Do you include dark tourism in your travels? If you’ve visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Auschwitz in Poland or the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, you’ve engaged in dark tourism: travel to places historically associated with death and suffering. In Cambodia, there’s an option to visit two places in particular that have been assigned a “darkometer” rating of 10 (the “deepest darkest of the dark”) by Peter Hohenhaus of Dark Tourism. Is it for you? In the event you’re considering it, here are my thoughts on exploring Cambodia’s dark history at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime (S-21) and The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.
Khmer people: First impressions
Describing my experience wouldn’t be complete without sharing my first impressions of Cambodians. It was very interesting, this almost instantaneous respect and admiration I developed for these warm, friendly and peaceful people who seemed to work day and night to feed their families. Quick to flash a smile, offer service or engage in conversation, they seemed to have outwardly rebounded from a brutal and tragic history not only in terms of population, but also in spirit.
I found myself looking into the faces of older Cambodians, thinking that anyone born before 1979 had been through unimaginable hell. Given Cambodia’s dark history, those faces were definitely in the minority. In fact, people aged 55 or more make up just 9.6% of the population. In Canada and Germany, it’s 32% and 36% respectively.
For a glimpse into Cambodia’s genocidal past, and a deeper understanding of the impact of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I needed to learn more. It felt like an important part of my stay in Cambodia: visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime in the heart of Phnom Penh, and The Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city.
Some background: Khmer Rouge
By 1975, Cambodia had become a terrifying place to live. Between 1965 and 1973, the United States dropped 2.75 million tons of bombs over Cambodia to disrupt supply lines to their enemies in Vietnam. To put this into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons during all of World War II. In effect, Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history. As many as 800,000 Cambodians perished as a result, driving an embattled populace into the hands of an insurgency led by Pol Pot’s Communist Party of Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge).
The true nature of Pol Pot and his ideology soon became clear. The Khmer Rouge evacuated cities in an attempt to convert Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian society, forcing people to work in farm labour camps. All industry stopped. Books were burned, religion was outlawed and the local currency was abolished. Foreigners were expelled, schools and newspapers were shut down, and ownership of private property was forbidden.
A vast majority of the population was marked for extermination. Among those targetted were business owners, government officials, intellectuals, doctors, teachers, students, engineers, technicians, monks and musicians. Anyone with an education or who questioned the new government was murdered.
Dissidents were eliminated. “To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you no loss,” was Pol Pot’s favoured mantra. “He who protests is an enemy, he who opposes is a corpse.” His principal motto was “…better to kill ten innocent people than let one enemy go free.”
During the four-year reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians – out of a population of roughly 8 million, were murdered in the numerous killing fields, or died from torture, starvation, disease, overwork or medical neglect.
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime (S-21)
Smaller interrogation centres were scattered across Cambodia, but S-21 was by far the largest. From the outside, Tuol Sleng looks like an ordinary school. But inside are weapons of torture, and photographs of people who were murdered. The classrooms were converted to tiny prison cells, mass detention areas and interrogation rooms. The upper balconies were covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners from jumping to their deaths.
Like the Nazis before them, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, taking photos of every new arrival and painstakingly retaining detailed confessions of tortured prisoners. I found myself staring at the photographs of detainees, imagining their only “crime” being that they wore glasses or spoke more than one language. I wondered if they were aware of the fate that awaited them. In their faces, I saw a resemblance to those I’d seen on the streets of Phnom Penh. Given how many people died, every family must have been touched by the loss of loved ones. I imagined how difficult it must be for any Cambodian who visits Tuol Sleng, or any other monument documenting the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.
Of Tuol Sleng’s 20,000 or so inmates, only 7 survived. The victims were ordinary Cambodians, and many were former Khmer Rouge themselves who became victims of the regime’s systematic and paranoid internal purges.
Choeung Ek: The Killing Fields
Choeung Ek is one of the estimated 500 killing fields found throughout Cambodia. A former orchard and Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek is a mass burial site about 15 kilometres from the heart of Phnom Penh. Between 1975 and 1979, as many as 20,000 men, women and children who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported during the night by truck to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were exhumed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, but 43 of the 129 communal graves have been left untouched. A walk through the quiet grounds sometimes yields scraps of clothing or the odd tooth or bone fragment underfoot, powerful reminders of the atrocities committed here just a few decades ago.
