Driving south from the border with Cambodia, it didn’t take long to reach Ba Chuc. As we approached, large rocks loomed ahead, jutting out from between trees. The town is ring-shaped, built along a road that encircles a small mountain. By the time we arrived at this ring road, the sun was on the horizon, but we were still hopeful to see the pagoda before daylight faded.
We didn’t even have to ask for directions.
As soon as we stopped, the locals knew what we were looking for. They motioned with their heads and then pointed down the road to where hundreds of skulls lay within Ba Chuc Temple (also known as Bone Pagoda) — victims of the 1978 Ba Chuc Massacre.
We soon found the pagoda, a memorial stupa resembling the famous one at the Choeung Ek killing fields in Cambodia. With over 1,700 skulls peering out from a hexagonal glass-windowed building, it is just as chilling — a shocking example of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978.
We approached the site slowly and solemnly. After we removed our shoes, the guard asks us to sign the visitors’ book. We dropped some money in a donation box and he handed us incense and ceremonial papers to burn in a fire pit nearby. When this was done, we absorbed the horror of the Bone Pagoda.
Looking at the skulls and bones separated by gender and age, the sheer number of deaths was hard to fathom. It’s easy to see that no one was spared or given mercy. 3,157 people were slaughtered on that fateful night, Apr. 18, 1978. Only two of the town’s residents are known to have survived.
Laughter Among Tears
Returning to our parked motorbikes, we were approached by a large crowd. Some were trying to sell us various goods, but many of them were just curious. We were struck by the pleasant nature of the people, which stood in direct contrast to the horror we had just seen.
We spent a while mingling and laughing. One never would have guessed that they spent most of their time at such a gruesome place. That evening, as we walked around town, everyone we encountered was eager to talk to us.
The next day we returned to the Bone Pagoda to see the small museum next door, which displays photographs and artifacts from the massacre. The images are graphic, perhaps even more disturbing than the skulls. Knowing that these events happened around where we were standing made it feel very vivid.
Though the history behind the Bone Pagoda is not pleasant, it’s important to experience. The village of Ba Chuc became the highlight of a trip filled with many other better-known destinations.
The Vietnamese government has admitted that the historical relic site of Ba Chuc (also known as Pol Pot Genocide Relic site of Ba Chuc), including the tombs, Tam Buu pagoda and Phi Lai Pagoda according to the resolution 92/VH, QD of the government on Jul. 10, 1980.
To get there, take road 955A along the Cambodian border. Around halfway between Ha Tien and Chau Doc, go south on 955B for about 10 minutes until you reach the village. The pagoda and museum are on the east side of town.