The Sad Truth about the Killing Fields of Cambodia

Posted by - September 4, 2011 | Category: Asia, Cambodia, Escapes

“My aunt and my uncle,” Sakona offers somberly when I finally ask the question: “Did any of your relatives die here?”

The “here’” is the chilling Choeung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, one of the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Sakona is my guide for the day, and I wonder how he does it.  Coming back day after day, setting foot on the spot were some 20,000 Cambodians were butchered, including his relatives, in the most miserable of ways under the cruel iron rule of Pol Pot.

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, Cambodia

There are over 200 of these Killing Fields scattered throughout Cambodia, where some 1.7 million people lost their lives during the Communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.  That total rises to over 3 million when you include those who died from starvation during that time.

Now the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, this particular Killing Field was the final resting place for those held at Tuol Sleng Prison in downtown Phnom Penh.  It is also the most visited, although today, there are less than 30 people here.

As we walk through the site, Sakona gives me insight into the horror that happened here.

“All of the buildings are gone now.  After the discovery, local farmers took the wood and tools for building. These signs give you an idea of what was once here.”

Chemical Substances Sign, Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Dark and Gloomy Detention Sign, Choeung Ek, Cambodia

I ask, “Why did they detain them here if they had just come from Tuol Sleng prison?”

“There came to be so many people sent here from Tuol Sleng, that they were not able to kill them all in one day.  Most were killed with an axe or hoe, or had their throats slit. You will see the skulls later, broken from the impact. You see, they wanted to save the bullets. Bullets cost money.”

Bone and Clothing emerging from the ground

Human Teeth emerge from the ground


“The staff collects them every couple of weeks or so.  After heavy rains, they keep coming to the surface,” he says, pointing to pieces of clothing, human bone and teeth protruding from the earth.  “I pick them up too.”

Bones and Teeth Fragments Sign

Bones and teeth

“This is the grave where they found the headless ones.” he continues. “Most of them were soldiers. We know this because of the clothing they were wearing.  No one was safe here.”

Headless victims sign

We move on to what would prove to be the most disturbing part of Choeung Ek.

The tree where children were executed

“Sometimes, instead of using the tree, the executioners would throw the baby in the air, then have it land on a bayonet.  They would make the mother watch this. You can only imagine the screams.”

Naked women and children sign

“The tree has grown over the years, but if you look up, you can see the spot on the tree that has changed colour.  That’s where they would hit the child’s head.  When this place was discovered, there were still skull fragments and brains embedded there.”

The Killing Tree

Sakona left me for a few moments to pay my respects in the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa.  It houses over 8000 of the skulls unearthed here, in addition to more clothing and bone fragments.  It’s a sobering sight as I watch young and old trickle through the narrow corridors to view the remains.

Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa

Some of the 8000 human skulls at Choeung Ek


Clothes collected from Choeung Ek

 In 1994, the Cambodian government passed legislation banning the Khmer Rouge, and provided amnesty to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who defected to the government between July 7, 1994 to January 7, 1995.

I ask Sakona about the amnesty law and how many people were prosecuted for the killings here. “Not many,” he says.  “With the current tribunal,” he says referring to the United Nations-backed trial currently under way, “they are concentrating on the higher-ups, but most who worked here walked away free men.”

One of the four accused in the tribunal, Kaing Guek Eav aka “Duch” received a 19-year prison sentence for his direct role in ordering the deaths of 16 thousand people.

“Does it bother you,” I ask, “that these people are roaming free because of the amnesty law?”

“That is not the Buddhist way,” he says matter-of-factly. “Buddhists do not believe in retribution or revenge.  We believe in justice, but not retribution.”

Cambodian Man looking at skulls in memorial

‘Do you get many school groups here?” I ask.

“No, not many.”

“When do they learn about the Killing Fields in Cambodian schools?”

“They don’t.”

I am floored.  I have to ask him again to be sure. 

The sad truth is, Cambodian children do not learn about what happened at the Killing Fields in school. 

It’s not part of the curriculum.  Sakona added that they might learn about it in university.  In this third-world country where many of the kids work for their families from an early age, I wondered how many of them actually made it to university.

What about from their parents?” I ask. “Do families teach them about this at home?”

“No, not usually. They don’t want to upset or scare the children.”

“So what would the parents say if the kids asked about a missing family member?  For example, an aunt or uncle who was in a photo, but they have never met?”

“Simply that they passed away.”

Sakona, Guide at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

I couldn’t fathom this for some reason. The country’s biggest atrocity.  The children don’t learn about it.  The adults don’t talk about it. 

