February 3, 2023
PHNOM PENH – During the lockdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre fell silent. Ordinarily a calm place of quiet reflection, with its gates closed and no visitors at all, the silence was unsettling, say staff.
Choeung Ek, once a peaceful orchard, became the site of the most well-known of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Up to 20,000 men, women and children were murdered here, many after being transferred from the prison at Tuol Sleng.
When the government announced the reopening of the country and the resumption of tourism services at the end of 2021, the centre reopened its doors to just two or three guests per day.
“When the government reopened the Kingdom, we threw open our gates. At first, there were very few visitors, and I noticed that the foreigners who came were residents of Cambodia, rather than international tourists,” Ros Sophearavy, president of the centre, told The Post.
“We were very worried at the small number of ticket sales, but we saw a gradual increase in the number of visitors throughout 2022. Some days we received up to 100 in a day, and we are still getting busier. Prior to Covid, we typically saw between 300 and 600 guests a day,” she said.
“We have rehired ticket clerks, video presenters, cleaners and security guards, and have 25 staff, the same as before the closures. I hope to see a return to pre-Covid numbers soon. On some days in January, we saw 300 visitors,” she added.
In 2019, the centre received more than 200,000 foreigners and more than 50,000 Cambodians. Last year, 45,547 foreign guests and 21,294 Cambodians visited the site.
“For almost two years, we were closed and could not share this special place with even a single guest. We were able to use the revenue from previous years to keep the grounds maintained. We retained five staff members, to keep the gardens tidy and provide security,” said Sophearavy.
Choeung Ek Genocide Centre is a concession investment, and is administered by the Phnom Penh Municipal Hall.
“During this difficult time, we did not ask for help from the state because we knew it needed to minimise expenditure while it fought the virus. They needed a lot of money to buy vaccines and medical equipment and run all kinds of campaigns,” Sophearavy added.
Fortunately, there were no large maintenance projects that required funds. Major renovations were completed in 2016, so all the staff had to do was sweep up leaves and take care of the grass.
The centre continued to make National Social Security Fund (NSSF) contributions for its entire staff, whether they were suspended or working during the closure. This meant all staff remained eligible for health care benefits.
Oum Chandaro, a tour guide who leads groups around the Kingdom, has brought many visitors to Choeung Ek.
“At present, there are fewer tourists than there were pre-Covid, but the number is continuing to increase. The company I work for rehired me in June last year and I have been guiding groups of 8 to 10 visitors on week-long tours once or twice a month since then,” said the English speaking guide.
“I bring the guests from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh for two days. Then we do one day in Battambang and three in Siem Reap before ending in Poipet, where they depart for Thailand.
Upon arrival at Choeung Ek, foreign tourists must purchase a ticket for $3. An excellent audio tour is available for an additional $3. The audio guide is available in 15 languages, including Khmer.
“Guests can choose to use the audio service or not, but the audio means visitors do not need to have a guide or worry about language barriers. Listening to the narration lasts more than an hour, depending on the language,” said Sophearavy
The 15 languages include Khmer, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Russian, French, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and Chinese.
Frenchwoman Charlotte, who is visiting Cambodia for the first time, took the audio tour and found it incredibly moving.
“How can such a thing happen due to one man? May the Cambodian people who lost loved ones find peace. We hope this tragedy will never be repeated,” she wrote on January 30, in the centre’s visitor’s book.
Lilian, from Germany, echoed her sentiments.
“This was a tragedy that no one should have had to experience. May the souls of all the victims rest in peace, and may the survivors who remember this tragic time recover. No one should carry this sadness,” she wrote.
One man who knows more than most about the evils of Pol Pot’s murderous regime is Sum Rithy.
The 69-year-old survived the killing fields and was imprisoned and tortured by the Khmer Rouge, from 1977 until the day of liberation, January 7, 1979.
It is difficult to reconcile the genial white-haired man with the thin, nervous young man he appears as on the cover of his autobiography, which he sells at Choeung Ek.
“I wrote my autobiography in Khmer and paid a translator to produce an English version. Before Covid, I rented a house in Siem Reap and sold copies of my book to tourists there. During the travel restrictions and the resulting downturn in tourism, I returned to Phnom Penh,” he said.
“After I discovered that guests were returning to Choeung Ek, I decided I would share my experience with them here. Despite the large number of tourists, sales of my book are not doing very well,” he added.
Sophearavy expressed optimism for the coming year.
“Now that flight restrictions have been lifted, one of the reasons tourists are choosing Cambodia as a destination is because of how welcoming we were to the trapped passengers of the MS Westerdam,” she said, in reference to the cruise ship, which docked in Preah Sihanouk province in February 2020 after being refused entry by several ports in the region.
“I have a friend in the US who knows people who said they would choose the Kingdom for their next holiday because we welcomed those cruise passengers when no one else dared,” she added.
In addition to foreign guests, the centre welcomes all Cambodians, free of charge. Young people are especially encouraged to visit, so they can learn about the troubled history of the Kingdom.
“I always welcome younger Cambodians, as I want them to understand what their older relatives went through. In the past, we have hosted guests from the Khmer Rouge tribunal and students from public and private schools. I want the next generation to know the truth about the Khmer Rouge, so we can make sure this never happens again,” added Sophearavy.