Monday, December 15, 2008

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 02: Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial, Phnom Penh

After experiencing firsthand the warmth of Cambodian hospitality at Kampong Chnang, we made our way back to Phnom Penh. Thanks to their earlier sunrise, lunch for the locals was at around 10 or 11 am. Having being accustomed to having lunch later in the day, the group was bussed to another meal once we reached the city. We went to a different restaurant this time which was located near St 130, PhsarKandal District. Look for the yellow frontage of the Indochine2 Hotel and you should be able to easily find the restaurant across the street from the hotel. Incidentally, there were at least 2 other halal restaurants in the same road making this a possible base for me the next time I go to Phnom Penh.

After our lunch, we proceeded back to the hotel to pickup our tour guide which was arranged for our afternoon’s outing. She was one of the freelance tour guides in town that could be engaged directly for small group outings like ours. Our destination that afternoon was to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial site which was located about 15 minutes drive from the city. What we didn’t realize was that, we would hit the start of the traffic jam when a lot of the workers finish their work. What was suppose to be a 15 minutes drive ended up being a 45 minutes instead thanks to the increasing number of cars and motorcycles on the road.

(Entrance to Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial)

(Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields)

After paying for our entrance tickets at the gates, we were shown into the area in front of the memorial stupa at the site. We were given details by the tour guide about the history of the area and what had happened here. In essence, the former orchard and Chinese graveyard was used by the Khmer Rouge as a mass liquidation site for torture victims from of Tuol Sleng prison which was located in Phnom Penh between 1975 to 1979. A total of nearly 8895 bodies were discovered in mass grounds around the stupa bear silent witness to the atrocities that were committed during that horrendous period. Some of the skulls of the victims the unearthed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge were on display in the multi level memorial stupa for visitors to see for themselves.

(Skulls at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial Stupa)

Just next to the stupa, we walked through the killing fields itself. Our tour guide stopped at some of the spots to explain what it was that we were seeing. She pointed out the tree where the Khmer Rouge hung loudspeakers that played loud music to drown out the screams and death cries of the victim being slaughtered just below it. There was also a tree where small children were killed by bashing their skulls against the tree trunk until they shattered before tossing their bodies to the pit next to the tree. The same pit was also used to dispose of the bodies of the children’s mothers who were force to see their children killed before being summarily raped and executed afterwards by their children’s killers.

(Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial Site)

(The tree used as the execution site for young children and human remains at the tree)

(The loadspeaker tree where they blasted music to drown the death cries of the Killing Fields victims)

There were pits dedicated for Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves who were executed for disobeying orders or any number of infractions that made them marked for torture and death. The people who excavated those pit knew this from the uniforms that the bodies in the pit wore and the fact that none of the bodies found in the pit had their heads intact. It was a well publicized fact that Khmer Rouge soldier would be executed by their peers by beheading and having their heads buried elsewhere to spite the Cambodian tradition of having the body intact for proper burials.

(Burial pits - Top Left: Women and children, Top Right: Headless Khmer Rouge soldiers, Bottom: Families)

Not only were evidence of the mass graves and the charnel pits still visible to visitors to see but the grounds were still strewed with pieces of human bones. Piles of the bones were visible near the trees and the pits where they were unearthed. There were also articles of rotting clothing that covered the bones that was left out in the open as a reminder of the atrocities that happened here. While much of the area that we walked through that afternoon had been grown over with grass, the whole site was still technically a grave site that we had to be careful where we stepped lest that we would be stepping on a piece of bone. Our guide informed us that there were still a number of mass graves that remained unexcavated just a few meters from where we were standing and that there were still many Choeung Ek victims who have not been accounted for.

(Bones and clothing remains seen around the Killing Fields)

Walking through the Killing Fields was definitely an eerie experience for me personally. I kept getting flashes of smells and emotions that seemed to permeated the grounds. Most webbed in and out as I tried not to focus on them too much as the pass through me. This was definitely not a site that I wanted to be at after sun down. There were more than a few places in and around the grounds that drew my attention more so than other. I was not the only one affected by the site as even our tour guide was choked up in emotion as she related to us the horrors of what had happened here. Even after nearly 30 odd years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, their frightening legacy still loomed darkly over the Cambodian nation. After spending nearly 2 hours at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial site, we left with a better understanding of the atrocities that we had only read or seen in movies before.

(Infomation and historical material at the pavilion near the memorial stupa)

We were suppose to go next to the infamous Tuol Sleng prison where most victims in Choeung Ek spent their last moments. It was already late but our tour guide had already made special arrangement for us to visit the prison museum after their closing time if we could get there before 5pm. Unfortunately for us, our van ran into the worse traffic jam in Cambodia that I have been in. Unbeknownst to us, the next day was a public holiday for the Cambodian independence day and there was a Water Festival following that which meant that the locals had an extended holiday ahead of them. We were told that Phnom Penh residents would normally take this opportuinity to go out of the city to visit their relatives in the other provinces. Due to the Water Festival, a lot of the people from the provinces streamed into Phnom Penh to celebrate it there.

The combination of both traffic flow caught us unawares and left us stranded in the road back from Choeung Ek. The journey that would normally take 15 minutes ended up being nearly 3 hours with most of it stuck motionless in a two lane road that had at least 6 lanes of road vehicles. It was quite lucky that we were in a relatively comfortable van with air conditioning as I would dread being stuck the traffic jam that we were in without either of them. Since it was already dark when we got thorough the traffic sprawl, we decide to postpone our Tuol Sleng prison visit to the following day and have our dinner at the hotel instead. After the full day of activities and the frustrating traffic jam, we were all more than ready to call it a day.

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