Maybe it’s my western way of thinking.  Maybe I need to learn a lot more about the Cambodian people. 

Or maybe I just have a lot more to learn about forgiveness. 

What are your thoughts?

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76 comments - add one
  1. That is such a terrible story. I got goose bumps while reading it! The worst thing, I think, is that they don’t talk about this! I think talking always helps and I find it important that, in Germany, we can talk about the cruelty that happened in the past.

    1. Talking about it is key for sure. I even met a ocuple of British tourists who said that they had never heard of the Killing Fields until they arrived in Cambodia. It’s sad to think how much kids aren’t taught in school these days.

  2. Evocative read, Raymond. I do believe “justice, not retribution” is the way forward after atrocities like this. It’s also very sad to hear local children do not study this part of Cambodia’s history; that it isn’t talked about. Very important to spread the word, like you’re doing here.

  3. I read this post through watery eyes. How sad that the children do not learn about the atrocities of the past – how to they learn not to repeat them and to never allow that to happen again?
    thanks for sharing this post – as a traveler, I’m always looking for the next fun thing. As a member of humanity, it’s good to be reminded of the things which must never occur again.

    1. Thanks Jen. Evi @EviTravels informed me that they are just now starting to learn about it in schools, so that’s a plus. Too bad it has taken them this long though.

  4. A powerful read, thank you for sharing.

    I should point out that while it’s staggering to think it’s not officially taught in school this is unfortunately not all that uncommon when it comes to other similar tragedies around the world. Turkey does not accept that there was a genocide of Armenians that they committed nor do they teach it, and most Scottish massacres aren’t talked about in schools there because of a belief that it would foster more hatred.

    Granted, I’ve never looked at a thorny situation and decided LESS education was the answer, so you know what my opinion is on this.

  5. I’ve heard the atrocities of the Holocaust are not taught in German schools either – I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I’ve heard. I can understand how terribly painful it would be to teach, but I don’t get it either. Seems like it needs to taught so we don’t forget and history is allowed to repeat itself.

    1. Actually, I’m fairly certain Germany is one of the most educated countries about the Holocaust. Every German I’ve met is incredibly well-informed on their history.

      No doubt that teaching is important. As is learning about the region when you travel there. A very good read, thanks for sharing an important part of history, Raymond.

    2. Just to clarify: The Holocaust, Hitler’s rise to power and WW2 are taught very extensively in German schools. Many school classes also visit concentration camps. I find the current German culture is pretty unique with regard to the attention that is given to investigating and accepting the responsibility for the horrible aspects of one’s past.

  6. Nice job on writing up this story. Hopefully over time there will be more emphasis from the government to teach the children about what happened in the killing fields.

  7. I spent some time in Cambodia a couple of years back, and reading this post brought back all the feelings the Killing Fields evoked at that time.

    Thanks for sharing this important information so well. It’s a terribly hard place to visit, but important. I can’t believe that the kids aren’t taught about it.

    Bearing in mind the hordes of youngsters who swarm tourists at the gates – you have to wonder how they see the place.

  8. I already knew most of these facts, but your writing is very sympathetic and articulate, and your pictures very evocative. I don’t know what happens in other countries, but when I was at school in the 60s we didn’t touch on WW2 either. Bascially, I later learned because the books hadn’t been written yet, school text books which would give unbiased facts. Yet, of course, over time I did learn an awful lot about what happened. That said I had books, tv and movies to help me learn, plus I had the opportunity to travel to Germany when I was in my teens. I think that how we remember is as important as the fact of remembering. Forgiveness is totally necessary.

    1. Thanks for commenting Linda. Perhaps that is why it has taken them so long to learn about it. There is still a tribunal underway to prosecute the remaining living people who called the shots back then. But I think if they wait too long they are not serving anyone.

  9. This brings back the emotions I felt when we visited Tuol Sleng, I can’t understand how they don’t teach about it at school, especially when children see the amount of attention the subject gets from tourists.

  10. This place is incredibly disturbing. I think the children should know at some point. I have been learning about Buddhism over the last few months. I agree with the philosophies, but when I see something like this, I do not know how people can be so strong.

  11. We need to step back and not judge how they deal with this very personal tragedy. Our guide in Siem Reap said ther are also killing fields there but he would not take us there because he felt it was best to move forward. That attitude may explain the peacefulness we see thre today.

