Phnom Penh Day 1: The Killing Fields

I said I was going to wait a couple weeks to blog, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get my rambles down when they’re fresh.

On our first full day in Phnom Penh, we did quite a bit. We started at the day with a visit to Cheoung Ek, also known as The Killing Fields. This is a site where thousands of people were executed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia. We took a tour around the grounds and learned the history of the place through an informative audio guide. I felt like it was incredibly important to reflect on this dark time in history. One detail that I find particularly difficult to process is that because guns and bullets were expensive, the Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t want to waste them on executions, which meant that these thousands of people were killed using farming tools and other weapons that could inflict blunt force trauma.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the killing fields, and I didn’t take many pictures, but most of the area contains mass graves.

Now, the site serves as a memorial. At the center is this memorial stupa.

The inside of the stupa houses thousands bones of those who died (I think bones of about 9,000 people.) There wasn’t enough space for all the bones, but we saw many skulls, mandibles, humerus, and femurs. These bones are all catalogued by sex, injures, and other information. There are 17 tiers of bones. If I remember correctly, tiers 2-9 house the skulls. Most other large bones are above.

It was truly heartbreaking to end the tour with such evidence of the genocide. It’s especially heartbreaking because this was not the only killing field—over a million people were executed across Cambodia from 1975-79, and even more died of starvation and disease.

In preparation for this trip, I read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, the author’s account of being a child in Cambodia during those years. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more. The book has a pretty narrow scope, as it’s only one person’s story and not a history of the region, but I found it to be very well written, and I plan to read more books by other survivors as well.

Next time, I’ll share more of what we did on day 1 in Phnom Penh, but I think this is enough for one day.