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Choeung Ek

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 what the history of this country has been, there are two places which you can’t miss: Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. These places both mark the sad past of Cambodia that lived one of the humanity’s greatest tragedies which shook the twentieth century: the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

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

During our visit of Phnom Penh, the first place we head is Choeung Ek, which is 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 extraordinary beauty of Angkor Wat complex, with no doubt the most famous of Asia and one of the most known in the world, instead there is another reality from the recent past, that is worth knowing despite its extreme cruelty and sadness and still an open wound. After paying the entrance fee $ 6, we start the visit in this fields of horror to retrace the sad and dark period of the country. 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 neighboring 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 leader of the Kampuchea Workers’ Party in 1963. In the following years he was also one of the leader of the Khmer Rouge army (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 life of the Cambodians, quickly turned into a massacre, starting one of the most violent dictatorships of the twentieth century

Glass case with clothes
Tree where kids where 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 level of education 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 the visit of the ”Genocide places” in another significant spot: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Skulls in the memorial stupa




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