Visiting the Choeung Ek killing fields

Phnom Penh, like every city in Southeast Asia, is characterized by traffic and noise. It does not offer a lot of beautiful spots, but if you are interested in the history of this country, there are two places you can’t miss: Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. These places both mark Cambodia’s sad past that lived one of humanity’s greatest tragedies that shook the twentieth century: the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Choeung Ek entrance, Phnom Penh
Choeung Ek entrance, Phnom Penh

During our visit to Phnom Penh, the first place we head is Choeung Ek, the best known of the 300 killing fields of the country. Choung Ek is located 15 km south of the capital and is easily reachable by tuk-tuk. Unfortunately, most tourists know Cambodia only for the Angkor Wat complex’s extraordinary beauty, with no doubt the most famous of Asia and one of the most known in the world. Instead, another reality from the recent past is worth knowing despite its extreme cruelty and sadness and still an open wound. After paying the entrance fee of 6 USD, we start the visit to this horror field to retrace the country’s sad and dark period. Immediately after the civil war, from 1975 to 1979, through general dissatisfaction of the people in the country for the Lon Nol administration and the destabilization caused by the war in neighbouring Vietnam, the revolutionary leader Pol Pot took over the country.

Choeung Ek view, Phnom Penh
Choeung Ek view, Phnom Penh

Pol Pot, son of Chinese immigrants, was fascinated by the Marxist theories known in Paris during his stay through a scholarship, becoming a member of the French Communist Party and actively participating in political activities. When he returned to Cambodia in 1953, he joined the “Communist clandestine movement” and became the Kampuchea Workers’ Party leader in 1963. In the following years, he was also one of the Khmer Rouge army leader (born in 1968 as a military division of the Vietnamese popular army and loyal followers of the Cambodian Communist Party) in the struggle against the US-backed Lon Nol regime. The goal of transforming the country into a completely self-sufficient agrarian society where the leadership of the party controlled all aspects of the Cambodians’ lives quickly turned into a massacre, starting one of the most violent dictatorships of the twentieth century.

A glass case with clothes
The tree where kids were beaten and killed

On April 17th, 1975, the Cambodian communists conquered Phnom Penh, and the people were forced to leave the towns and villages by force and the democratic Kampuchea, the official name of the country from 1976 to 1979, became a dictatorship ruled by the Khmer Rouge army: in almost four years, 1/4 of the population was killed, almost 2 million people died in the killing fields or in the cultivated fields where they were forced to work as farmers. Many Buddhist monks and people belonging to high social classes were killed. Among the most affected categories, there was that of teachers because they were associated with a high education level. In Choeung Ek, following the path with an audio guide, it is possible to retrace step by step the touching story of this place of death with reconstructions and witnesses of the survivors: preservations of the clothes, bracelets or bones kept in a glass case or spread along the terrain, do not go unnoticed and create a sad and touching atmosphere to the visitors. Even today, since the huge amount of remains in the mass graves, in this area emerge the terrible evidence of madness sadly lived in the late 70s. The tour ends in front of the Memorial Stupa, where there are preserved 17,000 skulls: here, local people stop to pray for all those victims who, without reason, were brutally killed. After this interesting morning, we go back to Phnom Penh by tuk-tuk and continue visiting the ”Genocide places” in another significant spot: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Skulls in the memorial stupa

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