they were listening to. There was no loud talking. It was very quiet and serene. Many were taking photos unobtrusively. No one was taking selfies. I think people realized that would not be appropriate.

The voice in the headset moved me along and continued the story of what happened here. Areas where bodies were discovered, en masse, were fenced off. Bones and the prisoners clothing continue to come to the surface during the rainy season. As I walked along, I noticed a few signs that read, “Do not step on the bones”. As I looked down, I saw white bone fragments embedded into the dirt pathways. Seeing these bones seemed to impact me more than the designated stops.

I eventually came to the tall memorial stupa, the centerpiece at Choeung Ek. Inside are more than 5K human skulls – arranged on many levels that ascend upward into the stupa. In all, almost 9K bodies were discovered in mass graves here at the Choeung Ek killing fields.

After leaving the stupa, I walked to the adjacent Genocidal Museum. There, in words and photos, the story is told of the rise of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army, how they marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and, for the next four years, attempted to create their perfect Communist society. Entire cities were cleared of residents who were marched to the countryside and made to do forced labor. Everyone was to be on the same level - no one better or worse than the next person. They eliminated the currency because there was no need for one. Anyone who was more than a poor, rural peasant was condemned. Those who spoke foreign languages, had soft hands or just wore eyeglasses were seen to be above the common person and were to be eliminated.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum is located next to the killing fields

The first recollection that I have of the killings taking place in Cambodia was when I saw the movie “The Killing Fields”. It was very impactful to me. I was mystified how the world could be so fooled by Pol Pot into thinking that everything was ok in the country during the late 1970s. Sweden even sent representatives, after Cambodians escaped to nearby countries and began telling stories of horror. The Swedish delegation were manipulated by the Pol Pot regime and left with the belief that everything was ok and the refugees were telling lies. In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge continued to strike at them across the border. By early 1979, Pol Pot and his murderous regime were driven to the mountains and jungles near the Thai border. It wasn’t until the early 1990s (over a decade later), that the rest of the world started to understand the horrific events that took place in Cambodia. The United Nations allowed the Khmer Rouge to be the official representative for Cambodia until the early 1990s – more than 12 years after they were overthrown. How can something like this happen? How could the world be so fooled?

After leaving Choeung Ek, my tuk tuk driver drove me to S-21. Tuol Sleng, which means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” was just an ordinary high school in the city of Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975. Within four months, the high school was turned into a prison and interrogation center. It was one of over a hundred in the country.

As I walked through the prison grounds, I noticed the barbed wire still atop the perimeter walls. I walked from room to room and saw the beds the prisoners were chained to, the photos of the inmates and the stories of the events that took place here. Prisoners even included former Khmer Rouge soldiers who were mistrusted by the regime for one of many different reasons. The information at Tuol Sleng indicated that less than 10 of the prisoners who were interred there survived. Over 20K Cambodians died from the torture at the prison or were transported at night, a time when there were no witnesses, to Choeung Ek where they were executed usually that evening or within a day.

The visit to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and Security Prison 21 was a very sobering but educational experience for me. I knew the basics of what happened in Cambodia prior to my arrival; however, visiting the fields and the prison gave me a closer connection to the events of the late 1970s.

Most people seem to arrive at Choeung Ek on a tuk tuk. Figure four to five hours to visit both memorials including driving time from your hotel or guesthouse. Inquire at your hotel about hiring a tuk tuk for a half-day (about 15 USD) or a full day (about 25 USD). Your driver will wait at both locations while you visit. It’s very simple to do this on your own. Once at Choeung Ek, purchase your admission ticket for 6 USD (or currently 24K Cambodian Riel), obtain your headset at the window right next to the ticket window and off you go. The audio headsets are in 15 different languages. At Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, purchase your admission ticket for 3 USD (or currently 12,600 Riel) and walk on a self-guided tour of the grounds and three buildings that contain information and photos regarding prisoners and the Khmer Rouge guards.

In planning your trip, you can find information on the Killing Field website.

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