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The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

Visiting the Killing Fields is the worst way to spend a day in Southeast Asia.

It’s also one of the most important.

Words cannot do justice to the sadness that lingers here.

It’s a place you must experience for yourself.

The Killing Fields

There are many Killing Fields in Cambodia — the most well known is Choeung Ek. It’s a bumpy 45 minute ride from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

The first feature you’ll notice is the memorial Buddhist stupa. It’s a tall white and grey structure; a symbol of peace and hope, ringed by a tidy garden.

Buddhist stupa at the Killing Fields

As you get nearer though, it’s impossible to ignore the human skulls layered from top to bottom.

Skulls in the stupa at the Killing Fields

Skulls at the Killing Fields

The skulls sit in piles behind glass windows. Some are cracked, others have big holes in them. Hundreds of empty eye sockets stare into eternity.

These are the victims of the Killing Fields.

The executions

Around 9,000 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

They’d been buried in mass graves, which were excavated and lie open today. A path winds through the Killing Fields, taking you past each burial pit.

Burial pits at the Killing Fields

An audio tour describes exactly what happened at Choeung Ek. The isolation fostered by the headphones amplifies the sombre atmosphere.

You can visualise the terrified prisoners being shunted off a truck, and then waiting in darkness while strange music played.

Men and women were led off in small groups and made to kneel in front of freshly dug pits. With their hands tied behind their backs, they were defenseless.

The executioner would then strike the victim’s neck with an iron ox-cart axle, or stab them with a knife. Barbaric weapons were preferred because bullets were deemed wasteful.

As Comrade Duch admitted, “We killed them like chickens.”

The Killing Tree

Beside the pits are signs which tell a tragic story.

“Mass grave of 166 victims with out heads.”

“Mass grave of more than 100 victims children and women whose majority were naked.”

Signs for the mass graves at the Killing Fields

The signs describe what happened in the barest details. But there is one which stands above the rest.

That’s the sign beside the Killing Tree.


The Killing Tree — bar one feature — is similar to every other tree at Choeung Ek.

It’s different because of the bracelets which cling to the bark, covering every inch of its thick trunk.

The bracelets are a visual surrogate for the horrific discovery made here.

The Killing Tree

It was on this tree that pieces of brain and skull were found; the remains of the infants who were murdered by brute force.

They were the children of adult victims which the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to grow up and seek revenge.

The killers swung the babies against the tree, splitting their skulls. It’s been reported that some executioners laughed while doing this.

I held back a tear as I removed my bracelet from Angkor Thom and added it to the dense collection.

Buried bones

Scattered around the Killing Fields are signs asking visitors not to step on bones.

After 35 years, I thought that all the bodies would have been exhumed.

This is not the case.

Even today, heavy rain washes away the topsoil, revealing bones and clothing.

Bones and clothes at the Killing Fields

I came across two bones in the middle of a path.

At first I thought they were just tree roots — they had a similar colour and texture. It was only the presence of the torn clothing which made me look closer and realise their true nature.

The victim of a callous murderer was lying right beneath my feet. Not protected in a humidity-controlled museum room.

Another one of the millions killed by Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.

Don't step on bone sign

Have you visited the Killing Fields? How did you feel? Leave a comment below

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