    1. Good point Vera. In the west, and especially in America, we are so caught up on revenge and justice and “an eye for an eye” that it’s almost a foreign concept to forgive. Perhaps they have the right idea. To ignore it in schools though I think serves no one…

    1. Thanks for the info Evi. I didn’t believe him either, so I researched online to see if I could find the answer. Obviously I was using the wrong search words. Thanks for shedding some light. Sad though that it has taken this long to learn about it…

  12. I couldn’t read that without feeling horrified and emotional. So much senseless killing. My stomach knotted up about the “babies and the bayonets.” Sweet, Jesus, to be that mother…my stomach knotted up.

    Sometimes travel isn’t beautiful; it can be downright ugly.

    1. It can be very ugly. But I think going to see sights like these grounds you and helps you understand the people just a little bit more. Then you can really appreciate those waterfalls and ruins and bungee jumps. Makes you really grateful to be alive.

  13. Wow. This was absolutely chilling to read about. I had a knot in my stomach the entire time I was looking at the pictures and it just kept getting worse as the post goes on.

    From the point of view of a country that also doesn’t like to talk about it’s past (Chile) , I think maybe the time will come when Cambodia is ready. Chile had a dictatorship that killed a couple thousand people and even though the dictatorship ended 21 years ago, only about 2 years ago did they open a museum educating people about what went on during that time. My husband graduated 7 years after the dictatorship ended and he didn’t learn about any of that in school either.

    1. It’s sad that so many countries are not honest about their past. Many would just like to move on I think, but that doesn’t change the fact that what happened there should be remembered.

    1. Thanks Shey. Another sad part that I discovered is that the Cambodian government sold the rights to Choeung Ek to a Japanese company. The government “rents” the place to them, and they collect the entrance fees and oversee the site.

      They even run the gift shop. Yes, there is a gift shop.

      That speaks volumes in my mind.

      1. Hey Raymond,

        i visited the site almost a year ago, but reading your article just now, it’s as fresh as if i went today. i too was very frustrated once i learned that a Japanese company. but then i did some research of my own.

        here is the website i found:

        i know that we may not have all the info and properly will never, but they could be doing the right thing? couldn’t they? one would hope so…

  14. I remember watching a documentary about one of the killing fields of Cambodia. Throughout the show, I had a piercing feeling of solemnity. I can’t imagine what it would be like for me if I was actually there in person. This seems to be a hard place to visit. And I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had a choice. Good for you that you were able to take that step, however.

  15. They best way to make sure you don’t repeat history is to study it, so the fact that so many people remain unaware of this tragedy is sad and frightening.

    I’m still astonished by how many people in the U.S. aren’t aware of the Japanese internment camps that existed during WWII, or how thoroughly European immigrants murdered native populations when they arrived on the continent (through things like handing out blankets infected w/ small pox). There are some serious gaps in many people’s education.

  16. A very powerful read. I visited the Killing Fields a few years ago and, to this day, it remains the most horrifying and disturbing place I have ever visited.

    As for whether or not children should be taught about it – I am not really sure and have no strong feelings on the subject.

    I notice that many people in the comments believe that by studying history you can prevent future atrocities…I would like to believe that this is true but I would be interested to learn what evidence backs up the claim. Europe has studied WW2 extensively and yet concentration camps returned during conflicts years later…

    Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, people kill and torture each other while quoting events and injustices that happened hundreds of years ago…

    It’s a very interesting point that your guide raises – perhaps it is better not to relive the pain and pass on a feeling of revenge and hatred to the nation’s children.

    Perhaps, the uncomfortable truth is that there are just some people who commit terrible evil and that’s all. Perhaps there is a benefit in recognising that, instead of ascribing crimes to political parties, races or nations and allowing vicious stereotypes to cause trouble later on.

    I can see how reporting of current events has tremendous power – as there is still a chance for people outside the affected zone to change things. But afterwards…the “what’s done is done” line has really got me thinking…

    Who knows. Anyway – thank you for a thought-provoking read.

  17. The main reason that limited action has been taken upon this issue is that the current Cambodian government, from Hun Sen downwards, are all ex-Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen left the Khmer Rouge to join the Vietnamese shortly before the end, but most of his government, like a high number of Cambodians in general, are complicit in the killings. That’s also why the trials have been actively obstructed, and there’s no truth and reconciliation movement to speak of in the country.

  18. Sounds like a very sombre and sobering experience like I had a Auschwitz a few years ago.

    I’ll plan to visit the killing fields in just under a month. It feels wrong to look forward to the experience but it’s one I must have. People need to know what happened.

