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Cambodian Killing Fields & The Painful Smile

Cambodia was one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to but it also has a dark secrets. 

I initially wanted to go because of the vast, sprawling temple complexes of Angkor Watt, and the beautiful natural scenery that so many tourists have fallen in love with.

But what really struck me about Cambodia is the resilience of the people there. That resilience has helped them to weather the most harrowing of storms. 

There is a dark side to Cambodia. A hesitant visit to the Cambodian killing fields gave me a doorway to that world. The Cambodian people in general have been through the kind of trauma that you can scarcely imagine.

This blog is all about the insight into the dark crevices of Cambodian history and the genocide inflicted upon the people of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge.

I can never pretend to understand the sheer terror and trauma that people have faced in the country. But I can tell their stories. And I tell those stories here.

The Ghosts of Christmas Eve

The curious thing about travelling is that in some ways, you lose sense of time. I spent December 24th in Cambodia and I’d completely forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

Cambodia isn’t a predominantly Christian country, so there were no festive decorations, bargain deals, or Christmas ads that I saw. Thank goodness. It was nice to experience something different. Well, sort of.  In hindsight, there were probably more festive activities I could have chosen on that day, but it was a learning experience I will never forget.

As I was exploring the killing fields, I couldn’t help thinking about how it’s sad that we as humans turn genocides and the most unimaginable pain into tourist attractions – almost as a form of entertainment. But there was nothing entertaining about this particular tour. It did, however, give me an education I would never forget.

The first thing I saw were rows and rows of real human skulls which evoked an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I felt guilty for even being here but at the same time it is important that every single one of those poor souls was remember, so that such a tragic history may never again be repeated.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
These are real human skulls apparently. I took these pictures at the museum and it gives you a small hint of the scale of the brutality
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There were cabinets and cabinets of human skulls

Let’s be clear: I really didn’t want to come here when I first came to Cambodia. After all, who wants to spend their holiday learning about gruesome killings and torture? Everyone kept telling me how I had to go and see it but I just didn’t think that seeing a real-life rendition of the rocky horror show would be enjoyable to me. That stuff really gets to me, so it was with some trepidation and resignation that I found myself going to the genocide museum.

Taking a Step Back Through History

I didn’t know much about the Cambodian killing fields before I visited them. All I knew was that it represented a dark time in Cambodia’s history when they were violently taken over by the ultra communist party Khmer Rouge, under the dictatorship of Pol Pot.

Their genocidal and brutal killing spree lasted for three years and resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to two million people between 1975 to 1979, when nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population were slaughtered. The Khmer Rouge forced Cambodians to relocate to labour camps in the countryside, where mass executions, forced labour, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease were prevalent.

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Disturbing images depicting torture and abuse during Pol Pot’s era

But that really was only the tip of the iceberg. I was unaware of the scale of the genocide or the sheer brutality people faced in Cambodia following the tyranny. After all, many of the Cambodian people I met were friendly, always smiling and welcoming. You’d never guess the pain that lay beneath those smiles and open arms.

S-21: The Dark Corridors of The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Cambodia Killing Fields
A view of the Cambodian Killing Fields and statues depicting the kinds of torture people were subject to

The killing fields are located in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. In addition to the skulls, there were also displays that documented some of the stories of the people who were killed or tortured by the Khmer Rouge.

The tour also included a walk through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is home to Security 21 (often abbreviated to S-21). Although it started out as a school, it was converted into a prison during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. It then became one of the most notorious prison camps that existed in Cambodia in the late 1970s.

In 1976, around 20,000 people passed through the former secondary school, and it was one of 196 prison camps set up in the country. Of those 20,000 people, only 7 survived. The rest died after being subjected to torture, sexual abuse, starvation, and execution.

Many of the prisoners were then dragged from the prison to the surrounding killing fields where they were murdered with pickaxes because the Khmer Rouge wanted to save money on bullets.

The abduction and indoctrination of children was widespread, and many were persuaded or forced to commit atrocities.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum,
Dark corridors of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

So as you can imagine, walking down those dark, cold corridors was an eerie feeling. You can still see dark patches of what looks like dried blood stains and dirt patches on the decaying, yellow, jaundiced walls. There were these little units made of brick, and concrete within the buildings which functioned as makeshift prison cells.

Some of them had metallic chains, and they were all dark, cold and sombre. I’m not the most spiritual person on the planet but the heavy, tense and foreboding feeling I got when walking done those morose corridors sent a shiver up my spine.

It was like the ghosts of the departed were still there. In another room were the bloated, malnourished bodies of those who were chained to various walls and structures in their building.

