You Must Visit The Killing Fields.

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That tower pictured above looks beautiful, doesn’t it?  Naturally, I took a picture.

Zoom in and you’ll discover, as I later did, that it’s filled with human skulls.

Dark tourism. That’s a term given to the kind of tourism that covers concentration and death camps, war zones and sites of gruesome death, torture and degradation.  People often visit sites like these to indulge their inner voyeur.

The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek absolutely fall into this category — but it is so incredibly important to visit them.  Only then will you begin to understand modern Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975.  Right away, they attempted to turn Cambodia into a peasant-run agrarian state unlike anywhere else in the world.  In reality, Cambodia became a slave camp.

Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge evacuated citizens from Phnom Penh and transferred them to the countryside, where everyone was expected to do excruciating work for 12+ hours each day.  There was little food, and disease swept through the country, killing hundreds of thousands.

That wasn’t all.  The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who stood in their way. Intellectuals and anyone with an education were particular targets of theirs.  People would be killed if they spoke another language.  People would even be killed for wearing glasses.

For four years, this hell endured. In 1979, the empty city of Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese.  But even after that, civil war and famine swept through the country.  The war didn’t end until the early 1990s.  Pol Pot died in 1998 and his second in command, Duch, was only sentenced for his war crimes in 2010.  2010!

The Killing Fields are the place where the Khmer Rouge killed and buried thousands of people.  Today it has been turned into a memorial and educational center.

I visited the Killing Fields with a girl from Sweden whom I had met on the bus from Laos.  At first, the fields looked beautiful and peaceful, like a public park, and we chatted as we walked.  But as time went on, we grew silent, each fact we learned sickening us more than the last.

A tree was used for beating children against it.

A grave was found filled with the skeletons of women nestled up against their babies.

Bullets were considered valuable, so most people were bludgeoned to death.

Babies were killed by smashing their heads against rocks.

And as chilling and gruesome as it is to visit a destination like this, it’s a trip that every visitor to Cambodia must make.


Any Khmer over the age of 40 lived through this horror, survived this horror and has memories of this horror.

They survived.  That tuk-tuk driver survived.  That guesthouse owner’s mother-in-law survived.  That woman selling you scarves in the market survived.

The Khmer Rouge’s legacy colors every aspect of life in Cambodia today. Before coming to power, Cambodia was far more developed than Thailand, Laos or Vietnam.  Today, Cambodia lags far behind the rest.

But it’s growing, and it’s getting better.  Tourism has been a saving grace for this country, giving them the means to rebuild.

The Khmer people, who are so kind and so generous and so friendly, have been to hell and back.  And the fact that they are here today is a testament to their powerful spirit.

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45 thoughts on “You Must Visit The Killing Fields.”

  1. How powerful that walk through must have been. It really struck me when you said “Any Khmer over the age of 40” – the horrors of WWII are constantly brought up, but there are few people left in the world who went through it. This is closer, still vivid in the minds of people you walk by on the street. I agree everyone should go through that park, and realize the human race is not so advanced as we perceive. If we ignore what these people went through, it could very well happen again.

  2. I have been to the killing fields and the experience will remain deeply ingrained in me forever. It’s hard to believe how recently these tragic events took place, and the tremendous loss of lives.

    Thank you for sharing with such clarity and emotion.

  3. The Killing Fields were really powerful for me too, wait until you see some of the other sites, very emotionally difficult to visit but I think it’s important we remember.

  4. Very powerful post, the everybody over 40 point really brings it home, it’s hard to believe it happened so recently. Did you know anything about the killing fields before you travelled there or was it all a shock?

    1. I knew a bit about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields but not a lot. The Lonely Planet was a great source to start, and then I researched more online. Definitely worth reading about in advance.

      1. You stated ” The war didn’t end until the early 1990s,” but that isn’t true. The war went on after the UN left and the last of the Khmer Rouge only surrendered in January 1999.

  5. Wow! Thank you for this very interesting post. I used to go to a Cambodian hair stylist here in the US. She was a young child in the 70’s in Cambodia and she would share small tidbits of things from her experiences there. She is such a sweet and modest person. This makes me have even more respect for what she & her family went through. I hope to visit the killing fields one day.

  6. It never ceases to amaze me what horrible things humans have done to one another in the past. That fact about every Khmer over 40 having lived though this… wow, that really hits it home, doesn’t it?

    Many people view this so-called “dark tourism” as strange or morbid. But, I agree with you when you say it’s necessary for us to visit these types of sites. We have to be reminded, and we have to be aware of what other cultures have suffered through. Many people have no idea, and they should.

  7. Powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    Your comment about the skulls tweaked a memory for me – have you heard of a church in Czechoslovakia that is made entirely of skulls? It’s in a small town that doesn’t get many visitors. A coworker showed me pictures of it.

