From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. Under their regime, an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people, roughly 25% of Cambodia’s population, were killed in one of modern history’s most gruesome genocides. Today, tourists in Phnom Penh can visit sites like Security Prison 21 (S-21), currently the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. But should you?
Everyone that I know who has visited Cambodia or knows a bit about history has asked me if I was going to visit the Killing Fields. Since the very beginning of our trip, tuk tuk drivers are constantly offering to take us to the Killing Fields – a very special place, they say, for a negotiable price. I’ve vacillated on this since before the trip, knowing I would have to convince my friend to go to something I’m not even sure I want to see.
In search of a decisive answer, I’ve googled things like “should you visit the Killing Fields” and “are the Killing fields worth seeing.” And my search, (perhaps how you may have found this) was met with a lot of condescending responses from people who think that it’s crucial to visit places like this to truly understand Cambodian history and culture. Some people even went as far as saying that tourists who choose to ignore or deny this part of Cambodian history are doing a disservice to the country and its people.
This irks me for several reasons.
One, it presumes that an entire nation or people should necessarily be defined by the atrocities committed against them and not their devotion to religion, the way they prepare food, the customs with which they interact with each other on a daily basis. I find the fact that these sites are probably visited with more interest and frequency than the National Museum of Cambodia sort of troubling and problematic. It presumes that you can’t appreciate these people unless you’ve seen what horrors they’ve been through, something I find narrow-minded and unfair. Tourists don’t come to the US to visit sites like Sandy Hook – we don’t consider that a necessary part of understanding American people. (Maybe we should, I don’t know.)
Ironically, after writing this, we asked a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Genocide Museum and he misheard us and took us to the National Museum (featured in the photo above). We were okay with that. And may or may not end up going to Prison 21 at all.
These criticisms also suggest that people who don’t have an interest in visiting these horrific places are choosing to ignore the dark period of Cambodia’s history for the sake of a more enjoyable vacation. That if we shield ourselves from this experience, humanity is doomed to repeat these kinds of horrors. By default, this also suggests that visiting a place like that somehow makes one intellectually superior, more aware, and more respectful. And having been to places like Auschwitz and the Anne Frank House, I can tell you, tourists can be insensitive dicks regardless of what their vacation looks like.
I refuse to accept that these broad generalizations should guide your decision about whether or not to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields. Though Choeung Ek is now considered a memorial to the victims, it’s not a memorial like those erected in Germany to honor Holocaust victims. It’s not even like Auschwitz, stripped and sterilized of human remains. The Killing Fields are massive graves, littered with human bones, marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with human skulls. It’s a place where human bones, teeth and clothing still make their way to the ground surface when it rains. When you walk around the Killing Fields, you are walking on human remains – the remains of people who were killed with blunt objects to save money on ammo. One of the most photographed sites in Choeung Ek is the Killing Tree, where children had their heads bashed in before getting thrown into a pit with their parents. That’s a tough pill to swallow, even to read about. So to say this is an important memorial that merits visiting doesn’t account for your ability to stomach this kind of scene.
The genocide tribunal tasked with charging those responsible for crimes against humanity was assembled in 2006. In some cases, remains from the Killing Fields are still used as evidence in these trials. So you could argue, it’s less a memorial and more an active crime scene, one extremely difficult to visit.
So should you visit the Killing Fields?
If you’re reading this, perhaps the first mistake you made was going online to answer a question that only you can answer for yourself. What I can tell you is that you shouldn’t let anyone shame you or make you feel inferior for choosing not to, whatever your reasons may be.
You can educate yourself on Cambodia’s dark history and become culturally aware without seeing the product of it firsthand. Are these sights important? Absolutely. Are they impactful and sobering? No doubt. But are they necessary to see? Maybe not. That depends on you.
If you prefer to see Cambodians more for their religion or as skilled artisans instead of as victims of an oppressive genocidal regime, that’s okay too. Enjoy their food, their incredible markets, their traditional dances, and their peaceful temples.