Continuing our discovery of Cambodia’s dark history, on the 23rd December we went to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek . We were expecting something resembling an old felid, but instead found a beautiful memorial park; the audio guide revealing the harrowing story that lay beneath the serenity.
The killing fields of Choeung Ek is one of hundreds found around the country, but by far the most famous. Following imprisonment and a forced confession from the S-21 prison, prisoners were taken in trucks to the killing fields for execution and burial. Due to the secrecy of the Khmer Rouge, no one knew what was really going on behind the compound walls, although no one could have imagined the horrors that actually transpired.
Walking though the peaceful lake, we were able to listen to stories of survivors still trying to fit their lives back together. One man was only 15 when he was imprisoned; he lived only thanks to a heroic man who sacrificed himself so that the boy could be freed.
Perhaps the most horrific part of the fields was the killing tree – stumbled across originally by a man searching for food – which marked the mass grave of over 100 infants and women, most of whom were found to be naked. The tree itself was used to kill children in front of their mothers; an ultimate act of inhumanity in front of people who had already suffered too much. This was not the only mass grave; many were uncovered containing thousands of bodies. Adults were killed so that their bodies would fall unaided into the pit. These dreadful images are hideous to think of, but as the guide said, it’s so very important to remember them; both in tribute to the victims, and to stop it from ever repeating.
The largest mass graves have been covered with shelters and marked to honour those buried beneath. On these wooden structures – and the killing tree itself – are hundreds of coloured bracelets and strings; left from visitors in the memory of those who died. Money was left by some, flowers too, and incense burnt almost constantly. This aspect of the fields was a favourite, as the love and sorrow felt by all visitors was expressed to show respect and honour the dead. Some graves were left undisturbed so that their spirits may rest peacefully.
Beautiful and striking in the centre of the compound lay a memorial Supa; constructed to house the skulls and jaw bones of the recovered bodies. Only these distinctive bones are arranged in the Supa: there simply wasn’t room for all of the skulls, let alone the other bones. Despite the giant size of the Supa, the scale of the tragedy was just too big. The Supa itself was built full of meaning; it is decorated with a combination of hindu and buddhist symbolism. Nagas guard the Supa from the roof, next to their sworn enemies, garuda birds. When these foes come together, it is meant to symbolise ultimate peace and amity.
We hope that all victims of the genocide have found peace, whether they be dead or still surviving.
After lunch we swiftly moved on, via tuk tuk, to our next activity for the day, Cambodia’s National Museum. Luckily, although all the exhibits were written in Khmer we had the Cambodian scouts on hand to give us pieces of information on various statues and religious symbols. This part of the day was really interesting as it was so different to other museums we had visited in England.
Once we were filled to the brim with Cambodian history we made our way to the Royal Palaces. As soon as we entered we were met with large Gold buildings decorated from top to toe with various serpents and swirls, they were truly incredible. In two groups we explored the royal grounds making sure to question the scouts about all the different buildings such as the Ball room and the Kings offices. The hot temperatures of over 30oc soon forced us to find shade which led us to finding a shrine hidden in a cluster of trees, a place of peace and tranquillity in the centre of a capital city. Although we all loved walking around the grand palace and taking in all the exotic features, we were all thrilled to find an air conditioned room at the end of it!
Just before we said goodbye to the Scouts we swapped neckers in Costa, learning more about each other and their country. Bradley was ecstatic to hear that he looked twenty and Cerys was particularity amazed to find out that they have no Squirrels here. After a few selfies were taken with the scouts and the Costa staff it was time for us to leave in order to take art in our last exciting opportunity for the day, a boat ride in the sunset.
The private boat itself looked impressive, decorated with bright lights and comfy seats however the ladder propped up over the river by two bobbing boats made getting on an exciting experience, luckily no one fell in! As soon as we made it on we had taken our seats on the top deck with our legs dangling over the edge as the boat drifted away from the busy city streets. This was a great end to an even greater day with casual chit chat and a gentle breeze to relax us into the evening.
Becky & Cerys