Why and How Should We Visit The Killing Fields

As horrifying as the name implies, The Killing Fields in Cambodia, including both Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Tuol Sleng Museum and 20,000 mass grave sites, keep the most painful memories of humanity. When Siem Reap shines with the glories of the old times with its ancient Khmer temples – an evidence of its early heyday in the past, the killings fields tell a much later and different story. It’s the story of, as Martin Shaw has described, the ‘purest genocide of Cold War Era’ [Theory of the Global State: Globality as Unfinished Revolution] committed by the Khmer Rouge on its own people. But it’s also the story of the spirit of Cambodian people who even though had suffered literally ‘hell on earth’ still stood up again and refused to be bound by the horrors of the past.

For the visitors to Cambodia, the killing fields are the most important destinations, not only because of the historical values but also of the lesson we learn to not let the history repeat itself. A trip to Killing Fields is educational and even emotional to some people. Here is our humble share of what preparation might be needed for your visit to The Killing Fields.

Where are the Killing Fields?

The killing fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where more than a million of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, including ethnic Cham, ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, Cambodian Christians and Buddhists monkhood. Many researchers had announced that there are approximate 20,000 mass grave sites across the country.  The two most important sites that are opened for visiting are Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Peng.

Why are there Killing Fields?

toul sleng killing fields

During the time from 1975 to 1979, the evilest crime in modern day history took place in Cambodia, under the ruling of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime, killed almost 2 million Cambodians by several means. It all started with a single idea of a single man. 

Year Zero

After taking the control of the government, Saloth Sar, as later called himself Pol Pot, lied about giving the country peace after years of civil wars and American bombards. He started the year zero of his society purge by:

  • Rounding up and sending people to the countryside,
  • Destroying the urban life
  • Prohibiting religious practice
  • Exiling foreigners
  • Disabling all foreign assemblies in Cambodia, all businesses, educational institutes, hospitals…
  • Prohibiting the usage of foreign language
  • Prohibiting the operation of news and media, even mails
  • Erasing the roles of parents

Two million people were evacuated on foot from Phnom Penh to the countryside with guns pointed at them. Twenty thousand died on the road, but it was just the warming up. In rural areas of Cambodia, city residents had to labor like slaves, provided with only 180 grams of rice every two days. Western medicine was no longer accepted, instead, they treated the ill with traditional medicine which killed more than healed. Many soon died on the fields because of starvation and overwork, which was also one kind of the ‘killing fields’.

The crimes of Khmer Rouge

Driven by extreme ideas of Marxism, Pol Pot saw every bit of society as rotten and had to be changed. It was proven through the mottos of the Khmer Rouge: ‘what is rotten must be removed’ and ‘we wish to do away with all the vestiges of the past’. People who processed properties were executed and many were killed because of their occupation like police, teachers, doctors, lawyers and officers of the previous government. Even those who suspected of disloyalty to Khmer Rouge were killed mercilessly. The regime targeted three main minority groups in Cambodia which were Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham Khmer.

Toul Sleng – S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was the place where political prisoners and suspected enemies of the regime were sent to. The site used to be a high school before becoming a prison and camp. In the four years of Khmer Rouge’s ruling, Pol Pot and his commanders confined nearly 17,000 individuals (other sources said 20,000). Most of them were Khmer Rouge’s soldiers condemned of treason against the ruling regime. In the Khmer language, ‘Toul Sleng’ means a ‘poisonous hill’ just like what history remembers about the place. The school was wired, the classrooms changed into small confinement, interrogation and torturing rooms. Only few survived by the time the Khmer Rouge fell apart.

mass grave killing fields

About 17km away, Choeung Ek was another nightmare where the killing tree stands to this day as an evidence of the crimes that committed on humanity. If Toul Sleng was a prison then Cheoung Ek was the real killing field where the 8895 bodies were found after the end of Khmer Rouge. Many of those were kept at Toul Sleng. An estimated number of about 17,000 people including men, women and children were murdered at this site. Khmer Rouge soldiers killed the children by beating, smashing their heads against the large tree. Today, the tree is covered with colorful string bracelets to remember the children who died here.

S-21 and Cheong Ek worked as two parts of one killing system. Victims were kept and tortured at S-21 then moved and killed at Cheong Ek field.

How Did It End?

In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, bringing the end to the reign of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. The regime’s leaders fled to the west, aided by Thailand, while Vietnamese troops stayed for 11 years to help the people fight and rebuild the country. This event marked as the end of the most horrifying genocide of modern history that lasted for four years.

Facts About Killing Fields

  1. There are 20,000 mass grave sites
  2. One-fourth of the Cambodian population was killed by Khmer Rouge
  3. The bones and the clothes of the victims are visible on the surface
  4. Pol Pot lived on, unpunished. He was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to house arrest by remaining member of Khmer Rouge for the murder of his friend. He died in 1998 from a heart attack.
  5. The genocide was ended by Vietnamese but Khmer Rouge still existed until 1985
  6. DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane) was used to save bullets. Other methods were also invented for the same purpose.
  7. Wearing glasses was one of the reasons to get killed by Khmer Rouge
  8. Only five people were trialed for the crimes they’d committed. One of the most notorious was Kang Kek Iew, sentenced 35 years in prison but served only 19 years.

