Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia

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:

Killing Fields Memorial, Phnom Penh Cambodia

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.

Killing Fields Mass Grave in Cambodia

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.

Bracelets left as a mark of respect at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

Killing Fields Bracelets at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

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.

Mass Graves at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

Clothing of Victims Killed at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Bones of victims at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

It’s a grim and harrowing story, and perhaps the worst part is the Killing Tree, where the executioners smashed babies against the trunk.

Killing Tree at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

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.

Skulls inside the stupa at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

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.

Travel Tips

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?

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3 Responses to Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia

  1. Jeremy Branham March 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    What a horrible place! Like you, I’ve visited Auschwitz and shared my experiences there. It’s a tragedy that these places ever existed. It’s very hard to describe the emotions and feelings of visiting a place like this.

    These aren’t fun tourist destinations but are a must for visitors. Even if it only makes you angry, then it’s worth it to make sure this never happens again.

  2. emma@gottakeepmovin March 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    This is such an interesting post, even though it’s on a terribly sad subject. It’s important for visitors to the country to go to places like this, though, as you know. Can’t believe bones and teeth, etc. still rise to the ground surface when heavy rains fall, very eery. Brilliant post and great photos, thanks for sharing.

  3. Tom Smith July 23, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    My girlfriend and I have just been to Choeung Ek and S21 today and agree with you totally. Whilst its a horrible thing to see I am really glad to have gone to see these places for myself and try to understand as much as possible about the atrocities that went on instead of just ignoring them or looking them up on the Internet. I had the same should I / Shouldn’t I argument with myself about the camera but in the end decided that both places were just so powerful that I would like to remember the things I’ve seen today and the images were themselves were so strong. It was so hard to comprehend the numbers of people killed at just this Killing Field let alone across the whole of Cambodia. I thought the audio tour was really well done and quite emotional at times.
    Great blog site and I will keep reading as we’re going to so many places you’ve written about.
    Cheers,

    Tommy Smith from London

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