Monday, January 7, 2008

Experiencing “death and survival” at Choeung Ek

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).

turning left to Choeung ek

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.

newly-built gate

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.

memorial stupa front

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.

memorial stupa side

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.

skulls inside the glass

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).

magic tree

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."

mass grave

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.

children on top of the tree

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 and the children

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.



haggis basher said...

Killing fields of Cambodia or the Concentration camps of the Nazi's. It really makes no difference, just proves there is no God and we all have to fend for ourselves as best we can.

As always great images and travelogue.

pieterbie said...

I saw the film many years ago, shortly after it was released. In fact I must have seen it twice.
Want to see it again.
Love the picture of OKI with the kids, shame you cannot see OKI's face, she looks really nice.
I guess I would be touched indeed being confronted with these human remains in a glass container.
Thanks for sharing this!

kyels said...

Cambodia is such a lovely place with all the historical places to visit.


I read about Pol Pot before but I've yet to watch the film you mentioned. I ought to check it out from my friend who has a pile of old films. Thanks for the recommendation; in a way.

By the way, I love the photograph of the skulls; it has something that attracts me to it. Your composition.

Ferdz said...

That phrase from Catcher In the Rye reminded me how I enjoyed reading that book. haha

Nice peace on the killing field. Tama ka mukha nga silang sumisigaw dun sa collection ng skull, medyo eerie. Prang ang sarap magdala ng kakilalang me third eye dyan sa lugar na yan.

Oki gave me an idea, buy a bag of candies para kung me manlilimos yung na lang ibibigay ko each.

the Zookeeper said...

Hi oki. I love your photos as well as their stories. Can I put you in my blog links?

Toe said...

Rayts, you make me look at this with fresh eyes. No matter how many stories and pictures I hear and read about, I could never numb myself of the atrocities of the killing fields.

Haha... galing ni Oki ha... salamat sa Max. :)

my gulch said...

i think fending for oneself is but inherent to all of us. whether one is bound to die earlier than what is expected and to be brutally tortured at that is simply beyond understanding. now whether there is god or not is simply a question of one's own moral and beliefs.

yea...both touched and affected. i'd say i am more of the latter. a mix of feelings really. there was a point during our visit (not here but in Security Prison 21) that i started questioning this thin demarcation between being human and being a savage. i've always try to see the "good side" of every human being, but being here, i started to question even my own capacity and my emotional bearing. and then you'll look at the idea of 'death' in a whole new perspective.

thanks. pictures say a lot. but seeing them in actual is a totally different feeling all the more. i hope you get to see this film. and by the way, goodluck on your exams.

have you seen the movie, Hostel? there's this bunch of kids who try to bully every tourist that they meet on the road. but these kids are bullies and they have bats to attack tourists who don't give in to their demands i.e. money, food,etc. this is like that, only this is 100 times subtle. basta natakot ako nung dumagsa sila at nagbabaan na mula sa puno. pero harmless naman sila. siguro lang talaga kailangan nila ng pera. hay, kung milyunaryo lang sana ako papatayuan ko din sila ng skul.

thanks for dropping by. checked your blog. you're from UP too right? sure go ahead with the link. my pleasure. happy 100 years nga pala.

alam mo bang na-recieve ko yung text mo nasa Toul Sleng kami? Kaya nasagot kita nasa Russian Market na kami at binubuno ang traffic. Kung dito sa Killing Fields, sobra akong affected...doon sa SP-21grabe naiwan ko ata ang kalahati ng kaluluwa ko. ambigat sa dibdib. paglabas mo gulagulanit na ang puso ko sa sakit. di ako OA ha. Ganito din feeling ni Oki eh, nakakawala ng lakas. getting there, somehow you felt the victims pains. lalo na makita mo pa mga pictures ng namatay. asus.

Tien said...

I was still enjoying the buddhist commemorate building. Then I saw the skulls... They creep me out...

Anyway, isn't it a little ironic how well decorated the gate of the genocidal centre is?

Sidney said...

Happy New Year!

He,he... I now realize I am lucky in the Philippines... imagine that I would need to give a dollar to each Filipino kid I photograph...

What a creepy and sad place. It makes me think that some people are fundamentally evil.

I am still on the move and will visit again regularly at the end of January.


A most wonderful entry. It's great na nakapunta ka pala, Ms. Rayts!

Ibang iba siguro ang feeling knowing that you are on hallowed ground.


my gulch said...

the skulls gave me the creep too. but understanding how these people died, one elevates from feeling of being creeped out. i somehow felt the pain. yea, i guess this kind of architecture is very Khmer. very ironic indeed but Killing Fields is still a tourist attraction in Cambodia.

well not all the kids in Cambodia ask for money, but I guess it's a resort to continue living. i mean, they may on one's pity but they sure know how to ask for money given the chance and the circumstances. Hope you come back in the country safe and sound and fully recharged.

ay naku oo, sobrang kaya lang kami nag-stay ng 2 days sa Phnom Penh ay para pumunta sa Killing Field. It's weird to say that but being there and actually seeing this place is worth my while. at least masasabi ko sa sarili ko na hindi ko na lang sila napapanood, kase I've been there.

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