killing fields skulls in sky cambodia 1994

Cambodia’s Killing Frenzy

Phnom Penh

June 1994: Tonight, as I rest on my bed and write this, I feel uneasy, queasy.

I’ve several reasons for feeling sick.

Earlier I’d bought a hard-boiled egg from a street vendor.

I sat on a stool beside her bucket as she cracked the shell, handing me the spoon to scoop out a well-cooked yoke.

Firm white and yellow. But it contained the tiny black body of a nearly born bird!

Fuck! I thought. I can’t eat this! I ain’t eating this!

I must’ve looked pale: I felt ill.

I paid the woman, excusing myself after the first teaspoon of hard-rubber. She smiled. So did I.

My first taste of Cambodian street food—a national delicacy—has killed my desire to eat another egg (for many months).

Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

Earlier in the afternoon, I’d ridden with a taxi-motorbike along a rural road to fields of green grass surrounding dozens of dirt pits—littered with rotting rag and bone poking from the earth; cows grazing as a breeze swept the spindly palms across a cloudy day, yet here, the sun still shone amid the chilly vibes of violent death.

Near the killing fields’ pits, the signs read:

GRAVE No. 6: Mass grave of 450 victims.

GRAVE No. 5: Mass grave of more than 100 victims. Children and women whose majority were naked.

GRAVE No. 7: Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.

skulls at choueng ek khmer rouge killing fields in cambodia
The Choueng Ek killing fields outside the capital, Phnom Penh. (NOTE: the ‘skull + sky’ image is by Thomas Grønkjær – my Danish mate who I shared the entire Cambodia ’94 experience with (and also parts of travels in Vietnam + China). It was a print he gave me and it looks MUCH better in its original vertical format (I cropped it to fit the cover image).

I wandered these Killing Fields with a Cambodian in his forties (my motor-taxi driver had survived the onslaught; his family hadn’t).

He pointed to clumps of flax bushes—their large branches of hard serrations. The Khmer Rouge used them to hack the heads off living people.

A few weeks ago, I’d read in the Bangkok Post that Khmer Rouge guerrillas had hacked the heads off Cambodian Army officers with a blunt, rusty saw.

(At the time of these travels in 1994, the civil war was ongoing and Pol Pot was still alive in a Khmer Rouge mountain base in north-east Cambodia.)

At the pagoda serving as a memorial to the dead, peering through the glass-side walls, busted skulls and bones, human bits stacked from ceiling to floor.

Near this, a sign read:

“… 86 of the 129 mass graves were unearthed in this extermination camp and 8985 corpse were found. All the victims (peasants, workers, intellectuals, ministers, diplomats, foreigners, women, children) detained and tortured during interrogation at Tuol Sleng (S-21) were later sent to Choueng Ek (where I stand, now peaceful farmland) for liquidation. We are absolutely determined not to let this genocidal regime to reoccur in Kampuchea.”

Down the hotel corridor, amid the early evening street noise—a person puking.

Again, the heave and splatter.

For a third time, he power vomits, blowing his nose, raking his throat and gobbing.

And me, I’m still sickened. Dead chickens in edible eggs. Decapitated people in pits.

Notorious torture center of S-21

A school that became the S-21 detention camp, where victims were tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields.

In one interrogation room nothing, except a steel bed-frame.

khmer rouge torture room s-21 prison cambodia
Torture room at S-21 Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh.

On the wall, a large black-and-white photograph of that steel bed with a mutilated body; the floor was wet with blood as the victim laid hacked by rakes, hammers and hoes.

It was said that Khmer Rouge guards laughed as their victims screamed as skin was torn, shredded and ripped by steel.


You must answer accordingly to my questions. Don’t turn them away.

Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.

Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

Don’t lie to me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

Don’t make pretexts about Kampuchea in order to hide your jaw of traitor.

If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.

If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or 5 shocks of electric discharge.

posted on the walls of S-21

In the heat of a Phnom Penh night

The night is noisy and humid as I draw on a joint and reflect.

I hear the victims, their fear and suffering in my head.

This $2-a-night room is a windowless cell.

Only a bed and a fan—with only one speed. It rattles fast, whirling and mocking me—chop-chop-chop. (Like them, I could lose my head.)

capitol hotel street view cambodia 1994
Looking to the street from the Capitol Hotel public balcony in Phnom Penh during the monsoon month of June in 1994.

Here on my bed, knees hugging chest, I’m blinded by brightness.

Fluorescent-white-light sears, Formica white walls glare, white floor tiles glisten as traffic hums, as horns beep and shriek from the street.

It’s too much.

I try to shut it out. Imagining singing angels, but the southern gospel becomes an air-raid siren and then loud, sadistic laughter.

Everything in my room, in my mind – tortured.

I see cows chomping human-fertilized grass, trees that hacksaw heads, a pagoda of busted, smiling skulls.

I am sick from the killing of a country.


PS: Recent UN discoveries of more Killing Fields bring the estimates of Khmer Rouge victims to 2 MILLION MURDERED.

Travels in Cambodia – 1994

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