The Necessity of Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields, even if it’s a Painful Experience

If you’re traveling to Cambodia, you must visit the Killing Fields. It’s going to be a harrowing experience. It will leave you shaken for the rest of the day, maybe more. But it’s important to learn about, and personally witness, the sites of the Cambodian Genocide.

For those of you who don’t know about the Killing Fields, that’s alright. I didn’t know much about them (other than the bare minimum) before traveling to Cambodia either.

It’s a sad exhibition of the Euro-centric nature of History itself. At least as it’s taught in history syllabi in schools and colleges. However, as autonomous individuals, it’s our responsibility to fill in the gaps in our education.

Learning about Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields prior to traveling would have equipped me to better understand Cambodia. And not just Cambodia, but also the people in it.

The Cambodian Genocide is the single most important incident in Cambodian history. The country, and the people in it, still live in the shadow of that tragedy. You’ll find that all your interactions with the local Khmers will be heavy with the weight of that past trauma… always simmering just under the surface.

It’s not that everyone you meet will be willing to discuss the subject with you. In fact, you shouldn’t be the one to broach the subject anyway because you might touch on a nerve. However, if you’re observant, all your interactions will seem to be informed by that collective consciousness, lingering like an aftertaste.

In this article, I’ll give you the bare minimum information you need to visit Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

I’ll give you a brief account of the history of the killing fields. Following that, I’ll write about my experience at the Choeung Ek killing field and the Tuol Sleng museum.

Hopefully, I can impress upon you the necessity of learning about and visiting the Killing Fields.

Read: A Comprehensive Cambodia Travel Guide for First Timers

killing fields phnom penh cambodia
Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A Brief History of the Killing Fields and the Cambodian Genocide

The Khmer Rouge Regime, led by Pol Pot, came into power in Cambodia in 1975. Over the course of 4 years, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime led to a mass genocide. They killed about three million people, one-third of the country’s population, either through starvation, fatigue, or slaughter.

Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot

Pol Pot, like most all tyrannical dictators, was driven by two things.

1. Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into an Agrarian Utopia.

Pol Pot felt like he was Cambodia’s savior. He wanted to turn Cambodia into a completely self-sufficient agrarian utopia.

To do so, he forced millions of his people into farms that were little more than labor camps. They were given a few morsels of meal a day. And they had to work every waking hour of their days.

Naturally, Cambodia didn’t turn into the self-sufficient utopia he’d dreamed of. Furthermore, millions of his people died of fatigue or starvation.

2. Pol Pot was Paranoid about Losing Power.

Pol Pot was also insanely distrustful and insecure. That made sense considering he’d done some terrible shit. He was afraid that people would rise up against him and overthrow — possibly murder — him.

To prevent that from happening, he killed people indiscriminately. He started with the intellectuals because they were his clear opponents. As such, everyone belonging to professions that merited education were killed. This included professors, teachers, doctors, students, and most other professions.

However, he wasn’t satisfied with that alone. He also killed people who wore glasses because it was assumed they probably read books.

Furthermore, once he had someone killed, his Khmer Rouge Regime tracked down all living relatives and killed them as well. This was done so that no one with a desire for vengeance would be left alive to challenge him.

He even killed or imprisoned all city-dwellers.

Furthermore, he convinced those living in rural areas that the city-dwellers were the cause of all their troubles. As such, his Khmer Rouge Regime was created from the peasant class.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields are those parts of Cambodia where all the mass murders took place. People would be brought in on trucks under the cover of darkness.

Following that, they’d be hacked to death with axes and machetes in the killing fields, while nationalist music blared in the background to drown out their screams. Their bodies would then be thrown into mass graves, some of them not yet entirely dead. The Khmer Rouge never used guns because they didn’t think these people were worth the bullets.

The Khmer Rouge didn’t treat the kids much better. They didn’t want the burden of being left with mouths to feed. So they bashed the heads of babies against trees while their mothers watched. The women would then be raped, killed, and tossed into the mass graves along with their babies.

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The tree against which little infants had their skulls bashed. Tourists have draped it with colorful bands in memoriam. | Image Source: Dangerous Business

This happened all across Cambodia. There are over 300 killing fields across the country. Some are open fields, some are caves, and some are rivers.

Of these, the Choeung Ek Killing Field has been turned into the main Genocidal Center in the country.

What Happened Afterwards?

Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot continued the Cambodian genocide for 4 years, between 1975 and 1979. Following that, Phnom Penh was liberated by Vietnamese forces.

The Khmer Rouge regime eventually fell. However, the civil war continued and the country was thrown into famine. The war finally ended in the 90s, but neither Khmer Rouge nor Pol Pot got their comeuppance.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal has spent a decade in tracking down all the Khmer Rouge war criminals. Pol Pot’s second in command — Duch — only received his sentencing in 2010! Two of the former leaders — Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan — are still on trial.

As for Pol Pot, he died peacefully in his sleep in 1998, surrounded by his kids and grandkids, after he’d robbed millions of Cambodians of that same luxury.