  8. Absolutely agree that people need to visit the reminders of the horrible events that have happened. It’s hella depressing… and the few times I’ve done this (the holocaust museum, and an exhibition on Rwanda) made me depressed of the state of humanity for days. But it can be inspring to see to hear the stories from the other side, of the few who’ve tried to stand against tyranny (and mostly failed), but at least they’ve tried… I wish I could say that I’d do the same if I were them.

  9. That’s the same way I felt after visiting Dachau, the “model” concentration camp outside of Munich. It was absolutely chilling to think about the horrors that occurred right where I was standing, but it was so important to recognize it. As soon as I left, I started looking at elderly Germans differently–had they supported the Nazis? the Resistance? It’s crazy to think what has happened in our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, when most of the time we think it only happens in ancient history.

    1. Interesting you mention looking at older Germans differently. Kate says, “Any Khmer over the age of 40 lived through this horror” – I wonder how many of them participated in this horrific communist genocide.

  10. That tower looks like a Disney princess should live inside.
    This is a horrifying story but I agree with you, it’s important. It’s really amazing to be able to look at every 40+ year old and know they survived.

  11. My sister visited the Killing Fields last year on her RTW, and it was her favorite spot of all in terms of moving experiences for the reasons you described above.

    I went to Rwanda last year and felt similarly when I visited the various genocide memorials; even less time has passed since then (17 years) so most people alive DID live through that horror. As Americans, we truly are blessed, aren’t we?

    1. Rwanda…even more recent, and all the more shocking. I got to see Paul Rusesabagina (on whom Hotel Rwanda was based) speak at my college a few years ago. Incredible bravery in the face of horror.

  12. I had a similar experience when we went to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Not only did it put being American in perspective but you really do celebrate the perseverance of a culture after.

    We’re hoping to make it to Cambodia one day. The only way to keep history from repeating itself is to learn about it.

  13. Wow! This place sounds chilling. I think that sometimes when we travel, we have to go places that make us feel uncomfortable in order to really make us think about what happened in that exact same place some given time ago. When I was at the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, for example, I spent some time thinking about what it must have really been like to be living underground while a violent war was taking place overhead. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s important to think about these things, I think.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  14. Very powerful place. Though its not the most ideal form of tourism, it does help foreigners come to grips with the tragic, dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

  15. Earl Squirrelson

    Thanks for another great post Kate. Whilst not the same I still remember the chills down my spine when I visited Pearl Harbour on my first big trip….very creepy…

  16. @Christine – my first bf’s parents were German. The father was forced at knifepoint to join Hitler Youth, the mother had to learn to goose step in Kindergarten and lived with a lifetime of back pain, plus her sister lost all her teeth from the butt of a gun because she looked like the Jewish girl who lived below them. I understand what you’re saying about looking at people differently because these atrocities happened, but we also don’t know all of their stories.

    I find myself time and time again thankful for living in Canada and not having to go through anything so horrible as the Killing Fields, Rwanda, the Holocaust, etc. etc. I could not fathom the horror, no matter how much I read.

  17. This s something I think about daily, living in China. I studied modern Chinese history for my BA, focusing mainly on the Mao to now years and every time I see someone who would have been a teenager or in their twenties in the late 1960s-early 1970s I wonder what horrible things they did or what horrible things had been done to them. Those 4′ tall grandmothers doing tai chi in the park may have spent their 20s being ‘re-educated’ and starved and beaten- or they may have turned in their parents or teachers and had them shot. Most of them were severely malnourished. Most lived under pretty awful conditions until recently. It’s easy to forget how recent so much horror is.

    The ‘classroom teacher’ for my students (actually a retired school teacher who acts as a dorm mother to a particular cohort of students through their 4 years at uni, checking attendance and getting them out of bed and all) is exactly that age to have been active in the cultural revolution and although she is a kind, good humoured woman, I wonder what on earth she went through and what she maybe did to those around her. Betrayals were a regular thing in those years. Makes you think.

    We’ll be in Cambodia next month- definitely doing the dark tours.

  18. I think our instincts are generally not to visit places like this, because they’re too depressing, but I agree, I think there’s a need to face it. It’s one thing to know about a dark incident in history, to have read about it, and quite another to be on the site and learn about it in a more sensory way. It’s very important to remember that these things happened and hope to God we’re humane enough not to allow them to happen again.

  19. Unbelievable. Thank you for this post. I too learned of the killing fields during my visit to Cambodia, but I did not have time to go and visit them. However, we hired a guide to take us to a school where we spent time playing with the kids and brought food for the kids, and she also took us to a temple which we otherwise would not have seen. This guide is a survivor. She was buried alive. Her stories and heartache went straight to my core. What struck me most was that of all the suffering and strife, and how recent it’s been, we were amazed at how friendly and open everyone we encountered was. What an incredible spirit they have!

