Cambodia’s massacre sites are now tourism hotspots
by ADRYEL TALAMANTES
If not for Cambodia’s dark past, there would be no reason for anyone to visit the quiet fields south of Phnom Penh.
A short tuk-tuk ride through the city’s dusty streets takes curious travelers to the kind of place that can only be found in a country that has experienced the worst kind of cruelty.
Marked today by a memorial stupa, or relic mound, filled with 5,000 human skulls, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center — a.k.a., the Killing Fields — in Phnom Penh’s Danokar district is the most well-known of Cambodia’s many outdoor execution and mass-grave sites from the brief Democratic Kampuchea period between 1975 to 1979, when the communist Khmer Rouge ruled the country.
After defeating Cambodia’s Khmer Republic government in 1975, overrunning the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975–13 days before the fall of Saigon — the Khmer Rouge launched a campaign of violence that rivaled the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide.
The Khmer Rouge forced Phnom Penh’s residents to work on massive communal agriculture colonies across Cambodia. They were, in essence, slaves.
Led by Saloth Sar, more commonly known as Pol Pot — a Cambodian who studied in Paris and was distantly connected to the Cambodian royal family — the Khmer Rouge killed anyone with even indirect links to the West, as well as doctors, teachers and other professionals.
The slightest indiscretion or reason for suspicion met with extreme violence or even execution. Roughly 17,000 people died on the fields of Choeung Ek— mostly Cambodians but also a handful of Westerners. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered its victims with bayonets, clubs and knives.
In all, between 1.5 million and three million people died.
Walking among excavated mass graves, you can see the occasional bone poking through the dirt along with the tattered rags that were once victims’ clothes.
Of the 129 mass graves at the site, officials have excavated 86 and left the rest undisturbed. One visitor from England — Lauren, 26 — told War Is Boring that the site revealed “how horrific humans can be.”
Inside the narrow Choeung Ek Memorial stupa, a tall glass case houses thousands of skulls from the site. Color-coded stickers label them according to how they were killed — blue for bayonet, orange for wooden club.
Today authorities carefully maintain the site. It’s on the itinerary of almost any traveler passing through Phnom Penh along with S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng. For the countless tuk-tuk drivers plying their trade on the streets of Phnom Penh, the two sites are mainstay destinations.
Entering Choeung Ek the first thing that meets you is the narrow memorial stupa that was built in the early 1990s. The site is peaceful. Visitors walk from signpost to signpost, listening to the audio tour detailing the various horrors that occurred here, some visibly disturbed by the scale of the violence.
Numerous pits with elevated walkways allow people to traverse the mass graves. Signs read, “Please don’t walk through the mass grave!”
There’s the aptly-named Killing Tree, on which the Khmer Rouge beat babies and young children to death. It’s covered in colored bracelets and harbors a small shrine at its base.
When the site was first discovered after the Khmer Rouge’s defeat by Vietnamese forces starting in 1978, its bark was caked with blood, brain and skull fragments and the surrounding mass graves were so filled with human remains that the ground swelled due to the bloating corpses below.
Visitors come here for different reasons. There are few places on Earth where you can readily view evidence of mass murder with such intimacy. “I came here to have an emotional experience of what I have learned about the Cambodian genocide and to see it from a first-hand perspective,” said Alex, a 34-year-old tourist from San Francisco.
Back in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, the buildings of the S-21 prison — also known as Tuol Sleng — would hardly stand out if not for the barbed wire still lining its outer walls. Originally a high school, the four buildings became a detention and torture facility under the Khmer Rouge, each three-story structure serving a different, grim purpose.
Jailers shackled prisoners to metal bed frames for weeks at a time in order to weaken them for interrogation. When I first came here in 2009, you could still find human teeth on the floor of one of the rooms. Blood and excrement stains were still visible. Guards meticulously documented their victims. Those pictures now on boards in one of the display rooms.
Some show shock and fear and evidence of injury. Others look resigned, having understood and accepted their fate.
In another building, small, wood-and-brick confinement cells no bigger than 25 square feet still bear long scratches that victims made as they languished.
Roughly 14,000 people were brought here for interrogation and torture. Only seven made it out alive. Today a steady stream of visitors arrives and wanders the grounds of S-21, some people taking time to reflect on the horrors, most avoiding the souvenir shop.
Cambodia’s nightmare finally ended in 1979 after the Vietnamese army invaded the country and drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside.
After years of Vietnamese occupation, stewardship of the country passed to the de facto State of Cambodia in 1991. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia stood up in order to ensure the country’s stability.
To the average Cambodian, the war is a distant memory. Places such as S-21 and Choeung Ek are chilling reminders of this fading past.
Leaving S-21, I spotted a group of young Western tourists sitting and smoking cigarettes with solemn, serious looks on their faces. “Man, that was heavy,” one said. “Okay, let’s go drink a beer.”