Harrowed. It was the only thing I could feel as I stared at the blank holes of what used to be their eyes. The chilly soft breeze gently blew on the tiny hair at the back of my neck. Harrowing. It was harrowing.
30 minutes out of the main town of Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as the Killing Fields.
Despite how terrible the name already sounds, it was the one thing I did NOT want to miss in Phnom Penh. Since I only had a few hours to spare in Phnom Penh after arriving from the 6 hour butt-numbing bus ride from Siem Reap, all I requested to tour in the remaining few hours of daylight was the Killing Fields and the S21 which was recommended to visit by some friends from the hostel.
For $12 for a friendly tuktuk driver from the Hostel Nomads in Phnom Penh, we set off to tour the two places.
The first thing I noticed about Phnom Penh was that the streets were not paved. Considering that this is Cambodia’s capital city, I wondered why.
While Siem Reap was not all high tech, it still had better roads, compared to the one in Phnom Penh.
Dust was everywhere. Everywhere. Especially along the way to the Killing Fields.
When we parked at the Killing Fields, Paulie, the tuktuk driver smiled at me and said he’d wait for me outside. I trudged on inside the gates with no actual expectation of what was to happen.
I paid $6 for the entrance fee of $3 and another $3 for the audio tour.
While you can also hire a tour guide for $25, I chose the audio tour as this was cheaper and highly recommended by Robert of the Hostel Nomads. The guides handed me the audio and I carefully slung it over my neck.
I pressed play and slowly walked onto the narrow, paved road that lead to a tall building with exquisite designs at the roof.
Procrastinating? I was a little unsure.
“The Killing Fields is one of the hardest places to visit. But we thank you anyway for taking the time out to visit our past,” the audio tour droned on and I nodded, as if I was actually talking to someone.
The audio tour was surprisingly very efficient. It was easy to follow and each step had signs along the way. Some areas only had signs where buildings/establishments used to rise.
There was a specific place where they’d drop off the people to be tortured and killed. There was a “tool shed” which had all the tools that they used to kill people.
Farther down the tour was a burial site, now only the slightly muddy place where green grass grows. But just below all the grassy facade was a few chilling remnants of what used to lay there – fragments of teeth, jaws…maybe skulls. Of men and women. Babies.
I swallowed back the tears that were creeping slightly to my eyes.
Just farther down was an enclosed aquarium. From afar, they looked like white things and I thought I’d see the bones. But no. Not yet. These were the clothes of the victims. Right in front was a small pair of shorts. Most likely the shorts of a child.
I felt my insides soften even more and I pushed onto the next step.
There was a wooden roofed caged area far ahead that had bracelets hanging from the sides and lying all over the inside of the cage. This was their burial area, where hundreds of bodies lay after being killed.
I stood in silence for awhile. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have anything to say. When you face such a harrowing place, all you can really do is look and know that these people have been through so much.
The most tragic of all that I had wanted to see was just up ahead.
The Killing Tree, as I had heard several other bloggers call it. It was a big tree, with bracelets hanging from its sides and around its roots. This tree had big significance because I know it was the tree where the Khmer Rouge would hit the babies just to kill them.
“Why they killed babies and children?” the audio tour guide said.
“It’s a pretty easy answer. They killed babies as well because they didn’t want anyone to come looking for revenge after many years” I swallowed hard.
These were innocent little human beings. I stared up at the huge tree and fought hard not to cry for these little souls that had such a long life ahead of them.
The next tree was pretty significant too. It was upon this tree that they put up gongs and speakers for music so that it would drown the screams and shouts of those who were being tormented.
The audio played this condemning, depressing sound. The sound that people would hear beyond the horrifying screams of those who were being killed.
“This would be the last sound they’d hear before they leave this world,” the audio tour guide said and it made me even sadder.
The last part of the tour was the tall, narrow building with the kind of creepy structures at the top.
Inside this building were the skulls of the victims, found with lacerations on their heads, blunt force trauma and visible cuts and skull fragments.
The skulls were classified by age and type of trauma. At the upper levels were bones. However, according to the audio tour, not all bones fit in the building, so they had to choose only a few and keep the selected ones. The other bones remain in the fields, while the rest are in the S21.
I slowly circled the tiny establishment that smelled a little of dust, careful not to touch anything. I looked up at the skulls that glowered over me.
A feeling of sadness, torment and fear crept through me and I hasted to get out, the oxygen in my lungs suddenly refusing to fill.
I practically ran down the stairs, stumbled over the shoes and quickly looked for mine.
As I walked out of the genocidal center, I couldn’t help feeling so sad.
And when I approached Paulie, whose smile was so genuine and sweet, I felt even weaker.
These people. Their strength. Their history. It was heartbreaking.
This visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center was definitely one of the highlights of my stay.