The Killing Fields

I actually didn’t think I would be writing this post because up until this morning, Al and I had decided that we weren’t going to bring our kids here. We would talk about what happened, but we thought it might be too much to see in person. As it was, the Royal Palace was closed when we arrived and our tuk tuk driver convinced us to go.

My closest friends know my parenting style involves being open with my kids. I never shy away from questions, and the kids know that Mommy will always tell them the truth (although Daddy may tell them something different). Knowledge is power, especially for girls in today’s world, and I’m making sure my daughters have the information they need to grow into strong young women.

When it came to the Killing Fields, Al and I agonized over whether we should go. We read that bone fragments are still resurfacing, and we thought that maybe we should skip the graphic part of Cambodia’s history.

The girls had heard about the impact of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodian society the night before through the folk dancing, and we felt that this was enough to realize that something really bad had happened here not too long ago. But fate had something different in mind.

The Killing Fields are located in various sites around Cambodia where approximately one million people were executed and buried by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. About 20,000 mass graves exist, but we visited the most famous one located at Choeung Ek just outside of Phnom Pehn.

Today Choeung Ek is a memorial to the tragedy and a place of remembrance for Cambodians. The site includes a Buddhist stupa in which human remains are interred. The stupa contains 5,000 human skulls that bear the evidence of the violent end of 17,000 men, women, children and babies.

Stupa containing skulls at Choeung Ek

Stupa containing skulls at Choeung Ek

When we arrived it was strangely quiet. Visitors receive an audio tour of the site, so everyone was wearing a headset and listening intently to the information.

It was sad to learn what had happened and to see the evidence of the mass graves. The stupa containing the skulls was horrifying knowing that these people were murdered, but it wasn’t any more scary than the catacombs in Paris or the weird arrangements of bones that priests did in South America.

Offerings left at different grave sites give a feeling of remembrance. My cover photo shows bracelets attached to a fence surrounding one particular grave, silently communicating that the victims will never be forgotten.

Offerings in a spirit house are left to appease the spirits

Offerings in a spirit house are left to appease the spirits

A spirit house is located near the back of the site. Stemming from animistic traditions, the house is intended to provide shelter for spirits that might cause problems if not appeased. Offerings left at the house are to quiet the spirits, and contribute to the overall feeling of remembrance.

I’m glad we took the kids to the site. We asked them how they were feeling afterwards, and they said they had learned a lot. Claire pointed to the elephant on her hippie parachute pants and said, “Look Mommy, he’s still happy after all of that!”


16 Comments on “The Killing Fields

  1. we’ve been away for awhile so i am just catching up. Heather, with this post you could have simply relied on your photos. They are incredible. Before i even read the post i had goose bumps from your cover photo, and the skulls. Oh my!

    Love Nadine

  2. One million people in 4 years.
    That’s equivalent to the murder of every single resident and visitor on Vancouver Isl.
    Everyone. Gone and buried.

    Analogies help me understand the gravity of historic events like this. I’ve heard of The Killing Fields. But never understood the scale.

    And so here we are battling ISIS with 250 “western” people losing their lives every month and a few thousand/month in Syria/Iraq.

    I’m not trying to compare value of lives – but it really hits you to know the sheer magnitude of grief Cambodia must have endured … like having the Paris killings every night 365 days/yr for 11 years and never being able to escape.


    • I just finished reading “First they killed my father” by a woman the same age as me who recounts the horrors that she lived through starting in 1975. I keep thinking that could have been me if I was born in Cambodia and not Canada. When we wonder where refugees come from, we need to read stories like this to know. There are horrible things happening in Syria right now like the enslavement of women and children. I feel so lucky to have been born where I was…


  3. People try to cover up wars and inhumanities, and pretend the world is a safe place to live. However, the recent Paris tragedy once again proved the opposite. Learning from the past helps us prepare for the worst things that may happen in the future, and I am so glad that Claire and Sophie have such wonderful parents.

    Stay safe and conquer the world!


    • Thanks, Johny! I also thinks its important for people in countries likes Canada to have a better understanding of where refugees come from. Sometimes we forget, even though we have families that left under similar circumstances after WWII and similar events. Many Cambodians and Vietnamese went to Canada during the 1970s, and I feel it is Canada’s responsibility to continue helping others today because we can…

      – Heather

  4. Heather, your parenting style is clearly working, because you and Al are raising two incredible, strong, smart, funny, compassionate people…as illustrated by Claire’s comment. Thank you for sharing them, and your journey, with the rest of us! As for the world learning from history, it does boggle the mind that such atrocities can still take place. We must count ourselves lucky to live in Canada, with all our rights and freedoms and prosperity. It is something to cherish and protect and never take for granted. So, when Sophie and Claire are running for Office one day, I shall be casting my vote for them! Of course if they end up living in a hippie colony on Salt Spring Island that would be okay too:-)

    • Thanks, Kim! 🙂 I’ve said tongue-in-cheek sometimes that I don’t care if they end up as goat farmers on Salt Spring as long as they are and happy, and productive members of society!

      – Heather

  5. It is really sad and depressing to realize that the slaughter of innocent people still goes on today. Twin Tower, and yesterday Paris.

  6. Gareth and I are reading all your blogs. Thanks for sharing. We love learning about what you are experiencing on your travels. Remember there is a lot of good in this world which you have also experienced in abundance. I believe that good eventually prevails.

    • I think so, too – it just feels like we are doing the “two-step” whereas I wish we could just walk forward!

      – Heather

  7. Amazing Heather. I think this has even more meaning considering what happened in Paris last night. Innocent people being murdered is still part of our world today.

    • Yes – and the sad thing is there have been a few more genocides since the Khmer Rouge, so humans don’t seem to learn much. ISIS is slaughtering Muslims as we speak who don’t fit their world view. And yet the horrible events in Paris will make people think that all Muslims are evil… It’s time for people to really stop and think!!!

      – Heather

  8. Wow…you guys are seeing some amazing things on your journey. (and as a result, so are we) Heather, you and Al do such a great job exposing and explaining both the incredibly good and also the horrifically bad that is possible in the human species. Although there is such a horrific thing as the Cambodian Killing Fields, there is also the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Thanks again for continuing to share your stories with us.

    Gord and Joyce

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