Wat Thmey Pagoda, The Killing Fields, Siem Reap.
Wat Thmey Pagoda, Siem Reap.
Back in 2015 my old travel buddy Wonderboy and I spent a day in Phnom Penh learning about Cambodia’s harrowing genocide years. First, we spent a few grim hours visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a Khmer Rouge detention and torture centre. Then, we headed out to the equally awful Cheoung Ek Killing Fields, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were finally put out of their misery.
It was one of the most depressing travel experiences of my life, but one that I knew I had to have in order to better understand the country and its people. I hadn’t been aware that Siem Reap had its own killing field site.
With a heavy heart, Sladja and I entered one January afternoon through the modest stone gate. After our disappointing experience at the War Remnant Museum, we were hoping that this place had done a better job of honouring those who lost their lives under the ruthless rule of The Khmer Rouge.
Although often advertised as the Siem Reap Killing Fields, there’s no actual field to see anymore. Instead, the compound honours those who died here through a number of exhibits. They lie scattered around the grounds of Wat Thmey Pagoda, a modern temple home to a small community of Buddhist monks.
Wat Thmey Pagoda, Siem Reap.
The pagoda itself is pretty enough but unremarkable, especially if you’ve been around Asia’s temple circuit. Most visitors to Wat Thmey come specifically for the genocide memorials, hence the prayer hall itself often gets ignored. And so it proved that day, as I ducked inside to find the place empty, save for a lone monk quietly reading.
Initially, I was concerned that I might be intruding. But he seemed pleased to see me, lifting his head from the book he was reading to smile at me. Despite our incompatible tongues, he beckoned me over with another warm smile and even posed for a photograph. A lovely moment in an otherwise melancholic visit.
The Siem Reap Killing Fields.
We kicked off our self-guided tour of the site’s genocide history with a modest but tastefully curated photo exhibition. Sadly, much like The War Remnant Museum, most of the photographs have no commentary or labels. Thus we weren’t blessed with a whole lot of context.
Nevertheless, unlike the War Remnant Museum, this is award-winning photography that definitely brings the horror of the times to life. Particularly those images of ragged, displaced children and soldiers digging graves in the rain.
On the back wall stands a disheartening collection of paintings. There are five in total and they tell the life story of Sum Rithy, apparently the only survivor of the Siem Reap Killing Fields. He was 21 when Khmer Rouge soldiers brought him here in 1976.
The soldiers accused Sum Rithy of being a CIA spy before subjecting him to an appalling barrage of torture, including burning him with boiling porridge and forcing him to eat his own excrement. He survived due to the fact that he was a skilled motor mechanic, and therefore useful to one of the soldiers.
Mr. Sum Rithy.
Sum Rithy is now in his 60s and spends a great deal of his time stationed at Wat Thmey Pagoda. He greets visitors, agrees to photographs and signs copies of his book, Surviving the Genocide in the Land of Angkor.
Outside the exhibition hall stands the Killing Well. I won’t go through what happened to people before the soldiers dumped their bodies into the well. In 1986 a local NGO organised a search mission, which resulted in the recovery of around sixty skeletons.
A further twenty three bodies were found at a nearby mass grave. Some of the remains rest in a large, glass case next to the well. Chilling… depressing… insert other adjectives here.
Wat Thmey Pagoda, Siem Reap.
As with the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the Siem Reap site features a haunting memorial stupa. Fitted with glass windows, it displays the skulls and bones of 890 victims. As I stood taking the scene in, I spied a few Khmer visitors dropping monetary tributes through slits in the glass.
On the way out, we stopped in our tracks at the sight of a horrifying photo board. The main image shows Pol Pot (front left) and his closest cadres riding the rail network in 1976. There was something about Pot’s calm and thoughtful expression that sent a shiver down my spine.
An accompanying blurb says the party staged the photo for propaganda purposes. Before long, these men would repurpose the rail system to transport thousands of Cambodians into forced labour camps.
Sladja and I spent days exploring the various genocide sites across Cambodia. On that particular day though we didn’t linger. Rather, we had seen enough and were keen to decamp for lunch. To a place where the music was soft and we could gather our thoughts over some healing coffee. And to once again thank our lucky stars that we will never have to experience anything remotely close to what the people of Cambodia went through in the 1970s.
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Tis grim reading but Sun Rithy survived.
Yup and I’m guessing he probably did alright for himself through book sales and tourist donations. Although I’m guessing COVID hasn’t been kind to the pagoda or him in recent months.
