This review won’t be as warm, fuzzy, and lighthearted as my usual write-ups of travel destinations, but there will be none more important. That’s because today I’m going to talk about The Killing Fields in Cambodia.
I lived there on and off for two years, and it’s a magical, picturesque, and inviting country, and the smiles and friendliness of the people does little to convey their dark history. In fact, until only a few years ago, Cambodia was still in the shadows of their horrific recent past under the Khmer Rouge regime.
From 1970-1975, Cambodia went through a bitter civil war. The whole region was like a hornet’s nest at that time with the Vietnam Conflict spilling over into every neighboring country. But in the wake of that civil war, the Khmer Rouge took power, which is one of the most uniquely violent regimes in the history of mankind, exceeding even Adolf Hitler’s Nazis in some regards. The result, forty years later, is the Killing Fields.
These are mass graves all over the country, and the one outside Phnom Penh is the most notable and visited. Within those three short years, the Khmer Rouge party under the maniacal Pot Pol rounded up, tortured, and executed, starved, or worked to death about 1.75-2.5 million of the Cambodian people. With only 8 million people in the country, one party systematically wiped out about ¼ of the population in the country, the largest genocide perpetrated by a government on its own people in history.
The Killing Fields now is a monument, historical remembrance, and tribute to those years the dead. Only about half an hour outside of the main city with a bumpy and dusty tuk-tuk ride away.
To be honest, I don’t do well with seeing violence, torture and the like, even in museums and depictions; the reason I never visited the SR21 torture “museum” in central Phnom Penh. So I was relieved to see that the Killing Fields tour wouldn’t be in closed-in buildings but in the open air. Actually, the setting was beautiful – in stark contrast to what took place there – with plenty of wooded groves, flowering fields, and placid lakes.
The tour is set up through the grounds through a meandering path, with 20 or 30 stations along the way, outdoor open-air kiosks. After buying my ticket, I was directed to the first station, where I was equipped with a set of headphones and a small recorder. As a tourist, you simply walk through and listen to the narration on your headphones, pushing the number for the appropriate station you’re at. It’s a really good way to do it because the area remains silent, paying solemn respect to the fallen and significance.
As you hear the story of the Killing Fields, the gravity hits you that you’re standing and walking on top of mass graves, but there are other more visceral reminders.
Walking along the dirt path, I looked down at little white scraps or particles mixed in with the dirt and thought it was litter. But upon closer inspection, it was not litter, but fragments of bone and teeth, and some other ribbons of clothing.
At the end of the tour, you come upon the Killing Tree, where they would smash babies and children head first so they wouldn’t waste bullets, and then, an ominous display of stacked up skulls that were dug up from the area.
Just like Auschwitz or the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel, the Killing Fields is a reminder of the nightmare potential of humankind, and aptly and sensitively honors this history in Cambodia.
By the way, the name “Killing Fields” was coined by a man named Dith Pran, a journalist who was actually in these death camps under the Khmer Rouge regime, but managed to survive and escape –both really rare. He went on to write about the horrors he saw and played his own character when they made a movie with the same name, The Killing Fields.
We’re now hearing about this part of Cambodian history again with Angelina Joline’s film based on the book; First They Killed My Father.