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Even children were not spared

I also saw the stomach-churning photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath and their heart wrenching stories besides them.

Those were the stories of dejected and abused men,  women and children. Their dark stories are a grim reminder of just how dark humanity can become.

You didn’t need to read their stories – you only had to look into their hollow, dark and empty eyes that had long given up after experiencing the kind of torture that the average mind is too afraid to imagine.

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Sordid images from the Cambodian genocide museum

But I did read their stories. Of forced confessions, endless beatings, child abuse, and eternal interrogation. It wasn’t for the faint hearted. And even though I felt faint when I left that building, it was really only just the beginning. 

I was in one of the dark corners of Cambodia and it had changed me forever. I could no longer pretend to be naive about the grim realities of the world as I walked around the buildings and tried to make sense of what I was seeing.

The Sound of Oppression: Making Sense of the Killings

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These beautiful fields mask a very dark secret

When I finally left those haunting prison complexes, I took a walk around the killing fields, which looked beautiful. It was a sunny day, and there was this beautiful little lake surrounded by trees and greenery in the middle of this field.

This was also part of the audio tour and I was listening to the reenactments of the historical events as I explored the fields. The bit that reduced me to tears was when I got to a small monument in one spot of the fields, where babies were murdered.

The audio tour even recreated the song that the Khmer Rouge would often play on full blast as they threw helpless infants and newborns against concrete walls in acts of senseless murder. I must admit, I lost sight of everything else. Everything became a bit of a blur and even though I’d retained the stiff upper lip throughout most of the tour, I broke down.

How was this hellhole even allowed to exist? My only answer to that was that it was a plea. A plea to never repeat the bloodthirsty and grisly mistakes of the past. And I broke down because human beings around the world are committing these same mistakes as I write this.

So yeah, it suddenly got more real. My tour ended shortly afterwards. There was more to see and I realised I only got a small snapshot of how torturous life must have been back then.

Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in Asia because many of the intellectuals, professionals, elderly people, and anyone who practiced family values were mindlessly slaughtered less than 4 decades ago. Nearly a quarter of the population perished. So it was up to the teens and young people under 40 to rebuild the country they had lost.

Every single Cambodian person living today has been touched in some way by the genocide. Even if they did not experience the trauma firsthand, they had to deal with losing families, friends, loved ones, and children.

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A reenactment of a violent past

They also lost their culture and religion as the Khmer Rouge went on a rampage throughout the country, smashing Buddhist statues, burning down temples, destroying books, killing academics, and stealing every possession that people had to create their ‘communist dream’. The people of Cambodia didn’t just lose their lives…they lost a legacy.

So behind their smiles, positivity and resilience lies the pain and silence that still seeks to forget those dark corners of Cambodian history until this very day.

How Could This Happen?

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from right), accompanied by his wife Yoo Soon-taek (beside Mr. Ban), is guided through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the site of the Khmer Rouge?s infamous Security Prison S-21. Mr. Ban looks over a bed frame with shackles, once used by Khmer Rouge officials to torture detainees.

The communist movement in Cambodia had its origins in the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, which was formed in 1951 under the auspices of the Viet Minh of Vietnam. The party’s largely French-educated Marxist leaders eventually renamed it the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Kampuchea is the name the Communists used for Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge originally started as a guerilla warfare group in the 1960s. They were the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. However, they soon rose to power after a right-wing military coup toppled the head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge were able to form a coalition with them. It was a toxic combination of extreme communism mixed with far-right fascism.

What followed was a five year civil war and by early 1973, despite a massive bombing campaign undertaken by the Cambodian government with aid from the United States, the Khmer Rouge forces controlled about 85 per cent of the country’s territory. The Khmer Rouge forces finally took over the capital, Phnom Penh, before seizing control of the entire nation in 1975. The head of this bloody regime was Pol Pot.

During his time in the remote north-east, Pol Pot had been influenced by the surrounding hill tribes, who according to his idealistic rose-tinted glasses, were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money and were “untainted” by Buddhism. He then set about forcefully transforming Cambodia into a medieval communist dictatorship marked by the expansion of farm labour.

There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes.

Cambodia was subsequently renamed Kampuchea and a propaganda campaign was launched to fuel jealousy, division, and hatred towards anyone considered too clever, intellectual, or infirm. This included people wearing glasses, those with nice clothing or possessions, middle-class people, ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims, Buddhists, and of course, anyone who disagreed with the state.

Their bloodthirsty rule only started to end when they were rescued by invading Vietnamese troops in 1979.

