Dealing with Death at Cambodia’s Killing Fields

Choeung Ek is the mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge who were killed between 1975 and 1979. Over one million people were murdered.

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Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in their Tuol Sleng detention centre, which is now a Genocide Museum. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in.

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By the end of 1976, prisoners and their families were taken from Tuol Sleng to Choeung Ek extermination centre. Here, they met their tragic and barbaric ends, as most were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons. After the prisoners were executed, the soldiers who had accompanied them from Tuol Sleng buried them in the mass graves you can see before you here (many of them were decapitated in their final moments of life).

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Tourists are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit Choeung Ek. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site. For this reason, many tourists choose not to come here, and I did have my doubts, although I wanted to see for myself the remnants of the horror that the Khmer Rouge caused in this country. Like everybody who visits here, I left in a very sombre mood. All of a sudden, the extortionate $15 my tuktuk driver wanted to wait for me ready for my return to downtown Phnom Penh was not so important.

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Should a trip to Cheoung Ek and the nearby Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum be on your itinerary when you visit Phnom Penh? Well, I think so. I found it to be a very educational experience, and although the main reason to travel to is to enjoy yourself, I find that sometimes educating myself about the local histories – good and bad – is all part of the learning curve to become more in tune with the region that I profess to love so much.

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For just $5, you can get admission to Choeung Ek and a free audio guide in English, which is a nice bonus, although, as ever, I didn’t use the headphones, I just pondered with my own thoughts.

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