Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.
~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye~
It was in 2001 when I first saw The Killing Field, a British film about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Watching it then, I have no idea of the savage execution, starvation and forced labor imposed by the Red Khmer headed by Saloth Sar a.k.a "Pol Pot". I was both horrified and enthused. I have long been aware of the horrors of war and survival all over the world, but never had this film struck me in the face like that.
After watching the film, I had long established an affinity for Cambodia so much so that I promised myself that I would one day visit Phnom Penh to see the Killing Fields. That promised did come true. Going there, I thought I would just be an outsider visiting a remnant of this particular gruesome memory, little did I know that I would be this affected.
It was our second day in Phnom Penh. Oki and I prepared our itinerary and showed it to our rickshaw driver whom we contracted for the whole day to tour us around. He suggested that we go to Choeung Ek Memorial (Killing Fields) first thing in the morning before heading to other desired destinations since it is located outside the city (15 km SE of Phnom Penh) and would take us around 45 minutes to an hour depending on the traffic. Although we agreed, I was hesistant at first. I just don't feel like starting my day with visiting the killing fields. Nonetheless, the 45-minute travel prepared me for the worst (feeling).
Spotting the sign, we turned left all the way to a narrow and dusty road. The killing field is just half kilometer away from this point. Around this time, I already had the weird feeling.
This is the newly-built gate of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.
We made our way through the traffic-clogged city towards south eastwards along the Monireth Boulevard. Veering along the dusty road of the suburbs, we passed by several factories, buildings under construction, a pile of rusting cars and onto the rural village full of stilt houses. For awhile, I thought I was just taking a road trip to the outskirts of Laguna but getting lost in translation with all those signs and advertisements we have passed by along the way made me realized I am in a foreign land.
We followed a narrow track with rice paddies on the left side of the road which reminded me of one of my short trips to Calauan. A moment later we noticed a sign with the photos of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. The sign says we're only 500 m. away from the site. A few minutes more, the mood suddenly became lonesome. It could be some other feeling but "lonesome" is the closest I could think of. It doesn’t help that the site is located in a deserted compound. Except for some young Koreans who seem to be at a lost roaming around the place, tourists were not much around.
This is the commemorative stupa with all the exhumed skulls being displayed inside a glass. This memorial has a yellow-tiled roof which is distinctive in Khmer architecture. It was built in 1988 to house the remains of 8,985 victims that were unearthed in 86 separate graves discovered at the killing fields.
This also served as a memorial for Buddhist funeral rites which is performed to allow the spirits of the deceased a more peaceful passage to the afterlife.
We paid $2 for the entrance and we were greeted by two men in uniforms sitting on the stools. We showed our tickets and headed our way to a huge commemorative stupa which we immediately spotted upon entering the vicinity. Inside this memorial are skulls of the victims lined-up and confined inside a glass. Getting a close encounter with these exhumed skulls felt weird. I’ve seen them in pictures and in documentaries but seeing them for real is intense.
“Killing fields” are actually dumping grounds for dead bodies. The memorial at Choeung Ek is one of most infamous killing fields during the Khmer Rouge regime. Prior to that, the place was an orchard.
Perhaps the most distrubing image you will see are these bleached skulls piled inside the glass. It disturbs me more the way these skulls are arranged. The three skulls at the back seems like they're "screaming" from gruesome pain or something. Then again, that is just me and my wild imagination.
Choeung Ek is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the Toul Sleng or Security Prison-21 (which we've visited right after).
The "magic tree" which was used as "a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed."
One of the large open pits, marked 7. On the sign it says, "mass grave of 166 victims without heads" I am terrified to know what's beyond those murky pits.
Behind the stupa is a vast forage area for cattle grazing but after 1975, this was turned into a mass grave wherein human bones sometimes come unearthed after heavy rains. There are open pits with easily spotted shards of bone and remnants along the enclosed field. Some of the largest pits are marked with numbers and mass grave signposts.
Standing noticeably in the field is “the magic tree” which was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker to amplify the sound and to prevent the victims from moaning while being executed.
Cambodian kids on top of a tree. Climbing this tree enables them to get inside the enclosed killing field. They hang out here and wait for tourists to ask for money.
As we ended the tour, we passed by a group of kids at the other side of the fence. They were climbing up to the tree to get inside. After I took a couple of shots, they insisted that I gave them money in exchange. I told them I don’t have money. But one of the kids persisted that I give them a dollar since I took their picture. I was astounded for a bit and gave them a smile.
I headed for my route but the kids followed me around and insisted that I gave them some money. I got alarmed and headed for a run. Being in Cambodia for awhile, one thing I learned fast is how to avoid kids who extort money from tourists and really being persistent with it to the point of following them around.
Oki is being hounded by the kids asking for more Max menthol candies! ;-)
They cornered Oki though, and insisted that she gave them money. Quick-witted as she is, Oki grab a pack of her Max menthol and distributed them to the kids. We bought two packs of them. I bought mine to serve as my lozenges since I’ve had my cough since we set foot in Bangkok. I was some steps away, watching her while she's being mugged by these kids.