A Day In The Life of Teeda

Thida Mam, Teeda Nam
Many citizens were killed or ‘disappeared’ during the rule of the Khmer Rouge or their families went missing

Teeda Butt Mam (sometimes spelled Thida Mam) was just 15 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded her country. Many members of her family including her father were kidnapped and taken to a “reeducation camp”. She along with many people she knew were then forcibly kidnapped and forced to work long, gruelling days on farms. She grew sick. She grew tired. But she dare not stop or show any hint of pride in her eyes lest she be singled out for torture.

She described being enslaved and always waking up hungry. 

In a written statement, she wrote: We gathered to share our horrifying stories. Stories about people being pushed into deep wells and ponds and suffocating to death. People were baked alive in a local tile oven. One woman was forced to cook her husband’s liver, which was cut out while he was still alive. Women were raped before execution. One old man said, “It takes a river of ink to write our stories.

“My lunch was either rice porridge with a few grains or boiled young bananas or boiled corn. I continued working till sunset. My dinner was the same as lunch. I was sad because I missed my mom. I was fearful that this might be the night I’d be taken away, tortured, raped, and killed.”

Teeda went on to explain that even suicide was out of the question. If she dared take her own life, she would be labelled as ‘the enemy’ and her family would be tortured and killed as a result. 

She added: “My greatest fear was not my death, but how much suffering I had to go through before they killed me.”

I feel that it is necessary for me to document stories like these as part of this blog because while the Killing Fields are deemed to be one of the most moving attractions in Cambodia, it is important to understand why. It is not so much a tourist attraction but a lesson in history.

Veil of Secrecy

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There is still a veil of silence around the Cambodian genocide

The most disturbing part of all of this is the desire by some factions of the Cambodian government to forget it ever happened. Forgive and forget as the saying goes.

But that is a very dangerous path to walk. As the old saying goes, those who forget history, are deemed to repeat it.

Even shortly after seizing power, the Khmer Rouge operated under a veil of secrecy. Right up until 1977, the Khmer Rouge’s top leadership (known as Angkar Padevat) worked in secret, with few outside of the party aware of their identities.

Despite the fact that the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are well-known today,  that period of history is still spoken in whispers in Cambodia. Many local people are understandably still reluctant to discuss that dark era in Cambodian history. Of course, it is easy to see why it wouldn’t be the favourite topic of conversation over a cup of tea with a tourist. However, it seems that the secrecy runs a little deeper than that.

DW is an online publication that has also produced documentaries in the past. Their journalists have interviewed people all over about the events that unfolded in Cambodia during the late 1970s. What they found is that many young people and even some of those that lived through the era were reluctant to talk about those traumatic turn of events.

Youk Chhang, director of the NGO Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), said in an interview published on DW that young people know little about the history of the Khmer Rouge. This was one of the reasons they kickstarted a book project in the country designed to educate the younger generation about the past.

Moreover, a survey of 1,000 Cambodians aged 18 and above, conducted in 2011 by the University of California, concluded that many young Cambodians were not sufficiently aware of the brutal crimes committed by the regime.

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Many in Cambodia are reluctant to discuss the brutality of the regime

It found that a third of those surveyed who did not live under the Khmer Rouge possessed a lack knowledge about the war crimes court that was subsequently set up to investigate the atrocities and bring the perpetrators to justice.

In the few conversations I had with some of the guides in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum about the Khmer Rouge, I learned anecdotally that while the majority of the leaders in the Khmer Rouge were eventually imprisoned or brought to trial, some of those who served as foot soldiers and lower ranking officers for the Khmer Rouge were still able to get top government positions – even to this very day.

Some of the contemporary politicians who have served in Cambodia once sided with the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps that is why there has been some reluctance to open up educational initiatives about the horrors committed by the bloodthirsty regime.

It also explains the lethargy and reluctance of some members of the Cambodian government to move forward with too many prosecutions for the genocides committed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Images from the S-21, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The history of the Cambodian genocide has been meticulously documented in this important tourist attraction. Perhaps it represents some effort, however small, by the Cambodian government to atone for the past.

My journey there was sobering, heartbreaking, and educational all at the same time. At the time, I documented everything I learned and saw, and this is what gave rise to this very blog. It moved me profoundly and I will never forget the lessons I learned that day.

If you do happen to be in Cambodia one day, then I recommend that you go at least once. You probably won’t enjoy it. But the lessons that we can learn from the genocide and indeed all of the genocides that have taken place throughout the world is a lesson to us all. Those lessons should never be forgotten. 

To read about some of the more pleasant aspects of my trip to Cambodia, check out my blog ‘River Markets of Cambodia‘.

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