The next place we visited in Phnom Penh area after a filling lunch during our day trip was a place about 45-minute drive from the city called Choeung Ek, or now also known as the Killing Field. It’s a place where the majority of the prisoners from Tuol Sleng ended up being executed and buried.
After arriving at Choeung Ek, we purchased the tickets to visit the memorial complex. There was a sign indicating that we could also get a tour guide. I inquired for that, and a gentleman at the ticket booth said we could get a guide who could provide a personal tour of the complex and we just had to give a donation as we were willing to give (suggested amount was USD $10). When I said yes, the gentleman actually went with us as our tour guide. His name was Mr. Chanteng.
Mr. Chanteng started his tour by providing some background history on the Khmer Rouge and what the Killing Fields are. Since we’ve just come from Tuol Sleng, he didn’t go to much detail in explaining about Tuol Sleng. He did tell some facts that were staggering. There were more than 10,000 people who were buried in around 130 mass graves at Choeung Ek. Around 9,000 of the victims had been exhumed from 89 of the mass graves. The remaining 43 pits had been left alone. And if those numbers didn’t already overwhelm you, later on I found out that Choeung Ek was only one of close to 400 Killing Fields discovered all throughout Cambodia, with close to 20,000 mass graves that had been identified. The largest of those Killing Fields had the victim count up to 150,000 people. That’s just so mind boggling to think about…
The first place we visited was the memorial stupa that was built to honor the victims found at Choeung Ek. In Buddhist countries like Cambodia, stupas were erected typically as memorial to the dead, as a place where others could pray and wish them well in their afterlife. At Choeung Ek, the memorial stupa contains the skulls and the bones of the victims that had been exhumed. There were 17 tiers of shelves for the skulls, and they were sorted by the age of the victims. When we got closer to the memorial stupa, knowing that this was such a hallowed ground for the Cambodians, I asked our tour guide about what we should or should not do there. In addition to the obvious thing to be reverent in approaching the place, we just had to take off our footwear (a standard practice in entering a Buddhist temple). We were allowed to enter the stupa and observe the shelves of skulls and bones from very close distance, and it was okay to take photos as well. It was definitely a surreal experience to see so many remains of the dead like that. I can’t imagine the horror that some of the Cambodians had to go through to uncover these places, especially knowing that some of the victims might be people they knew closely.
The photo below was taken as we visited the memorial stupa. Here you can see Mr. Chanteng explaining to us what we’re seeing in front of us — the shelves filled with the skulls of the victims found in the mass graves at Choeung Ek.