I was all prepped to comment that this was so tastefully done and then we hit the bones. I had trouble enough with Auschwitz. Glad you got to see the survivor.
Oh Memo, not sure what you’re going to make of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I revisited yesterday and it was… heavy. Will be republishing later in the year.
Genocide and holocaust museums and memorials are not just places for the victims and survivors, but places for all people. It makes you wonder how does this powerful, sobering testament to man’s inhumanity to man help us consider our responsibilities in protecting the rights of all humankind?
Some deep thoughts Aiva. Memorials like this should indeed inspire the world to learn from the past. But wait… oh dear….
I know 😏
Those who document the horrors perpetrated on humanity by religious and political zealots, for all to see are doing worthy service. We must not forget how low man can stoop to assert his power over the masses. It still happens today but now is more visible for what it is. Stay well Leighton. Allan
Thanks Allan, the scale of Wat Thmey was nothing compared to the vastness of the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but every bit as moving. Each time I visit these kind of sites I can’t help but think “How the hell did this happen?”
Hard to read and look at the photo’s … I know it’s necessary to know these things to understand the people better, but emotionally it is hard. I can’t say, but I doubt that I will be able to visit these sites … but thanks to you, I see and understand … and I’m also thankful that this genocide is not part of my (or my family’s) memories.
I appreciate you forcing your way through these unpleasant articles Corna. Thanks for your thoughts too, they are always appreciated.
another site of such unimaginable horror, but I was encouraged by the desire to honor those people especially the monetary gifts slipped in through the glass. Though simple it is a more powerful display than the museum previously. Also the fact that the lone survivor was there telling the history that only he could is amazing and really gives more heart to the place.
Yeah the survivor adds a real sense of poignancy and authenticity to the complex. Thanks Meg, for persisting through these uncomfortable posts.
Thanks for documenting the horrors of war so well Leighton, a difficult post to discuss.
Thank you Marion. Hope all is well with you and you are enjoying the fine weather.
Sounds like a heavy day, but as you said, it’s important for awareness and to have a better understanding of Cambodia’s history.
Thanks for reading!
Beautiful pagoda excellent photos! Thanks for sharing your experience ☺️
Thanks Priti, appreciate the read and the comment.
How completely horrific. It’s tragic that humans can inflict such cruelty on others. It makes one wonder if history will ever stop repeating itself.
It does seem to be a cycle that plays out on loop, unfortunately. Happily, at least, Cambodia is a country that has moved on and, touch wood, will never see such dark days again. Thanks for reading!
Another sad Cambodian site. But among the horror stand some lovely moments, such as that connection with the monk.
Thanks Stan, this quiet moment was something I took away from that mostly sad visit. Thanks for keeping up with the series.
That was heavy to read, but I’m glad that the history is preserved so we don’t forget the victims and we don’t forget how awful the world can be . I’m so glad Cambodia is now living in peace, and I can only say I hope one day everywhere in the world can say the same – though I highly doubt it ever will.
That’s the hope Hannah but yes, I agree it seems unlikely. Thanks for reading!
What an incredibly fascinating and moving site. Such a sad part of that country’s history. I’ve heard it can be an overwhelming place to visit and yet it’s so important to remember what happened there.
Thanks for reading Linda, and for taking the time to comment. A difficult place to visit for sure, but they have done a good job making it a tasteful and peaceful tribute to the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia and Thailand are both countries that I have had my eye on for a few years now. Maybe one day I will make it there for a visit.
Depressing, but necessary. Reading about Sum Rithy gave me goosebumps. Like you and Sladja, I can’t imagine the horrors those poor people endured, though it’s something we need to learn about. We have to ensure that those crimes against humanity never happen again. A similar lesson resulted from our trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama with our (then) nine-year-old grandson. He was so appalled over how black people were treated from the days of slavery to modern times. Even as a child, he found it hard to believe how badly humans treat other humans. Sometimes, I do too.
Thanks for struggling through this piece, Kellye. The Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham has also been noted. You’re right, the things people are capable of….
This is one of the most depressing travel experience I’ve had. Very sad part of history, still makes me feel sad now remembering.
Sorry to bring back bad memories but yes, you are absolutely right. The sights in Phnom Penh were the worst I think.
A heartrending experience to visit. I was there many years ago and the tears kept coming. Humans can be so cruel; it’s hard to fathom.
I agree Ruth, it’s hard to put into words really. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!