Visiting the killing fields in Cambodia

Ellie Swain

Senior Contributor

On arrival to the silent site of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, you’d never guess that more than 17,000 civilians were once violently murdered and buried in mass graves within the grounds. Contrary to its dark history, the land resembles a pretty garden featuring preened grass, towering trees, and chirping birds. Today, the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are a place to remember the horrific tragedy and crimes of the Khmer Rouge Genocide of the 1970s. While painful to visit, the Killing Fields is a place every traveller to Cambodia should go to comprehend the devastation the country has experienced, and the impact made on Cambodians today. But what should you expect on a trip to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, and how can you be as respectful as possible?

What Was the Khmer Rouge Regime?

It’s fair to say that in the late 1970s, Cambodia was a very different place. Between 1975 and 1979, The Khmer Rouge gained control of the Cambodian Government with the desire to transform the country into a communist agrarian utopia.

That meant that anyone viewed as educated, wealthy, or opposed the government’s wishes was brutally tortured and killed. In total, between one and a half and two million Cambodians were murdered, equating to almost one in five of the country dying as a result. As you can imagine, the aftermath of such horrifying events has crippled the growth of Cambodia as a country.

There are many killing fields scattered across Cambodia, however, the biggest is the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek which lie on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. As mentioned, over 17,000 civilians were killed and buried into mass graves, many of them transported to the site after detention and torture in Tuol Sleng Prison in the centre of Phnom Penh.

What Can I Expect From Visiting the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek?

Let’s cut to the chase – you’re not going to necessarily enjoy your visit to the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek. Instead, think of it as a poignant and educating experience, helping you to understand and connect with Cambodia and its residents on a deeper level.

When visiting the Killing Fields, you have the option of navigating the grounds with a guide or with a headset and an audio tour. You can also walk, read, and soak it all in quietly.

The grounds offer an eerie and sombre atmosphere, so most people opt for an audio tour. That way you can take your time to listen and understand the events at your own pace.

You’ll pass various significant points of interest, discovering the atrocities that unfolded under your feet not so many years ago. These include several mass burials pits, some with old rags poking out from the earth of the clothing left by someone who was killed. These are the only remnants left to tell the story of the people who suffered from such brutalities.

You’ll reach a huge tower that functions as the centrepiece of the memorial. As you come closer to the attractive and ornate building, you’ll begin to understand what features within; a four-sided glass tower filled with skulls of the victims. If you look closely, you’ll see that some of the skulls show where the individual had received a bullet or blow to the head.

There’s also a building displaying films on the history of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields across Cambodia and some of the visuals are upsetting to watch.

As you navigate the sinister site, at times it may be difficult to take it all in. Take your time to absorb it all and take a seat to pause and listen to the birds when it all gets a bit much.

How Can I Be Respectful?

Remember that virtually every family in Cambodia has suffered from the genocide and its aftermath in one way or another, so visiting the Killing Fields with as much respect as possible is crucial.

Both men and women should dress modestly, wearing shirts that cover shoulders and trousers or skirts that cover the knees. The Killing Fields today is a peaceful and quiet place, so be aware of your surroundings and avoid making too much noise. Of course, in no way should you ignore the clearly marked signs that state ‘Please don’t walk through the mass grave’.

While photos are permitted, it goes without saying that posing for snaps with the Killing Fields as your backdrop could be considered distasteful.

Where Else Should I Visit?

Found in the heart of Phnom Penh lies the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that worked as a Khmer Rouge base as the biggest establishment for detention and torture in Cambodia. It served as a secret site for the detention, interrogation, torture, and extermination of those perceived as threats to the regime.

While visiting the Killing Fields may be an emotional and moving experience, if you’d like to continue learning about the Khmer Rouge regime, a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a must.

The centre preserves evidence of the tragic regime while encouraging visitors to learn more about the country’s heartbreaking history and inspiring them to become members of peace.

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