The Killing Fields

2 Jan
20000 skulls in the Killing Field pagoda

20000 skulls in the Killing Field pagoda

On the 2nd of January we made it down for breakfast the first and last time in Phnom Penh (the nights were too late because of the Blue Chilli adventures). My travel companion PH and I decided that it was time for something serious too, after all the new year celebrations. So we wanted to go and see the Killing Fields – or I should say, the Phnom Penh killing fields, as each city and village had some fields where non-conformers were brought and ‘disposed off’.

How to get a better insight into this tragic episode of Cambodian history than visiting the place with local Cambodians – friends we made in the bar before. So off we set in a tuk-tuk which we rented for the morning, to do the 15km trip to Choeung Ek. It was a bit with mixed feelings that I approached the place, especially being with funny and joking friends, to see such a serious place.

To give a bit of history:

It was in the late 60s that Cambodia (independent from French ‘protectorate’ but neglective occupation only since 1953) got sucked into the Vietnam war of the Americans. The Vietnamese communists were chased into Cambodia, and the Americans followed them with their carpet bombing and mines. But they failed, with the result that the communist ‘underdog’ only got stronger (who did the Americans think they were to come and decide what colour people should think or vote). The ‘Khmer Rouge’ and Pol Pot (nicely educated in radical Marxism in Paris) took over Cambodia in 1975.

That was year Zero: money was abolished (well, they were communists…), cities were abandoned (a city was ‘not done’) and Cambodia turned into a maoist peasant-dominated agrarian society. Can you imagine? Throw away any money, no more paying, no more bills, no more services, no more cities – everybody just works on the fields so that everybody can eat at the end of the day…

Killing fields Pagoda

Killing fields Pagoda

And if you can’t imagine that, like many Cambodians, you would probably be relocated by force to the countryside, or tortured to death or executed. You choose. That’s how 2 million Cambodians died over the 3 years of Pol Pot regime. All educated people, those who speak a foreign language, those who wear glasses, those who objected – they were all ‘removed’. Would you still be alive?

  • (and another tragedy was that after Vietnam overthrew the Pol Pot regime on 7 January 1979, people went looking for their relatives back where they came from – not finding many – but also abandoning their ‘forced’ fields and pastures. The resulting famine in 79 and 80 killed another few hundred thousand more…)
  • (and it is from this period, that there is a love-hate relationship with the Vietnamese: they did come to liberate them – but on the other hand, many Vietnamese took Cambodian land, as the country was half deserted or eradicated – and they refused (till now) to go home or give it back… So there’s another hot-potato history.)

I don’t quite know what I really expected at the Killing Fields: probably gruesome torture equipment and pictures that make you vomit (they are apparently in the Toul Sleng school turned prison & torture chambers, which now is a genocide museum). But it actually had more of a ‘tourist park’ feel to it. Since you had to bargain for a good price with the tuk-tuk driver to get there, on the spot you had a souvenir shop, some food & drink places, ticket boot and ticket controllers, big signs indicating the toilet, etc. To make it a nice day out…

There was a pagoda at the Killing fields, filled with 9000 skulls of people that left their lives, grouped per age group and gender on different levels. That really makes you silent… People were transported there in trucks, off-loaded cow-style, their names put down in a register (what for?) – and then they were usually killed by the evening and put in one of the mass graves – as ‘storage space for alive people was limited’…

One of the many mass graves at Killing Fields

One of the many mass graves at Killing Fields

The rest of the Killing fields was not more than a path through some uneven fields dotted with trees, with some indications here and there what happened at that spot. The translation into English made the whole stomach knot worse – as it was quite blunt:

  • “This is the tree against which people’s skulls were crushed, to save on bullets or equipment”,
  • “ this tree was used to hang loudspeakers with loud music to avoid hearing the moaning and screaming too much”,
  • “in this hole we found 300 girls, aged 15-18, mostly naked”, etc…

And all of that because an idea(l)… be it red or any other colour…

The visit to the Killing Fields was a quite a surreal experience for me, as the 2 Cambodian friends we went with, kept on talking, joking, laughing and even kissing! When I asked them if they have also stories of people killed in their family, they did have quite a few, but obviously they were not letting that spoil their day or lives. ‘Time heals all wounds’… Or ‘Looking the other way, helps not to see’… Life goes on.

Tree from which loudspeakers were playing music to block out the moaning in Killing Fields

Tree from which loudspeakers were playing music to block out the moaning in Killing Fields

Add to that that all of a sudden I hear a voice calling my name and speak to me in Dutch language (Flemish)… I had to blink my eyes a few times before I could add 2 known Brussels guys, to my retina that was filled with skulls, torture and Cambodians kissing and joking. Someone had vaguely told me before coming here that 2 guys of my badminton club were also traveling Asia – and there we met – in the middle of the Killing Fields… What do you say in a situation like that???

  • ‘Hi!?  Euh shall we go for a drink in this cool gay bar we know?’…

There is also a museum (in Phnom Penh) about the genocide (in the school that was transformed in prison/deportation camp), but I had a enough of excitement for that day.  I just needed a rest from it all, and went for a nap.

  • Will visit the museum and report later

3 Responses to “The Killing Fields”

  1. Luc 8 January 2009 at 21:36 #

    Volg je verslagen op de voet en vind het echt heel leuk. De herinneringen komen terug aan de plaatsen die ik zelf al bezocht heb.

    Lijkt mij dat Cambodia sterk veranderd is: had 10 jaar geleden het gevoel dat de mensen veel minder open stonden voor buitenlanders dan andere aziatische landen en dat de genocide van 1975 – 1979 nog bleef nawerken (je voelde een zekere achterdocht bij de mensen). En van een gay life in Phom Phen of Siem Reap was nog helemaal geen sprake.

  2. Stevie B 13 January 2009 at 11:44 #

    hey Toon,

    een bezoek aan de Killing Fields moet onvergetelijk zijn…..


  3. Liselotte 13 January 2009 at 19:58 #

    Hoi Tony,

    Ik heb je afscheid op Jint gemist, maar dat ligt intussen al kilometers van jou vandaan. Geniet met volle teugen van je reis!
    Mijn eigen Azie-herinneringen komen door jou ook weer naar boven, super!

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