The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, around 15kms outside Phnom Penh, are where most of the victims of Tuol Sleng S21 prison were slaughtered and dumped in makeshift shallow graves. For many travellers, a visit to Choeung Ek completes a harrowing journey into a dark not so distant past in which 1.7 million Cambodians perished.
The award winning 1984 David Puttnam film, The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, provided a ready made name for the human dumping grounds around Cambodia that are now known as Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. The most famous of these are the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, around 15 kms from Phnom Penh.
It makes good sense to visit Tuol Sleng before heading to the Killing Fields as Tuol Sleng is both more profound and more informative than Choeung Ek. And be warned, like the Tuol Sleng Museum, a visit to Choeung Ek is distressing.
The Khmer Rouge slaughtered around 17,000 of their countrymen and women here between 1975 and 1979. A number of foreigners were also imprisoned at S21 and later murdered here.
The site now consists of shallow graves and a memorial to the victims that includes hundreds of skulls, many smashed by clubs in order to save bullets. Fragments of bone and clothing are still visible in the area.
The Khmer Rouge tyranny was characterised by ideological lunacy and extreme paranoia. Cambodia’s educated class - doctors, professors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, linguists and others - were targeted with precision and few educated Cambodians survived the Khmer Rouge reign - a loss from which the country still suffers.
As time passed, the regime became increasingly paranoid and began to turn on its own. Many of the victims of S-21 and Choeung Ek were themselves former Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek are now privately managed and while it is a tasteful memorial, there is something disconcerting about a commercial operation commemorating mass murder.
Choeung Ek is 15kms and 30 - 40 minutes from Phnom Penh by car or tuk tuk. Some choose to cycle out. The road is quite busy however there are some nice views along the way.