When you’re watching the sun rise spectacularly over the beautifully decaying temples of Angkor Wat or sipping cocktails on a dreamy Koh Rong beach, it’s hard to picture Cambodia as anything other than peaceful.
Nevertheless, behind the country’s calm façade hides a horrifying history – one that still very much exists within living memory. The Khmer Rouge regime, which was led by an extreme Communist guerrilla group, lasted for four years during the 1970s and resulted in the deaths of over a million people in sites known as the ‘Killing Fields’. Today, they’re moving memorials which tourists are encouraged to visit. Would you put them on your itinerary?
Why you absolutely SHOULD visit the Killing Fields – Jemima
Before visiting Cambodia, I knew next to nothing about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror (it is, after all, an event that is so often overshadowed by the preceding Vietnam War). I’d only heard about the Killings Fields in passing, too, but I knew as soon as I arrived that – much like the WWII concentration camps scattered across Europe – they were an important part of the country’s history and something I wanted to see.
Their name very bluntly reflects their former purpose: they were locations where the Khmer Rouge tortured, starved and eventually murdered those who did not conform or agree with their beliefs. Today, these fields serve as memorials to those who lost their lives during that brief, albeit horrific, period of Cambodia’s history.
There are dozens of Killing Fields scattered across the country but the most-visited – and the largest – sits just a short tuk-tuk drive outside of Phnom Penh. In 2005, it became the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and it’s currently the largest monument dedicated to those affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Over 15,000 people were thought to have been killed and buried in mass graves on the site between 1975 and 1979 – many of them women and children.
For those interested in dark tourism, visiting really is a no-brainer. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are often paired with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former political prison turned museum) in the very centre of the city. At first, I was in two minds about adding either to my itinerary. Did I really want to spend a whole day of my trip learning about torture and death? On the contrary, seeing both ended up adding a layer of emotional complexity to my trip and gave me a deeper appreciation of the Cambodian people.
This is especially true of Choeung Ek. The field 17 kilometres outside of the city was once an orchard scattered with longan trees; a tropical plant that produces a fruit similar to lychees. In the mid-1970s, the orchard – once a bringer of life – became the mass grave of thousands of innocent people. As you stroll along pathways that meander through the last of the longans, it’s almost easy to forget that beneath the canopies and gnarled roots lie human remains.
The Cambodian genocide happened less than 50 years ago, so it’s still very much ingrained in many locals’ memories. In fact, the tuk-tuk driver who took my friend and I there could remember the day Choeung Ek opened as a memorial. He told us that back then, when he was just a small child, there were no bamboo fences decorated with brightly-coloured bracelets (offerings of goodwill left by visitors) surrounding the site. You could wander straight in, a fact which allowed many locals to regularly visit the final resting place of their relatives.
While having to pay to see such a grim reminder of Cambodia’s past today may seem distasteful to some, the ticket price is minimal and goes towards the upkeep of the space – in particular, the monument at its centre that is perhaps the most humbling sight of the entire venue. The towering Buddhist stupa (which reflects the county’s most prominent religion) features row upon row of skulls displayed behind glass panels. All 5000 or so were exhumed from across the site in the early 2000s.
Visiting Choeung Ek is definitely not for the faint-hearted. If you’d rather experience it as a memorial than learn too many details about its past, wander around without the accompanying audio guide (which can be harrowing at times). There are still several plaques dotted about to help identify certain features, plus a small museum building with lots of information about the Khmer Rouge and its tyrannical leader, Pol Pot.
The bottom line? Having a mix of things on your itinerary, whether that’s tours of the enchanting Ta Prohm temples, evenings spent at sizzling Khmer hotpot restaurants or trips to the sun-kissed southern islands, is great – but it’s important to acknowledge Cambodia’s darker side, too.
As a European with relatives who lived and died during the World Wars, seeing the Killing Fields in person certainly struck a chord. Ultimately, I don’t think we should ever shy away from visiting places with a distressing past. After all, educating the world on the very darkest things humanity is capable of will hopefully prevent history from repeating itself.
Why you should RECONSIDER visiting The Killing Fields – Abbi
Dark Tourism is a controversial area of travel, and for good reason. Although it’s important to learn about the more unpleasant sides of a country’s history – there are good and bad elements to everywhere, after all! – we really need to think about whether encouraging people to visit sites of human atrocity is helping them to understand their travel destinations better, or exploiting the place and its people.
Sites like the Killing Fields- although respectfully preserved- encourage tourism in areas where the trauma is still a recent memory for the people that live there, and where the victims and their families still need to heal. Not only does creating a new tourism site prevent physical regeneration of an area, but, with something as recent as the Cambodian civil war, it forces still-living relatives of the victims to be constantly reminded of the atrocities. Rather than leaving the site be as a place of reflection, the preservation of The Killing Fields as a tourism site encourages visitors to the area to keep those traumas alive.
In an era where even the most intrepid traveller lives part of their life online, the impact of social media on people heading to dark tourism sites is important to reflect on. Platforms like TikTok and Instagram allow users to upload videos and pictures of dark tourism locations easily, and, in doing so, allow hype to grow. All you have to do is search ‘Killing Fields Cambodia’ on TikTok, and you’re confronted with video after video of skulls, selfies and even food recommendations! If so many people are creating content around these places, how can we be sure they’re doing it with integrity, and not for likes, views and follows?
Everyone has experienced morbid fascination in their lives- I don’t think anyone is completely immune to being gripped by a story about something so dreadful it’s beyond imagination. And, whether we like it or not, that’s what draws people to sites like the Killing Fields. These places do, undeniably, make money and, how do you ensure the money keeps coming in? By keeping people visiting. And how do you keep those visitor numbers up? By making sure that the information they get is enough to keep them coming back, or to recommend it to other travellers. There’s a chance that the creators of dark tourism sites prioritise the most horrifying stories to keep people returning out of morbid curiosity. This is morally dubious, and, even though it might make for a more enticing attraction, is exploitative of not only the people that suffered there, but those that still live with the memories, too.
It’s also unclear as to which extent the people who have been directly impacted by the violence have had their voices and stories heard in the creation of the memorial site. How did they choose which stories got told, and how much ownership do those people have over their stories when they’re put on display for the world to see? Does it draw the right attention to the atrocities committed, or do the stories lose their impact on the world stage? Does the horror of The Killing Fields just become another hashtag on social media, another day trip on a Southeast Asia itinerary, or another gory story to tell friends and family back home?
What do you think? Are you for or against visiting dark tourism sites? Have we missed any important reasons for or against? Let us know in the comments below!