Just 12km southwest of 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 – Choeung Ek is the best known – became places of mass murder, where the genocidal Khmer Rouge disposed of its enemies: men, women and children who had allegedly betrayed the state. Early on, the regime’s 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 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 over 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 there is nowhere sufficient to house the remains to Buddhist standards as yet. Inside the memorial, a gleaming glass-fronted chedi, skulls and bones are piled on shelves, arranged by age and gender, their tattered clothes below. Around the stupa, a pavilion houses a small exhibition describing the history of the site as well as a dated but informative short video, while an emotional (if ungrammatical) declaration close by states, “We are absolutely determined no [sic] to let this genocidal regime to reoccur in Kampuchea”. It is a good idea to get a guide to take you round the site of grassy mounds and excavated sites for a “fixed donation” of $2. Be sure to wander around the eerily beautiful lake beyond, but beware of begging children who ask for a dollar once you’ve taken their picture.
The site is easily accessible by moto and tuk-tuk or on excursions run by various Phnom Penh guesthouses (some of which also include side-trips to Tonle Bati); you could even cycle there if you’re prepared to brave the traffic. To drive here, find Monireth Boulevard and follow it south, forking left at the large petrol station, from where it’s about 5km to Choeung Ek.