  19. Fascinating. So sad, but such an experience it must have been to stand at the site of such terrible atrocities.

    I don’t know if it’s morbid of me to say it, but I’ve always wanted to visit locations such as Hiroshima and Auschwitz. I hadn’t thought to include the Killing Fields in my planned SE Asia travels, but it would be remiss of me to not.

    Thanks for drawing my attention back to the idea and to the very sad history of Cambodia. It’s not an event I should let slip my mind.

  20. It was very difficult visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison without getting very emotional. It is impossible to comprehend that humans can be so heartless. I remember hearing children playing in the distance when we were there, it cut through the silence and sadness that we felt. I thought to myself life goes on and people forget. When will we ever learn?
    Atrocities are going on all around the world today and the human race never seems to stop causing suffering to one another. So sad.

    1. It was a hard place to visit as was Tuol Sleng, but I’m glad I went — it was indeed an unforgettable experience.

      And thank-you Si for adding my post to your guide — very much appreciated!

  21. Very thought provoking, thank you for sharing, I’m sure it wasn’t easy to write. I had no idea that Cambodian children didn’t learn about this in school or that it wasn’t discussed at home. In my (very Western opinion) it seems to be doing the children a disservice. Living in Germany, children learn all about Hitler and it has shaped the culture substantially to try and learn from history and not repeat past mistakes. Even today, many Germans are wary of sharing info (Google Streetview, Facebook, etc.) because of what happened in the past.

  22. I’ll be honest with you. I am not surprised that the school children there do not learn about those things at school. Many countries in Asia do not teach in depth history courses about their own country. (Politics at play?)

    I actually learned about my own homeland’s (Taiwan) history and literature when I was studying at an university in America. Isn’t it weird?

  23. Well written. I hate to say, but I’m not totally shocked. Spain had a rule they weren’t going to discuss the Franco dictatorship for thirty years. Sometimes the pain of our history is too much to bare, even if facing it is the right thing to do.

  24. Thank you for sharing this with us. Solemn sorrows to realize such atrocities are not shared in our world, particularly with the nation who bares this dark shadow. Difficult to imagine how many other things like this have happened and continue to occur in our world. Brilliant post.

  25. Anyone who visits PP must visit the Killing Fields. It was a very humbling experience for me and i’ve learnt to appreciate life even more now.

    The young cambodians don’t really know what happened 30years ago, the ones who don’t talk about it i guess it’s memory they want to forget. I went to killing fields with a khmer friend and though she roughly new about the killing fields she did not know the actual scenario.. half way through the tour she started to cry. She told me that she never knew it was this bad..she could not believe her own people could kill their own and in such cruel methods. She mentioned that she has asked about certain relatives and her mom
    always gave the same answer..’they passed away long a go’. Seeing her tears moved me and all i could do was hug her and tell her that ‘darkness has gone and light has come, you and your people need to hold on to that light’ I really hope that Cambodia educates their future generation on what happened..we should never be denied of our History.

  26. Hi Folks,

    My name is Sopheak and I’m was born in Cambodia,my dad was a Vietnam vet and we were very lucky to be able to leave when we could,we left in April 1975 two weeks before the communist took over, I was too younger to understand why we needed to depart.

    We also live in Germany for three years and as a youngster had the chance to visit Dachau just north of Munich….what a feeling! I agree that education is important so that things like this does not happen again regardless if it’s in Cambodia,Rawanda or Germany.

  27. I think it’s a difficult path for the Cambodian people to acknowledge the insanity that took place there. An overwhelming sense of national embarrassment perhaps, but if its ignored and swept aside hidden from their history books and the present generation,its therefor,capable of repeating.
    One has to accept and learn from the past mistakes in order to move forward no matter how unjustified. Denial, and the lack of retribution, seeking justice for those who were wrongly taken,is counterproductive.
    Change only takes place when a mistake is recognized.
    The passive Ideology of the Cambodian people came at a high cost. Overthrown by a mad man,then thrown into an Agrarian lifestyle with the intention of killing those who are educated,those who would protest such change.
    If there is no retribution for those who committed such atrocities to over 1.7 ma people,who will protect the remaining?

    Makes one wonder if a court room exists at all in Cambodia.

    1. I’m sorry but those who carried out such terrible atrocities do not deserve any quarter. When you think of the terrible pain & suffering all those people went through I for one will happily pull the lever on the gallows of the perpetrators – & I don’t care what you think that makes me!

      1. Thank you so much. After reading about copyright laws I was certain you’d say ‘no’, so I appreciate it very much. I have been very interested in Cambodian and its history ever since I read, “First They Killed My Father.” Amazing book, Very sad story. Thanks again!


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