Legacy – Killing Fields Today

Every year, visitors from all around the world come to Toul Sleng Museum to learn more about the history. Toul Sleng also has a museum commemorating the genocide. In the cells of S-21, nothing much has changed from the past. There’re torture implements and a photo of on the wall of the victim who was tortured in that cell. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of the victims before and after they had been tortured.

Today, Cheong Ek Genocidal Center site is the site of Buddhist memorial to the victims with a commemorative stupa filled the skulls of the victims. The memorial park has been built around the mass graves many of which are visible above the ground, some have not been excavated yet.

Travel Guide to Killing Fields

S21 Museum

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  • Cost: $6 USD (audio guide tour)
  • Opening hours: 7:00 AM – 5:30 PM
  • Location: St. 113 Phnom Penh

Choeng Ek Genocide Centre

killing tree

  • Cost: $6 USD for adults, including audio tour
  • Opening hours: 8:00AM – 5:00PM
  • Location: Choeng Ek, 17km away from Toul Sleng

*How to get to Toul Sleng and Choeng Ek: you can get to Toul Sleng by tuk-tuk or taxi. Tuk-tuk would be cheaper. A shuttle bus tour is available with Phnom Penh Hop On Hop Off joint tour, including hotel pick-up from 8:00 AM in the morning and 1:30 PM in the afternoon. Guided tours can be booked through your hotels.

  1. Book a tour or the audio tour to learn better

Without a guide, you can be easily lost in the sea of information at these sites. You can book tours that have two sites included in the itineraries or book an audio tour at the site for the cost of $6 USD. It might take you up to 90 minutes each tour.

Toul Sleng has four building A, B, C, D – each has its own role. It also has quite a number of date of the victims created by the Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves, mostly pictures. Everywhere are the torture implements left and hidden stories. It can be overwhelming but it should be lacking in term of understanding what was going on and what impact the events left.

We include Toul Sleng and Cheoung Ek like one of the most important parts in our tours to Cambodia. With our commitment to responsible tourism, we stay with the facts of history and urge our guests to do the same. For every one of our guests, we commit to preparing the knowledge you need before visit Cambodian genocidal sites like dress code, how to show respect, what to do when you find the remnants of the victims on the ground.

  1. Visit both sites

You can visit the two sites separately but it’s most recommended to visit both of them. It will give you more insight into how the Khmer systemized their killing. The two sites lie quite close to each other which is advantageous for a day trip to the outskirt of Phnom Penh.

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At Toul Sleng Museum, you will visit the many rooms where victims were tortured and killed with their pictures hanging on the wall. Leaving Toul Sleng Museum, as you’re transferring to Cheong Ek, imagine that the victims of Khmer Rouge in the past had passed this road as well, with eyes blindfolded and heart filled with fear for their lives.

A commemorative stupa was built in Choeng Ek Center which is filled with thousands of skulls and bones of the victims. You’ll have to cant your head to see the top shelf containing the victims’ skulls. The burial pits were surprisingly peaceful, offering both sadness and natural scenery. It’s almost impossible for you to ignore the killing tree – which is covered in many colorful string bracelets in remembrance of the children and the babies who were killed here.

After visiting two sites, keep what you saw in mind and multiple them to the number of 20,000 mass graves across Cambodia.

  1. Listen to the victims’ stories

Besides the horrors you’ll witness in the killing fields, there are the stories of those who survived and lived on after the genocide. By the time Vietnamese troops liberated Cambodia, only seven found alive inside S-21. At Toul Sleng Museum today, visitors have the opportunity of viewing a ‘survivor testimony’ from 2:30-3: 00 PM from Monday to Friday. Survivors Chum Mey and Bou Meng can both frequently be seen at the museum, promoting their biographies.

Remember to…

Visitors are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit both Toul Sleng and Cheong Ek but due to the nature of these sites and the sensibility of ‘dark tourism’, consciousness must be shown from the visitors’ part. Remember that these sites are literally graveyards so reckless behaviors are unforgivable.

  1. Dress modestly
  • Bring clothes that cover from shoulder to knees.
  • Do not wear flip-flops, shorts, miniskirts or anything that would be considered disrespectful.
  1. Mind your steps

On the ground of Cheong Ek, especially the burial pits, to this days, bones and clothes of the victims can still visible on the surface. So mind your steps when you walk and when you see the deceased’s remnants, inform the site’s staff.

  1. Show respect

Laughing, smoking, swearing, spitting, showing physical affection and the like at killing fields are considered being disrespectful to the Cambodian.

For Reference

Movie to watch:

  • “The Killing Fields” (1984)
  • “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers 2017”

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