Visiting the killing fields of Cambodia

Not all travel is fun or relaxing. Some places we visit have a history that is unpleasant or shocking, but if it is a big part of what has shaped that country and its people now, then I don’t think we can ignore it. This time in Cambodia, I visit Phnom Penh for the first time, a city shaped by its royalty and the strong french colonial influence.

It is also the part of Cambodia with the most visible (for tourists) reminders of the more recent atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In a short period in power from 1975 to 1979, in a country already severely damaged by the spillover of the Vietnam war and the insurgency of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot turned on most of his countrymen, resulting in the deaths of an estimated one third of the population. Those that didn’t die from torture and murder, died of starvation and disease from his ruthlessly implemented policies. Let’s not beat around the bush, this was brutal genocide.

Walking the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Cambodia

I remember as a kid hearing some of this on the TV news, and now, as a visitor enjoying Cambodia, I feel that I want to know more. So I jump in a tuk-tuk and head out to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, just a few miles from downtown Phnom Penh, a hamlet on the fringe of the city. The first thing I see is a large Stupa, a buddhist burial memorial.

Building a Stupa is believed to be a powerful way to purify negative karma, sorely needed at this site of such recent evil. This one is the height of a multi storey building, and has seventeen levels built into it, the bottom four of which are glass sided so that we can view into it. It contains the remains of 8,000 victims, recovered from the surrounding fields. The bottom level is recovered clothing, and the remaining levels are bones, starting with the skulls. The signs are translated in a very matter of fact fashion, “clothes, under 5 years old”, “skulls, juvenile 15-20”.

From the Stupa, there is a path to follow with more plain speaking signs at points of interest. The fields were smaller than I imagined, in total about the size of a school sports field. I pause at the sign in front of a small depression in the ground, maybe 5 or 6 metres across, and the sign states that over 400 female victims had been recovered from this mass grave. Twenty metres on there is another one, and then another one, and another.

There is a beautiful old tree, with a sign noting this was the spot where soldiers would kill children and babies, swinging them by their legs and smashing their heads into the tree trunk. The gap between what I am seeing, a field that looks a bit like the back lawn of a large rural house, and what the information is describing, is hard to stomach. At the end of the path is a small museum detailing the main Khmer Rouge people responsible for the genocide, and some of the victims. There is also a documentary that can be viewed at certain times of the day, but it is not open the day that I am there.

Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum

It is almost a relief to be back on the tuk-tuk, breathing in the breeze, as I head to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the secret prison. This was originally a school, and is now the Museum of Genocide Crimes. After Pol Pot took over Phnom Penh and evicted the entire population to the countryside, his regime turned this school into a prison, turning the classrooms into cells. Over the next four years around fourteen thousand people were tortured here and if they survived the torture they were then sent down the road to Choeung Ek to be killed. Everyone died – of the fourteen thousand prisoners that went through this place, there are only seven known survivors.

The most haunting part of this site is the photographs. The prison had young photographers on staff who were required to photograph and catalogue every prisoner, and this was carried out meticulously. These photographs survived and they are now displayed on boards running for hundreds of metres up and down the rooms forming the whole top floor of one of the blocks, creating a chilling memorial.

It impossible to look away from their eyes, and easy to feel their fear. Some have bruises or wounds, some are crying, some look malnourished, some are children, and some women are holding babies. If you have the stomach for it, the photographs are now online at as part of a strategy to make sure the atrocities are never forgotten.

The worst rooms to view are the ten rooms on the ground floor of the first block, where the most important prisoners were kept and tortured. When the prison was liberated at the end of the war, the bodies of fourteen prisoners were found, many chained to the metal bed frames. All had been recently tortured and killed only hours before the liberation.

The first room has a large photo on the wall, of one of these dead prisoners, exactly as they were found, and the room contains the old rusted bed frame, a set of the manacles and leg irons that tied a prisoner to the bed, the torture implements that can also be seen in the photo, and dried blood stains in the tiles on the floor. Each of the ten rooms has a similar set-up reflecting other of the bodies that were found. It is gruesome, and unflinching in its determination to not sanitise what happened.

It’s personal

I am here on the third and final day of the three day national New Year holiday, which is a time of year when many Cambodians travel around the country. While walking around I notice one older Cambodian woman walking around on her own, and I wonder whether she is an expat on a return visit, as she looks well dressed, or whether she simply lives elsewhere Cambodia. I wonder if this was her first time here.

And then towards the end of the rooms, she suddenly starts screaming, the shrill keening of someone in total despair. I have to assume she has found the photo she was looking for, and her sounds of pain absolutely gut me. Everyone in that room is now in tears, and we all leave quickly, feeling that we were intruding horribly into her privacy. Her keening continues for many minutes.
On returning to my hotel, I go for a walk, needing a change of scenery. I walk over to the riverside where the Mekong gently flows alongside Sisowath Rd, in front of the Royal Palace. The park in front is crowded with local families having an afternoon picnic. Most Cambodians stop work for the three day national holiday, and gather with their families (although those working in tourism infrastructre mainly keep working). After the intensity of the day, I enjoy sitting on the grass, surrounded by locals enjoying some down time, and watch the sun set.


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