After visiting Auschwitz in Poland I thought I’d had enough of genocide tourism. But when in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Killing Fields are a must-see to learn about what the Khmer Rouge did to their own people during the 1970s.
When you arrive at the Killing Fields in the village of Choeung Ek, the first thing you see is this:
Looking at it from a distance, you wouldn’t know that this was a site of mass genocide. This was once and orchard and Chinese cemetery but between the years of 1975 and 1979, around 17,000 men, women and children were killed here. Inside that stupa, are the skulls of thousands of Cambodians who were brutally slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.
The site at Choeung Ek is actually just one of many “killing fields” throughout the country.
In total, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed around 1.7 million Cambodians.
While the Nazis built gas chambers for mass slaughter, the Khmer Rouge killed people in the cheapest way possible. To save money on bullets, they just bludgeoned or hacked people to death instead. They often used the sharp leaves of the surrounding trees to slit people’s throats.
In trying to enforce his communist ideology, Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid and killed anyone who was seen as a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime. Doctors, teachers, professors, lawyers, engineers and others were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and very few of Cambodia’s educated class survived.
With the entrance fee to the Killing Fields you receive an audio guide, which takes you to various numbered posts around the site. It explains what things would have looked like, and paints a picture of what happened here. Visitors leave coloured bracelets as a mark of respect.
As you walk around the area you’ll pass mass graves and pits which contained the bodies of their victims. There are glass boxes filled with items of clothing and bones which have been discovered around the site.
Very often bones, teeth and clothing come to the surface after heavy rainfall due to the large number of bodies still buried in the pits.
It’s a grim and harrowing story, and perhaps the worst part is the Killing Tree, where the executioners smashed babies against the trunk.
Finally at the end of the tour you walk inside the tall stupa, where thousands of skulls are laid out on shelves that reach all the way to the top.
I’m still not sure how I feel about ‘dark tourism’ as I always feel very awkward walking around places like this, especially with my camera. However, I do feel its important to see these things, to acknowledge that they exist, to make people aware of what happened… and to make sure we try to prevent genocide from happening in the future.
The Killing Fields are about 15km from Phnomh Penh and a 30-40 minute ride in a tuk-tuk. Entry to the Killing Fields costs $3 USD.
How do you feel about genocide tourism? Have you visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia?