On days when we weren’t volunteering at Free The Bears we had a bit of time to explore Cambodia as much as we dared (and i felt I was getting braver every day). The first opportunity we took was to go to Choeung Ek, also know as “The Killing Fields.” We wanted to go to understand what had happened and what this country was healing from. We knew this would be rather a depressing visit and dragged our heels a touch at the thought of subjecting ourselves to such stories of horror and violence but both of us were very glad we had experienced it by the end. This is one thing we are finding with travel, no matter how exhausted you are or doubtful of an experience, get out and explore it anyway and you will very rarely regret it!
Tuk tuk drivers will take you to both Toul Sleng (the torture prison) and Choeung Ek and wait for you at each stop however we only had time for one and The Killing Fields was suggested as the better option. I was glad we did this as both in one day would have most likely left us in some kind of depressive torpor for a long while. On arrival to The Killing Fields you pay a $6 entrance and they hook you up to an audio guide which I have to say was very well done, informative yet sensitive and authentic. Gone are the shower head shaped guides of yesteryear too, these were more like big smart phones which allowed you to choose between information and options and from them we learnt plenty.
In the late 1970s Pol Pots was a communist totalitarian leader who ordered the mass genocide of Cambodia’s people only a few decades ago. In my mind he was akin to Hitler in many ways; drunk on power, clever but slightly unhinged and, crucially, feared by all including his soldiers the Khmer Rouge. Any regime or ideal aside from his own meant torture, rape and death. Free-thinkers, gays, intellects, scientists, foreigners were all slaughtered for being themselves. Your famIly were killed in front of you. He even demanded that city dwellers move to the country to grow rice in an insane scheme to treble rice production within the year. What I could not believe was how recent all this was.
The same year my parents got married Cambodia was on its knees at the hands of this man. They told me they remember hearing about it on the news and yet I don’t remember learning about it in school. In English history lessons you are taught about the two world wars and I remember hearing that my generation was lucky as we were the last to be able to hear stories first hand from the our grandparents about the war. However this death and destruction happened such a short time ago and is still well within living memory. In fact we have passed many people missing limbs due to land mines and have read warnings to stick to paths as not all of these mines have been found yet.
As you walk around The Killing Fields with the stories uttered gently in your ear you come to appreciate that the dust is still settling in Cambodia. People are doggedly determined to move on and keep smiling despite the painful memories. I have nothing but utmost respect for them. But what I learned from that place still runs through my mind too. Especially the Killing Tree. There is a beautiful old gnarled tree in the middle of Choeung Ek and as we walked up to it the audio guide told me of it’s significance.
It was used to kill babies.
Soldiers would hold them upside down by their ankles and hit them against the trunk of the tree until they were dead.
It made my blood run cold too.
The mass graves are, even today, still turning up rags of clothing and shards of bone from the past with each new flood. The skull collection highlighted the scale of death and the horrifying way in which common farming tools or even the sharp edge of a palm tree was used to kill each new arrival. Alone in our separate horror and grief Peter and I could barely talk to each other or attempt to articulate our thoughts on it all. However there was one thing that I took from this haunted place and that was the show of solidarity.
Many of the mass graves are surrounded by a small fence and on each fence post there were thousands of friendship bracelets from around the world. Travellers that had come here had been leaving them behind for years and the collection was huge. They were even woven into the bark on The Killing Tree itself and Peter actually found a Remembrance day poppy too. It seemed to suggest a message of standing together against such abhorrence and I found it comforting.
Unbelievably you can come away from The Killing Fields with a sense of peace. People walked around quietly and respectfully and there was even hope within the new life that could be found as many species of wildlife use the site to raise their young. You could also leave flowers or burn incense to remember the dead at the memorial stupor in the centre of the site.
Overall you get the sense that what’s done is done and there is nothing to do but learn from the past in order to influence the future. Despite the scars, healing can still occur and that is the most hopeful and peaceful thought I could possibly come away with.
Lest we forget.