No trip to Cambodia would be complete without confronting its dark and complicated past. We rose early and left Phnom Penh to make our way to Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields. Choeung Ek was once an orchard, but became an execution ground for the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot. After the fall of the regime mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were found at the site, many being those of prisoners who were formerly held at the Tuol Seng detention centre.
By arriving early we had the place to ourselves for a while, and opted for the audio tour. This allowed each of us to go to each stop at our own pace, and reflect upon the horrors that had taken place there between 1975 – 1979. An hour or so into our trip massive foreign tour groups arrived at the centre, guided to each site by a tour guide. I personally found the big, loud tour groups to be disruptive and distracting from the whole experience. One of the group I arrived with felt the behaviour of one of these groups to be so disrespectful that she had to leave.
It wasn’t an easy experience to go to the killing fields. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and the memorial stupa, or Buddhist memorial is really moving: inside the memorial stupa is a tower of human skulls taken from the graves. But knowing that each rainy season brings even more bone fragments to the surface, and that children were also killed at the site by those pursuing a deranged political vision is chilling. Having said that, I believe that the trip should be mandatory to those visiting the country as I feel that we can learn a lot from the events that occurred at Choeung Ek.