After I’d visited the Killing Fields, my tuk-tuk driver spoke to me about it. He didn’t seem angry about it, he merely seemed crestfallen. He felt the natural death had robbed his country of its justice.

We like to think that all stories, even all tragedies, come to a neat conclusion. We like to believe in some karmic retribution — that evil people pay for their crimes in the end. But that’s not true, especially not in this case.

My tuk-tuk driver would never find complete closure for the events of the past. Cambodia would never find complete closure.

Visiting the Killing Fields

Choeung Ek Killing Field

Choeung Ek is the primary killing field in Cambodia, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Visiting the Choeung Ek killing field is the single most important thing to do in Phnom Penh. And it’s one of two main things to do in Cambodia — the other is exploring Angkor Wat and the ruins.

Approximately nine-thousand bodies were found buried in mass graves here. When you wander through Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, you can see the sites of the mass graves. You can even see stray pieces of teeth and bones.

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Even this lake holds remnants of the past.

When you enter the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, you get a headset with pre-loaded audio tapes and a map. The audio tapes take you through all the landmarks in the site, narrating the story of what happened there all those decades ago. The voice in the tape belongs to a survivor. However, that’s not the only voice you’ll hear.

You also hear stories from other survivors, translated into the language of your choice.

You hear from the Khmer Rouge war criminals as well. They spew justifications while you stand before a tree against which they murdered infants, a tree that’s now draped in bands in memoriam.

At the very center of the site lies the Buddhist Stupa. It holds the skulls of 8000 of the victims of Pol Pot.

This is a truly harrowing experience, there’s no denying that. But it’s one you cannot avoid.

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The Buddhist Stupa housing the skulls of 8000 people who lost their lives to the Cambodian Genocide.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Before being sent to the Killing Fields, a lot of people were first sent to the Tuol Sleng prison. While they were in the prison, they’d be tortured into making admissions of guilt.

Furthermore, they would be tortured into revealing the names and locations of all their friends and families. They’d be promised new homes and wealth for giving up the names.

Once they gave up the names, they’d be sent to the killing fields. If they didn’t give up the names, they’d still be sent to the killing fields.

Tuol Sleng once used to be a high school. However, since the Khmer Rouge didn’t believe in education, they turned it into a prison called Security Prison 21.

As you wander through the hallways of this prison, you can still see the cells where people were kept. You can even see the instruments of torture and the blood splatters on the walls.

There’s a dedicated part of the museum where visitors scrawl messages of hope on the walls.

This section was set apart because visitors and tourists couldn’t help but scrawl on the pictures of Khmer Rouge leaders.

Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, in relation to this, said, “You cannot stop people from being, or feeling upset.” (This extract comes from an article written by Marcia Dunn, and adapted by Phil Dierking for VOA Learning English.)

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Messages scrawled on the walls of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Why is it important to visit the Killing Fields?

There’s an ongoing debate about how to preserve the killing fields and the memories of the past.

To be broadly generalist, the two sides can be categorized as pro-tourism and anti-tourism. Again, I’m speaking in wide generalizations as the details are too complex and nuanced to get into right now.

Anti-Tourism Argument

Some believe that too many tourists are visiting the Cambodian Killing Fields, and being disrespectful of it. This involves several insensitive and offensive actions.

Some tourists walk over the mass graves, even though a sign expressly forbids it. Some sit and snack on the steps of the Stupa. There are some who take too many photographs of the skulls in the Stupa.

Furthermore, another important argument against tourism is that it leads to a commercialization of memory.

Pro-Tourism Argument

The pro-tourism argument states that tourists should be welcome to learn more about Cambodia’s past.

Furthermore, there’s also an undeniable financial incentive. Tourism to the killing fields helps generate income that can benefit the local Khmers.

First off, it’s a prime source of sustenance for a lot of the tuk-tuk drivers.

Additionally, the entrance fee you pay also goes towards helping a lot of local Khmer communities still affected by the ravages of war and the Cambodian Genocide.

Why and How to Visit the Killing Fields?

I don’t think I’m entitled to an opinion on the debate either for or against tourism to the Killing Fields.

However, I can say one thing. It’s important for you to understand the Cambodian Genocide and the Killing Fields.

In fact, all of my tuk-tuk drivers were quite keen on taking me to the Killing Fields. One of them even offered to take me there for free. When I spoke to him, he said he appreciated all of the tourism, even if it verged on voyeuristic. if more people knew about the Cambodian Genocide, he argued, the world might start caring more about them.

So do go ahead and visit the Killing Fields and learn all you can about them. However, when you go to the killing fields, conduct yourself respectfully.

Perhaps follow a couple of rules:

  1. Don’t prance around.
  2. Do not walk over the graves.
  3. Making loud noises or a spectacle is a strict NO.
  4. Don’t haggle needlessly with your tuk-tuk drivers. Not here.
  5. Defacing the pictures or the property — even as a f*ck you to Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge — isn’t cool.
  6. Basically, don’t be an asshole.

