Just 12km from Phnom Penh is the notorious site of Choeung Ek, where prisoners from Toul Sleng were brought for execution. As graphically portrayed in the film The Killing Fields, certain sites around the country – this is the best known – became places of mass murder, where the Khmer Rouge disposed of its enemies: men, women and children – even babies – who had allegedly betrayed the state. Early on, the victims were shot; later, to save on valuable bullets, they were bludgeoned or stabbed to death, and babies killed by being savagely thrown against trees, as loud music blared in the background. As fuel became scarce, victims were dragged out of the city and killed en route, their bodies dumped in the rice paddies closer to town.
Set amid peaceful fields and pleasant countryside, in what was once a Chinese burial ground, the Choeung Ek Memorial now contains the remains of 8985 bodies exhumed here in 1980, when 86 of the burial pits were excavated. Anecdotal estimates suggest that more than 17,000 people may have been slaughtered here, and a further 43 mass graves under the lake at the site remain untouched; there are no plans for these to be investigated since as yet there is nowhere sufficient to house the remains to Buddhist standards. Inside the memorial, a gleaming glass-fronted chedi, skulls and bones are piled on shelves, seventeen tiers high, arranged by age and gender, their tattered clothes below.
An excellent audioguide leads you circuitously around the site, stopping at various key points and finishing up at the memorial stupa. It includes harrowing commentary from victims and a former Khmer Rouge guard. Make sure to wander around the eerily beautiful lake.
Before you leave, drop into the museum, where you can cool off in the air-conditioned “theatre” by watching a dated but informative short video. A raw and emotional declaration close by states, “We are absolutely determined no [sic] to let this genocidal regime to reoccur in Kampuchea”.