The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

 

I got to Phnom Penh by bus from Siem Riep in the late afternoon, so I didn’t end up getting to see much of anything. It was a really rough 8 hour journey with constant random stops where they let people come on the bus to sell us things like fruit or drinks. At one of the food stops they were selling fried cockroaches, which I thought was really disgusting! They were also selling fried maggots and beetles.

It was almost dark when I checked in at the hostel located in the heart of the city. I needed some rest after that bumpy bus ride from hell where it was impossible for me to sleep, so I rested for a few hours at the hostel then walked outside down the main road. I found an exceptional Mexican restaurant called Cocina Cartel that had the most authentic Mexican food I’d tried so far in SE Asia. The next day I was planning for a long day trip to the main place I came here to see – The Killing Fields. I had to arrange for a tuk tuk for the day, since renting motorbikes in Cambodia can be expensive and a ripoff (It cost me $10/day to rent a motorbike in Siem Riep). I was also feeling really tired still from the bus ride, so I worked out a price with a tuk tuk driver to take me for $15 for the whole day. The same tuk tuk driver who dropped me off yesterday from the bus station was standing and waiting in front of the hostel in the morning. I’ve found It’s really difficult to bargain in most of SE Asia compared to countries like India or Nepal, since there are so many backpackers and Western tourists travelling here all the time and they usually always get the price they ask for.

I hopped inside the make-do tuk tuk that was basically a moped attached to a carriage, and we sped off down the main road with red dust flying in our faces. We passed dozens of shacks made of dried leaves and metal sheets that people called home, and saw children out on the streets doing hard labor. I got some odd stares at times while we were driving, but mostly from other tuk tuk drivers who wanted my business and didn’t care if I already had a tuk tuk. The gravel roads winded and twisted through the dried out red fields until we finally reached the killing fields. My tuk tuk driver said he’d wait outside the gate while I walked around for a few hours.

I could see a single white pagoda in the center, and as I got closer I noticed it was filled with towers of human skulls from the thousands of poor victims that died at the hands of the evil Khmer Rouge. The skulls were fractured in different places, some were split open by axes, some were pierced in the front by bayonets, and some were crushed with hammers. The Khmer Rouge decided that apparently bullets were too expensive to waste on the people, so instead they used blunt objects to beat them repeatedly over the head while standing over a ditch until they fell in, one lifeless body on top of the other. The skulls had different colored dots on them, with each color indicating the particular tool used to break it.

 

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The pagoda was filled to the ceiling with the fractured skulls of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims

 

The sun was shining in from the ceiling, piercing through the holes in the the skulls. I left the pagoda and wandered around the fields filled with all the mass graves of the victims. Each sign explained how the prisoners were tortured and killed. They were were transported in trucks by the hundreds, like cattle. They were led out of the trucks blindfolded and brought over to ditch, where the Khmer Rouge would bash their brains in one by one with blunt  objects until the once animated people became lifeless bodies laying in piles on top of each other in a ditch. The victims weren’t aware they were being taken to be killed, since they were told they were just being relocated to a different prison camp. A collosal tree covered in colorful bracelets was used to smash babies against until they died. The bracelets were put there as remembrance for the hundreds of children who were mercilessly killed. It was said when they first discovered the tree, it was covered in bits of human blood, teeth, and brain.

I passed the deep graves and noticed shredded pieces of clothing and bone fragments scattered around the dry grass. Some of the graves had over 400 corpses piled in them. I saw glass cases filled with the torn clothes and teeth of the victims. Another tree was used by the Khmer Rouge to hang speakers from and play loud happy sounding music in order to drown out the screams of the people being killed. I stopped at the museum next that explained how the Khmer Rouge came to power and how they wanted to obliterate education and keep the masses dumbed down, working endlessly as slaves for them in hard labor camps. Their goal was to put a stop to US imperialism and influences, and they wanted to create a “utopian” communist society in which there was no such thing as class, religion, wealth, or identity, with everyone’s sole purpose being to serve the regime for the purpose of the revolution.

The genocide museum was around 20 minutes away, and I found my tuk tuk driver waiting near the entrance. When I walked up to the tuk tuk, all the other tuk tuk drivers had the nerve to shout at me and ask me if I wanted a ride, even though they could clearly see I already had a driver. I’m surprised my driver didn’t get more offended by this, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all. I stopped at a small cafe outside the genocide museum and got some noodles with egg. The noodles had too much sauce but were tasty nonetheless, especially with the kale. I hadn’t had kale since I was in Miami, since a lot of places don’t even sell kale in Asia!

I crossed the congested street and tried walking discreetly past the tuk tuks without being noticed. That didn’t work for obvious reasons…they were surrounding me and shouting at me to get in their tuk tuks as I was trying to cross the street. I told one of them I already had a tuk tuk, and one of them said “That’s ok, you can have two tuk tuk drivers!” I got in the line that said “Foreigners” and paid the extra fee to get in. The museum was a high school  turned into a prison camp for the purposes of torturing and murdering over one million innocent victims who were deemed traitors by the Khmer Rouge. The buildings were eerie and lifeless and covered in barbed wire. The rooms on first level of the prison were used as torture rooms. Each room had a metal bed frame inside with a torture device sitting on it and a photo on the wall next to the bed of the person being tortured with the same torture instrument. The walls were covered in deep holes and starting to crumble. The second building was the actual prison. Inside were dark cells where the prisoners were held captive and forced to live out their remaining days. Some of the cells had no windows and looked like they were used for solitary confinement. The black chains that once bound the prisoner’s arms and legs were stilled attached to the brick walls of each cell.

Desperate writing covered all the walls. Inside each cell was a black box with various torture devices. I didn’t see any other visitors walking around and I found myself walking alone through the prison into the cells, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be stuck in this cell all day with no food or water or sunlight. I felt the gloom walking around the cells and was absorbing all the sad energies from all the suffering that took place here.  I saw all these sad stories about the Khmer women who were forced into marriages, and how sometimes they were raped and abused by their husbands, the strangers they didn’t want to marry.

At the end of the prison there were photos hanging of the tortured victims. There was a series of mugshots of the prisoners before they entered the prison cells, and following were the after photos taken of them starving to death and covered in flies. Some of them had been badly beaten and were soaked in blood. Their ribs were fully exposed and their eyes were popping out of their gaunt faces. The after pictures were horrifying and showed the lengths that the Khmer Rouge went to make sure the prisoners went through the most inhuman inflictions before they actually died, and that no one got out alive. Paintings showed the Khmer Rouge throwing babies against the killing tree.

 

Monk in the fields

 

I recommend you absolutely visit the Killing Fields when you come to Phnom Penh, so you can understand the horror of genocide this country has endured, and how resilient it’s people are.

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