You can read more on this subject by going through my article on the Ethics of Dark Tourism over on Hobo with a Laptop.

Why don’t we know enough about the Killing Fields?

It truly sucks that people don’t know more about the Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, or the Killing Fields.

Think about it, the Cambodian Genocide is an incident less than four decades old! It was happening during the end of the Cold War period, during the Vietnam War!

Furthermore, all Cambodians over the age of 40 have lived through it! Many of them are survivors of the killing fields and of Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge war criminals are still being tried!

Yet, the collective consciousness of the world seems to have conveniently glossed over it.

It was no less devastating and tragic than the WWII holocaust. Both of them were genocides led by deranged authoritarian figures who felt he had the final solution.

Yet, the Cambodian Genocide isn’t given the same importance in world history.

History as Eurocentric

In historical texts, the Khmer Rouge Genocide is treated almost as an afterthought. It’s just one of the bad things happening at the time.

I learned next to nothing about it in my schooling. I’ve spoken to several other people from various countries and they concur.

If your school paid necessary attention to the subject, good for you! Please comment down below and tell me all about which country you’re from and about your education! I’m genuinely interested.

But the truth is, History has always been Eurocentric.

I know I might be oversimplifying this. However, the only times we explore the history of countries besides the US and Europe is when they impact those countries.

Sure, we’re all familiar with the Vietnamese War. But I suppose that’s because the US had such stakes in it.

Is it ever okay to turn a blind eye?

While researching this article, I came across an interesting blog by Amanda from Dangerous Business. The article is called Being Confronted by Cambodia’s Painful Past. In it, she offers another keen insight on why more people don’t know about the Killing Fields.

She writes:

The U.S. actually supported Pol Pot for quite a long time because, even though he was crazy and there were rumors that he was committing terrible crimes against his own people, he was very anti-Vietnam. And this was at a time when the U.S. was fighting a war with Vietnam and looking for allies. It’s disgusting, really, to think that genocide could ever be supported. But it’s actually happened more times than most people realize.

This passage gets to the heart of how people (and governments) cast a blind eye to things that inconvenience them. And then suppress its memory.

I suppose this is why it’s so important to self-educate and learn about the killing fields.

Again, if you feel that I’m oversimplifying a complex subject, please mention it in the comments. I’d love to hear your take on why people don’t know enough about the killing fields.

In fact, I’d love your take on this whole article. So please feel free to leave a comment down below.

Cambodian Genocide Killing Fields

4 COMMENTS

  1. Shruti | 16th Nov 17

    I am shaken after reading this, and ashamed that I had no idea about this until now.

    • Rohan | 16th Nov 17

      I felt the same way after I first went there, heard the tapes, and was confronted by my own ignorance.

  2. Ritu Konsam | 27th Nov 17

    Definitely Combodia genicide was an elite orchestration; of Khmer rule’s utopian political ideology of what Combodia should look like.
    But if you keep aside the mad ass ( Pol Pot) and focus on the rationality of his irrationality, it stems from the desire to keep the power intact in Combidians hands (except it landed in some crazy monarch) in compararison to Cimbodia’s past colonialism. He wanted to purge Combodia of foreign influence. But ofcourse utterly failed. USA has been backing him up completely.
    Even the commemoration of the official memory is controlled by USA. USA certainly blocked many documents from coming out in public domain; but good thing is that vernacular memory isn’t old and there is an ongoing revitalisation of it.
    A question that we may ask ourselves; was Cambodia genocide completely an elite orchestration of Khmer rule? What about the intimate violence ? Of neighbours turning against each other instead of all of them turning against Pol Pot.
    And secondly and unfortunately so, Combodia’s transition in post conflict has been not much of a political transition. Khmer rule influence still thrives even today.
    Absolute lack of victim participation in their post conflict reconstruction, as the trials and tribunals are not entirely ‘local’ but carried out by UN (I mean, USA lol) just “show trials” for intentional community. The perpetrators were not really punished and they were given self amnesty overnight in 1994, which is why the past still weighs on Combodians.
    For Combosians; the truth or the past is excavated enough to remind them everyday of the genocie but justice……! ?
    And yes history books are euro centric. So that we can grow up and take up fancy courses (pay European universities a lot to study) that focus on ”non western” but at the same time read Europeans take on them. Also Colonialism is a legacy colonislaists left behind Rohan, it still hurts that Noeth eastern or Kashmir history is never found in our national narrative. And the governemnt brands people as “terrorists” when all they do is react to an oppressed memory.
    But loved the way you have written. It’s very informative for people with no prior knowledge. 🙂 I have always loved your style of writing since school anyway

    • Rohan | 27th Nov 17

      Thanks for the comment Ritu, it’s really informative and certainly fills in a lot of blanks in what I’ve written here. I’m really glad you liked it and took the time to add your own voice to bolster it.

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