Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields of Cambodia


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Silence. Hundreds of people. Western Tourists. Asian Tourists. The sort of folks who normally can’t help themselves from jabbering away. All silent.  Here in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

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That’s unique for a “tourist attraction”. And I hesitate to call this a tourist attraction because it’s actually a grave.  These are the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

It’s also a remembrance site for the more than two million Cambodians who were slaughtered in the country during Pol Pot’s reign.

Pol Pot and his regime, the Khmer Rouge, came into power in 1975.   They abolished currency, religion, private property and evacuated cities – moving people to live off the land.

Dissidents were eliminated.  One of the Khmer mantras was ‘To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you no loss,’.   Intellectuals and the educated were killed early in the regime.

The Khmer Rouge was in power until 1979, when neighboring Vietnam invaded and the Khmer Rouge hid in exile.   Pot was never tried for his crimes, although other high level members of the Khmer Rouge were  – 35 years after the fact – in 2014.  The Washington Post’s write up is sobering and reminds us why we should never forget Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Here, this place that we’re at, is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Just 15 kilometers from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.  We’ve taken a tuk tuk (US$15 for four of us) that will wait for us until we’re done, then take us to the Tuol Sleng prison before dropping us back in the city. Some folks take a final tour of the Russian Market, but I don’t think we’ll be able to stomach anymore after this.

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Our tickets to enter cost us US$3 each. We pay in dollars, because here in Cambodia there’s a dual currency. ATM’s dispense dollars, you pay mainly in dollars but small change is given in Cambodian rials. ATM’s also dispense huge fees. Some of them a whopping US$5. The cheapest ATM we found in Cambodia was Canadia bank, which charged US$3 a transaction.



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Our ticket includes an audio guide. It’s one place where we didn’t use our budget travel money saving guide. This guide is quite simply the best audio guide we’ve experienced. Narrated by survivors, by ex members of the regime, this is the reason for the silence. For once we are all listening. Our eyes glistening and our minds grappling with the horror that once took place here.

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This place is horrifically peaceful.  Guided through the various areas by the audio tour, as the birds sing and the wind sweeps through the trees, it’s as if the screaming grows louder the further I walk into the site.

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The stupa containing the bones and skulls of victims doesn’t seem real.

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It’s the voices on the audio that make it real.  The signage gives details of the locations as we walk slowly around.

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This is the Killing Tree, where to save bullets, small children, babies were swung by their legs and cracked against the tree to kill them.   The Khmer mantra to justify this?

“To dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots”

Two million people?  How can this be just a page in a history book?  How can my consciousness have not known more about this? I feel myself searching for excuses as to why I didn’t know.

I find none that silence the screaming.

This is the sound of the wind, blowing through the trees as we walk around the lake.

We leave Choeung Ek in silence – and take the tuk tuk back towards the Tuol Sleng, or S21 prison.

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We take a guide when we enter the prison (the entrance to the prison is US$2, the guide is free, but a tip is expected). Our guide lost most of her family during the Pot regime, she still speaks of them with emotion and difficulty.

This prison was an old school, prior to Pot’s need for more prisons and education of a different type.

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There are still blood stains on the concrete and tiled floors of some of the rooms that we visit.

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I feel ghoulish looking at them, more so taking photos. What is this that the main attraction of a city is where ordinary people were tortured to death. It’s hard to speak, as I don’t know what to say. Words fail me.

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There’s little by way of maintenance here. Curling signage, and old materials. It’s like we’re forgetting Cambodia’s tragic history, as we missed it happening in real time.

It’s a place where prisoners were given numbers.

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And when there weren’t enough numbers they were shared.  This more than anything makes me cry.  To not even be a number seems so unimaginable.

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There were westerners here too.

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Australians, Americans and a man, no more than a boy really, from Newcastle, England who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  John Dewhirst’s story is here: 

How did I not know more of this?  How did the world not know more of this?  The borders were mainly closed.  We didn’t have the Internet.  TV wasn’t invasive in our lives.

And yet what has changed?  How do I not know more of what is happening right now in Syria for instance?  History is seems doesn’t provide answers, just more questions and soul searching.

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The Killing Fields Resources:

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About Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter is an avid reader, writer and traveller. She loves hiking, sailing, skiing and exploring the world through food. She left a successful career in IT security and compliance in both the UK and US to travel the world with husband and partner in adventure, Nigel.


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7 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields of Cambodia

  • Rafael Gomez

    Great entry, Sarah. I too didn’t know of the killing fields until I saw “The Year of Living Dangerously” and I asked myself the same question- but it is easy Sarah. In the West we live our lives, distracted by the normal routine of the day, and that’s the way it should be. To always be aware and thinking about the evil things taking place in the world we couldn’t function. It would contribute to the evil-doer’s victory.

    • ASocialNomad Post author

      We had 2 nights there – arrived mid afternoon on the first day, and got our bearings, spent the next day seeing everything we wanted to, stayed that night and left the following morning.

      • Allan

        Thanks. I really appreciate the feedback. Although it is a must stop, I am reading that the safety conditions there for petty theft, dishonesty, etc have deteriorated over the last few years, so we are only planning on spending minimal time in PP. So one full day you can see the Killing Fields and Prison adequately you think? We are trying to fit Cambodia and Laos in two weeks, so every day counts.

        • ASocialNomad Post author

          We very much enjoyed (if you can call dark tourism enjoyable? but I’m sure you know what I mean..) our time in PP, but it was short. We picked up motorised tuktuks from outside our hotel, and booked them for the KIlling Fields and then from there onto the Prison. Went first to the KF, and did the full audio tour and a lttle bit longer there, then lunch, although we werent particular hungry, and then to the prison and back to hotel. We were back at hotel by say 330pm. It’s an emotionally draining experience, we normally take longer than most visitors around places, and generally go very slow at places like this, so yes both in the same day will be fine. It will be the transport between all your places in Cambodia and Laos that kills the time, the roads arent great, and while it might feel like your transport is going fast… its just the roads!

  • Brenda Joseph

    Hi Sarah, I stumbled upon your page by pushing wrong keys. However I took a read into one of the countries you visited. (Cambodia)
    I worked with a Cambodian woman in Australia of which we became very good friend On my leaving the job we planned to meet in 15 years time 2033 for a vacation to both our countries. Cambodia and New Zealand.
    Im glad I visited this page I learnt lots about Cambodia I never knew thanks