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The Killing Fields

IF THE vibe at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was depressing, the next stop of the Phnom Penh tour was heart-wrenching.

Fifteen kilometers away from the former Security Prison 21 is Choeung Ek, the most infamous of the sites known as The Killing Fields. It was an orchard before the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of its execution camps during its regime. Prisoners from the S-21 were sent to this place to get executed, and out of the thousands sentenced to death from 1975 to 1979, 8,895 bodies were discovered in the mass graves after the fall of the notorious regime.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial. At first impression one might get is that there is not much to see except for the Buddhist stupa that towers at the center of the field and the museum at the corner of the property. 

The Buddhist stupa

The museum

It’s not what you see that really counts but what transpired on the very ground you’re standing on. It’s when you start with the audio tour when heart will start bleeding.

The audio tour narrates the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the detention of prisoners to the transportation to the filed for execution, the mass burials, survivors’ stories of and the fall of the evil regime. 

Around the field are marked signs or display cases -- mass graves, the hanging tree, the killing tree, bones and teeth of victims, clothes, etc., and each stop’s corresponding story is narrated in the audio player.

The Memorial Stupa, the towering central structure, is the last stop. 

On its architectural detail are Hindu and Buddhist symbols of Garudas, and Nagas. Traditionally these creatures, the mythical bird and the deity taking the form of a great snake, are enemies, but together it symbolizes peace. And, peace is what the stupa stands for, peace for the souls of more than 5,000 human skulls it holds and peace for the rest of victims of the mass execution. 

It is believed that there are more in the pits where the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site that on rainy days and the topsoil erodes, pieces appear from the ground.

There is an eerie silence to the place even with a good number of tourists present. Silence is requested upon entry to show respect, silent while intently listening to the audio player and silent after the tour.

I left this killing field with a heavy heart and I wasn’t alone with this condition, my friends also were and so do the rest of the Choeung Ek’s visitors.

The tuktuk ride back to the city was a quiet one and my friends and I needed something to shake us off our melancholic state. We knew what we had to do - shopping!

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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on October 11, 2012.