  20. I read this and I can’t help but angry. I had these same feelings with visiting Auschwitz and Dachau. Hitler was heinous but this is downright evil. I knew Pol Pot was horrible. I didn’t realize to what extent. Bludgeoning kids and smashing babies would have gotten me killed because I couldn’t have watched that. It makes me wonder if people like Hitler and Pol Pot ever actually witnessed the types of killings they ordered. If so, would they have been as disgusted as we are? It’s one thing to order it. It’s another to witness it.

    If these memorials serve as a reminder to never let this happen again, then let these painful reminders live forever. I don’t understand how people could be so evil. I shudder when I think about babies. I hope men like Pol Pot and Hitler are suffering much much worse than anything they did to their people.

  21. Imagine the absolute fear people must have felt being transported like cattle to that place, and then waiting in those dark, dank cells for their fate. What a tragic waste of life. Those children would have grown to be doctors, teachers, human rights activists. A gaping hole in so many families – what we call in Australia the ‘stolen generation’, and what we know to be nearly impossible to overcome.

  22. The WWII Holocaust,Rawanda,Croatia,Stalin’s Russian cleansing,Mao in China,and Cambodia’s Khamer Rough and many genocides in human history.
    When I find myself exposed personally to the atrosities ,view the unthinkable pictures,read the vicious senceless insanity of the actual progress of the events,I am filled with a profound repugnance that it reverberates to my very core.
    Why can’t we learn? How could this happen again? Can we not learn from the past? Are the unanswered questions that I hear myself .
    When I let go of the emotion and ask myself,”What is the common reasoning that motivates us as humans to commit these acts? What fuels people, like you and me, with such fervent righteousness to be part of what would from the outside,retrospectively, surely appear to be pure evil?
    Is there a common thread in the belief(s) that so strongly motivate a large number of citizens in a country to be convinced as to the absolute correctness of their actions?

    I pray that we will be able to identify our collective insanity to allow a conscious choice.

    That there is a powerful understanding that will reverberate in our collective souls by living in the question.

  23. I have just been recently and found it an incredibly sad and difficult day. But like you say and many people have commented, hopefully by remembering we can learn something,

  24. I read recently that the Killing Fields are ‘on lease’ to a Japanese company who rents the area from the Cambodian govt. for a minimal fee and pockets the profit. I am planning a trip to this part of the world currently and am unsure whether I should visit here, solely because of the fact that my money wont be going back into Cambodia, but to Japan. Has anyone else read/heard about this? I don’t want to skip it if this is a rumour..

    1. I hadn’t heard anything about that, Jen. There’s definitely no signage (unlike at Angkor Wat, which openly shows which countries support certain temples). But even if it is, it’s STILL worth going to confront that history face-to-face.

  25. Dear all on this blog

    I am currently doing my Phd thesis on why people visit dark places such as the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. Can any of ou articulate WHY you felt you need to go and if the recency of the events made you want to go more or less? and what made you go (ie did you read it in the guide book? which one? because a friend dragged you along, part of tour, of you really wanted to?)

    Its all very interesting

  26. Wow, this is an incredible post, one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read actually.
    I’m planning a south east asia trip, Cambodia is on my list – I’d read a little bit about the killing fields on other blogs, but this post really taught me a lot and truly touched me.
    This chilling recent history sounds so awful, and as everyone else has said, the fact every 40+ year old in Cambodia lived through it really hits you.
    It sounds like a silly comparison to make, but it reminds me of The Hunger Games, I always say that those books aren’t actually that far fetched – things like this have happened before and will most probably happen again.

    Thank you so much for this post, I will definitely be visiting the killing fields; I think learning about and visiting places of dark history is very important.

    Natalie x

  27. This is a very powerful post. I usually avoid harrowing places because they upset me too much, but you do present a strong argument as to why we should visit them. The events related to them are something all people need to be aware of.

  28. This is a beautifully and sensitively written blog post and I’m glad I stumbled into it. You very eloquently express a lot of the thoughts that I was personally grappling with while wandering through the Choeung Ek Killing Field, listening to some truly harrowing accounts over the guided headset.

    I was especially struck by the fact that, before visiting, I knew next to nothing about it. I knew that it was one of the genocides from modern history, but I knew little more than that. And it wasn’t just me, most people knew little about it. This is strange considering it has happened so recently in history and the magnitude of it equals any of the other genocides we’re taught about in great detail, specifically the ones in relation to Nazism and Fascism.

    However, I’m glad that tourism and blogposts such as yours are filling in the gaps left in our education. It might be an uncomfortable reality to confront but it’s so very important to recognize signs of rising authoritarianism, especially in these times we live in.


  29. I had never heard the term “Dark Tourism” before. It does seem to fit though. I never get over these must visit places but I will never stop going and paying my respects. Lets just hope that the right people visit. People that may make a less than ideal decision if they don’t see the outcomes.

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