A visit to Phnom Penh isn't quite complete without a visit to The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center aka "The Killing Fields". It's one of those places you're not really sure that you want to visit, due to the graphic history and sadness, but what you take away from it something that can't be explained through history books or even documentaries. I knew little about Cambodia before coming here, but even through the little reading I did in my guidebook I was taken aback by the chilling details. To most of the outside world I believe Cambodia lies in the shadows of it's big brothers, Thailand and Vietnam. For the everyday tourist Thailand is king, the food, beaches and parties get much acclaim; to the East lies another giant, Vietnam which also get's much hype for its natural beauty and history. So where does that leave Cambodia, somewhere in the in between.
Before visiting the fields I did a little more reading so that I could prepare myself for what I was about to see; one of the most shocking facts is how recent this atrocity occurred, and how little is known about it worldwide. Everyone has heard of the brutality that occurred roughly 75 years ago in Germany but little is known about the horrors that occurred here only 35 years ago. After the end of the Cambodian civil war the Khmer Rouge regime, a communist party led by Pol Pot, held power of the country. The party believed in social engineering policies and self-sufficiency, both of which led to the death of thousands of people. Many individuals died due to famine and normally treatable diseases such as malaria, but the largest number of deaths was due to the genocide, now preserved at The Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate any outside thinking and imposed a agrarian-based Communist society, eventually forcing nearly two million people from the cities and into the countryside. These people were not skilled in agricultural work and often failed at producing the crops required of them, all the time being under strict control by the regime. Meanwhile, they were also killing any individuals they feared had involvement in free-market or outside thinking; this included intellectuals, city-dwellers and even some of their own party members, basically anyone suspected of being a traitor. Various measures were taken by the regime to create a classless society, aside from the killings books were burned, money was abolished, schools and hospitals were closed, and religious was banned. What I find most compelling about all of this is that at the time little was known to the outside world, even still today.
Before going out to the fields I asked my host, Andrea, what she thought about it. She told me it was extremely well done and also very educational. I was glad to hear this, but knew it would also be very emotional. This event had to have touched every person living in Cambodia today, as they estimate 1 in 4 people were killed as a result. It's strange to have tuk-tuk and moto drivers boasting about tours to this sad place where they themselves could have lost someone.
After our stop at the Thai embassy Achint drove me out to The Killing Fields, I was happy to have borrowed a helmet for the day as the roads out are currently under construction and don't provide for the most relaxing ride. We arrived after about 30 minutes of dust filled travel, I bought my ticket, was handed my audio device and pointed in the right direction. I briefly wondered what Achint was going to do while I toured but he then asked, "Do you mind if I follow you", to which I of course obliged. He didn't get the headset but instead wandered on his own, resting for some time in the shade before joining me again. I wondered what he was feeling as we walked through this place, documenting the death of so many thousands of people, one of which may have been someone he knew. About halfway through there is a small lake near the outskirts of the property and behind a fence there was a local family living. Achint struck up a conversation with this family and I only wished I could understand what they were saying. At another point Achint stood beside another pair of moto drivers, all three staring into one of many grave sites, I couldn't help but sit and watch them, wondering what was going through their heads.
The audio tour was amazing and provided just the right balance of historical information, alongside actual accounts from survivors. The piece titled "One man's story" was one of my favorites and really painted a picture of what these people experienced, but also showed the hope that got some of them through. Definitely the hardest part of the tour to witness was the graves which, at one time, held the bodies of women and children, located alongside "the Killing Tree". It would have been enough having to view these two places but to hear the graphic audio documenting what was found there, "evidence of children being smashed against the trees" was enough to make you sick.
The tour ends with a stop in the museum which provides more information on the history of both the genocide and the Khmer Regime, again sad but worth learning about. I am glad I took the time to go out to the Killing Fields, it's definitely a must visit if you're coming to Cambodia and spending at least a day in Phnom Penh. The drive out takes you through a more real view of the city, outside the tourist streets and the knowledge you gain is priceless. The entire tour can be done in a half day or you can combine it with a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is located in the west side of the city. Another tourist attraction on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is the shooting range which my moto driver asked me multiple times if I'd like to visit. I've actually always wanted to try shooting a gun but somehow this just didn't seem like the thing I wanted to do after learning about a mass Genocide, but hey to each their own.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.