14th MARCH 2019
My second Rest Day in Phnom Penh continues along much the same morbid lines as my first. Yesterday I learned that inmates at Tuol Sleng Prison were tortured into false confessions by the Khmer Rouge and then taken to a place called Choeung Ek to be executed. Today I’m going to make a short trip out of Phnom Penh to visit that location, the most notorious of the sites that came to be known as The Killing Fields.
As it’s only 17km away I decide just to cycle, heading South out of the city on streets that become steadily quieter with every turn I take. The final few kilometres include a road that has been constructed using prefabricated concrete slabs, with me jolting over the bumpy joins between sections every five metres or so. I leave my bike outside the Choeung Ek compound, chained to a supporting roof pole amidst scores of parked scooters. The attendant bloke gives me a paper ticket and says that parking will cost me 1,000 Riel (about 20p) when I leave.
I choose the audio-tour option again as I think this definitely enhanced yesterday’s visit to Tuol Sleng Prison. The extra information and personal back stories mean you build up a much clearer picture of events than if you just walked round randomly. It also appears that the same person has been given the job of narrating the English speaking version of both audio tours. I’ve now spent two afternoons in a row listening to shocking accounts of torture and brutality, all recounted in a reassuringly calm manner by a slightly German sounding reader. Before walking round the grounds, I sit on a bench and listen to the horrific chain of circumstances that led to this area being used as a Khmer Rouge execution site. What was once a peaceful orchard would soon become the mass graves where almost 9,000 victims of that regime were dumped.
At the centre of the site is a large Buddhist Stupa, like a memorial, that is supposed to be the final stop on the audio-tour. However, a whole army of schoolkids have arrived at the same time as me so I visit the Stupa first to avoid having to walk round with them. It’s a tall, narrow building that houses around 5,000 human skulls as well as various other bones, teeth and clothing that have been dug up here over the years. The skulls are balanced three high on top of each other in central glass cabinets which, chillingly, rise to a height of nineteen levels. Squeezing round the building between the cabinet and outside wall I can see that many of the skulls show signs of being shattered or pierced by a sharp object.
Back outside I walk along paths that skirt round the areas where victims were buried. These sites are marked by large, deep depressions in the dry earth where bodies have been unearthed from dozens of mass graves. Not all of the graves have been dug up though; there are still at least five mass graves at this site where the Cambodian government has forbidden exhumation, preferring to let the victims rest in peace. However, this policy often leads to the macabre spectacle of bones and clothing resurfacing nowadays during periods of prolonged heavy rainfall.
Testimonies from former executioners detail how the victims were blindfolded and led to the grave site with their hands tied behind their backs. Here they were forced to kneel down and were usually killed by a blow to the back of the head using iron bars, sharpened bamboo or any other implement that was available. If this didn’t kill the prisoner they would be finished off by having their throat slit. Bullets were thought of as too expensive to waste. Once the grave was full the Khmer Rouge would throw DDT pesticide on top of the bodies to cover up the stench of decay, although this poison also helped kill victims who were buried alive. After a few days the ground above these graves would often rise up, due to escaping gases from the sheer number of decomposing corpses.
What happened at the graves is grim enough, but ‘The Killing Tree’ takes things to an even more abhorrent level. This is the location where children and babies were killed by being swung round and having their heads smashed into the thick tree trunk. When the invading Vietnamese first discovered this location they were puzzled as to why a tree would have blood, bone and bits of brain on its trunk. They were only able to work it out when they found children’s bodies in amongst the mass graves and saw the horrific head injuries they had succumbed to. Can you imagine killing children by holding their ankles and swinging their heads into a tree ? It’s a truly sickening thought. Today the tree trunk is adorned by bangles, bracelets and other colourful trinkets as a sort of memorial. It’s clear to see that this spot is the one that affects visitors most on this tour.
Although Choeung Ek is the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge execution sites, there are thought to be around three hundred such locations around Cambodia. It’s almost unthinkable to learn that Pol Pot’s regime were responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people. In less than four years one quarter of the Cambodian population were dead as a result of execution, disease or starvation. The Khmer Rouge rule only ended after Vietnam’s invasion, forcing it’s leaders to retreat West to jungles on the Thai border. They were relatively safe here as the Thais were happy to use them as a buffer between themselves and the Vietnamese. Bizarrely, because Vietnam were seen as an occupying force, the Khmer Rouge were still viewed as the rightful Cambodian government for many years afterwards by a number of countries, including the UK. By the mid 1990’s their support had dwindled, Pol Pot died in 1998 and a year later the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist. The surviving leaders were put on trial for genocide, but the ordinary soldiers were given amnesty if they surrendered, and now live freely amongst the Cambodian population.
It’s been another heavy-going afternoon but, again, I’m glad I made the effort to come here. I leave the site, try in vain to find the parking attendant and cycle off without being able to give him my 1,000 Riel parking fee. That’s 20p he’ll never see again. On the ride back towards Phnom Penh I get caught in a bit of a traffic jam and resort to cycling along the pavement like almost every scooter and motorbike rider.
At night I’m back in No. 72 Restaurant, still trying to order Tamarind Prawn from their menu, and still finding that it’s unavailable. By now I’m ravenous too, as I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. In the end I opt for a tasty beef noodle dish with egg, vegetables and the most delicious sauce. As I’m sitting drinking my iced tea, I decide that I’m still hungry and order a second main meal, this time creamy chicken with rice.
Back at the guesthouse it’s so hot and sticky that Vanny brings chairs out to the pavement so we can sit and chat in the cooler air outside. I learn lots of little snippets about life in Cambodia; the fact that the number eight is considered so lucky that nearly every house number will contain an eight, even if this bears no relation to what position they are on the street. I’m also surprised to hear that almost nobody in Cambodia has car insurance. Anything other than a major crash gets sorted out by the two parties on the spot, and if your car gets stolen it’s just bad luck and you’ve lost it ! He says he can barely remember the Khmer Rouge era as he was only a child, living in his family village out in the countryside. I don’t ask about the rest of his family and he doesn’t mention it.
After a while his daughters return from extra Chinese lessons and I become an excuse for them to practice their English once again. It hits me how happy and carefree they are, and I think how lucky it was that they weren’t born a generation or so earlier. Their education and foreign language skills that are so useful today would have seen them killed in the 1970’s. I’m finding that a lot of my thoughts are Khmer Rouge related at the moment after immersing myself in their bloody history for the last two days. It’s time for something a little more uplifting. This will come in the shape of a side trip to Siem Reap tomorrow to see a much more positive symbol of Cambodia – the temples of Angkor Wat.