The Killing Fields of Cambodia

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Skulls stored in the Stupa at the Killing Fields

After a day of visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum the next step was to visit Choeung Ek….the Killing Fields. This was the final destination for the detainees of S-21 located about 15 miles outside of Phnom Penh

Stupa holding the bones of victims at the Killing Field

Stupa holding the bones of victims at the Killing Field

When I walked through the entrance gate and looked around I thought this is going to be a bust. A big field with a large Chinese Stupa in the middle…so what!  Where is the story? But once I started following the paths and listening to the audio guide the full story started to unfold and I was spellbound.

This field holds the graves of 17,000 victims and is one of 300 such fields scattered around Cambodia. At one stop on the path a group of mounds that have been excavated represents the 129 mass graves at this location where the prisoners were brought blind folded and bludgeoned to death.  Unlike the Nazi killing machine, this was not high tech genocide…there were no gas chambers or crematoriums. And because the borders had been closed by Pol Pot the country was totally isolated with no shipments of weapons or munitions coming through. There were not enough bullets to kill all the victims so the process was reduced to the most basic form of thuggery…..the victims were beaten and bludgeoned with garden tools…axes, pickaxes, shovels, and metal bars. The bodies were piled into graves and sprayed with DDT to kill the smell of decomposition.

Killing Tree uses to kill the children at the Killing Field

Killing Tree uses to kill the children at the Killing Field

One stop along the trail is a mass grave that was filled with women and children. A large tree grows next to the grave where the guards would swing the bodies of the children…beating out their brains and throwing them into the open grave. Both the tree and the bamboo fence that encloses the grave site have thousands of prayer bracelets left by visitors. I too left one given to me by a monk in Chiang Mai.  I felt this offerings is both a prayer for the dead and a way of giving witness to the horrors committed in this place.

Prayer bracelets hung on the fence surrounding the mass grave of women & children

Prayer bracelets hung on the fence surrounding the mass grave of women & children

If one walks the paths slowly and scans the ground it is easy to see bone fragments and pieces of clothing working their way to the surface. I ask myself how this clothing can not have rotted by now…over 35 years…perhaps it is another way that the site continues to give witness to the atrocities.

People praying and visiting the bones of the victims at the Stupa

People praying and visiting the bones of the victims at the Stupa

The stupa in the middle of the property contains the skulls and bones of 5,000 victims and is the spiritual center of the site. People light incense, say prayers, stare at the cases filled with skulls and try to make sense of the madness.

The mission of the center is to preserve the site and conserve the bones and clothing of the victims. As you walk around there are glass cases filled with bone fragments and items of clothing.  They ask that visitors who find bones not remove them from the site out of respect for the dead and often the visitors place them on top of the cases so they can be properly stored.

Case containing fragments of clothing with bones found by visitors layed on top

Case containing fragments of clothing with bones found by visitors laid on top

The audio tour of the site is a very good introduction to the events and along with the short documentary film shown in the visitor center one gets a glimpse of the horrors and some background on the people who were responsible. The most amazing personal accounts of the victims and their families are also on the audio tour and are worth the time to listen to

After day two so of confronting evil I needed a respite from the horrors and took myself to the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel.  I needed to feel centered again! I could sit there feeling all Colonial, sipping Gin and Tonics…..saying to myself that the insanity has ended and the evil has been eliminated…and then I think…For now at least.

About Larry Bosco

In 2010 I had one of those “Is this all there is” moments and so in January 2011 I retired from Real Estate Appraising, sold off all my worldly goods and headed out as a solo traveler in search of a new place to live. Since then I’ve traveled around the world, made new friends and had many great adventures and some not so great. After staying almost a year in Cuenca, Ecuador I have headed back to South East Asia where I began the journey in 2011. Currently I am living in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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8 Responses to The Killing Fields of Cambodia

  1. Maggie says:

    Larry, thank you for the narrative, your sentiments and the feeling of sadness and horror. These I share with you with tears.
    “I sometimes think that never blows so red /the Rose as where some buried Ceasar bled; That every Hyacinth the Garden wears / Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head.”. Edward Fitzgerald.

    XO Maggie

  2. Gina Maloney says:

    Larry, your writing has allowed me to experience being there. Profound and heart wrenching. Thank you.

  3. Bert says:

    So powerful. Thanks for the reminder of what happened there. And can still happen in many places today.

  4. Frederick says:

    Hi Larry, When I was at the Tuol Sleng Museum Museum with a few friends, we cried. The atmosphere is so sad. One can only walk around in deep silence. Indescribable atrocities were committed, and just recently this year a few of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been brought to the International Court of Justice, for this occasion assembled in Phnom Penh and not in The Hague. Thanks for sharing your feelings, Frederick

  5. Paula says:

    It is so easy to sit in our own little world and be completely unaware of what horrendous things happen on the other side of the world. I have the same feeling I had when I visited Hiroshima. Thanks for sharing.

  6. ShaNoan says:

    THANKS Larry, I worked with South East Asian refugees in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center close to Subic Bay about 5 hours outside Manila. I was the supervisor of 9 Filipina and and Filipino teachers in the Cultural Orientation program trying to prepare these people for life in the US. The refugees were from Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and a few from Thailand and Hong Kong some had come by boat, barely surviving the Thai pirates. They they had to survive the Filipino soldier (thugs) who were supposed to be “guarding” them, but were raping, extorting money with threats of brutality etc. The Khmer were, as a rule, the most traumatized. When you looked in their eyes, all too often no one was living there anymore. Or they were so sequestered in the far reaches of their minds they seemed to be the walking dead. One couple helped as Teacher’s Assistants and were able to tell their horrifying tale of escape. Yes, it still goes on in Africa and other places around the world. STILL, the resiliency of the human Spirit is what stands out in the midst of all this. We are Eternal Beings having a human experience.

    • Larry Bosco says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! As I travel and come upon places such as the Killing Fields I am always astonished by the resiliency of the Human Spirit to survive….but is it enough to transcend the horrors perpetrated on them? Can we heal those empty lifeless eyes? It still goes on and on…watching the evening news is an invitation to weep.

  7. jim voyles says:

    Wonderful piece. Thank you Larry. We can never be reminded too often of man’s inhumanity to man. When will it ever end? -sigh-

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