Most people were bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious and costly bullets. Torture and killing instruments are on display at an on-site museum. Children, infants and babies were killed when their heads were smashed against the Chankiri (Killing) Tree. The thinking behind this madness was that the youngsters wouldn’t grow up to exact revenge for the fate of their parents. Some of the soldiers laughed as they beat the children’s heads against the tree. Not to laugh could have indicated sympathy or regret, making oneself a target of internal purges.
Beside the Killing Tree is a Spirit House, a dwelling place for spirits that have not found rest. In a country where over ninety-five percent of the people follow Buddhism, when a person dies, the body is taken to the local monastery where it’s cremated. At the funeral, monks chant prayers to comfort the family and give the soul of the deceased a safe passage to the afterlife. According to popular Khmer belief, a person who isn’t given a proper burial will have to live on as a ghost, unable to find peace. The fact that none of the victims of Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek was given a proper burial is a continual source of suffering for surviving family members.
Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Many have been shattered or smashed, evidence of the manner of death and barbarism of the Khmer Rouge.
An audio tour with an accompanying pamphlet is included in the modest entrance fee. It contains stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge era, and a chilling account of a Choeung Ek guard and executioner about some of the techniques used to kill innocent and defenceless prisoners. The audio tour allows visitors to move at their own pace, pausing frequently for individual reflection. It helps make The Killing Fields a very powerful experience.
What to expect
If your experience is anything like mine, prepare to be stunned into silence. Count on visualizing the atrocities that took place, and shedding tears for those who perished.
You might imagine what Cambodia could have been like today if such an enormous slice of human potential hadn’t been obliterated.
Expect to wonder how in creation these, and other crimes against humanity could happen on such a catastrophic scale. And, if you’re like me and these atrocities happened during your lifetime, expect feelings of regret and anger that you were largely oblivious to the fact these horrors took place while the world stood by. If you were unaware of the Cambodian Genocide before arriving in Cambodia, I think it’s important to question why this is the case.
You may even question the appropriateness of dark tourism. A parade of tuk-tuks and tour buses disgorge camera-wielding tourists coming to explore these popular symbols of the genocide. The key difference between these and other tourist attractions is that Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek are frightening and morbid places. Does your presence assault the memory of those who died? Or, are they important sites for education and change? You’ll likely wonder what other visitors are thinking and feeling, and if and how they’ll be changed as a result.
Why visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek?
Is it appropriate to travel to such dark places of human tragedy?
I think it’s important to do so. It’s a way to show respect for those who perished. Walking over ground still haunted by the ghosts of the thousands who died there (and elsewhere in Cambodia) stimulates reflection – the kind of reflection with the potential to engage people in human rights issues. It encourages us to become more curious and informed travellers and global citizens. These kinds of sites can be powerful catalysts for change.
On a global perspective, they encourage us to think about foreign policy and international relations, and their impact on the lives of ordinary men, women and children. For example, many historians believe the U.S. bombing campaign drove many rural Cambodians into the arms of the radical ideology espoused by the Khmer Rouge, allowing a madman such as Pol Pot to assume power.
They remind us that meddling militarily in other nations’ territory or affairs creates instability. Instability produces the conditions for insurgencies and fanaticism to take root. Both are capable of unleashing horrific effects, spreading like the aggressive cancer that was the Cambodian Genocide.
For a more recent example, the invasion of Iraq, disbanding of the Iraqi military, and growth of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq (and later in Syria as ISIS) tell us it’s a concept we’ve not yet grasped. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek stand as compelling reminders that we’ve still much to learn from the lessons of Cambodia’s genocidal past.
Hire a tuk-tuk. A tuk-tuk is a two-wheeled carriage pulled behind a motorcycle. It typically carries up to four passengers. It’s an inexpensive form of transportation, and you travel slowly enough to absorb the surroundings and feel the pulse of a place.
I stayed in a hostel in Phnom Penh. Our driver, Boray took us across town to Tuol Sleng, then out to Choeung Ek before returning us to the hostel. I recommend this order, and perhaps spreading your visits over two separate days.
Drivers wait while passengers tour each facility. The journey took a little more than half a day, and cost 15 USD. Hostels are great for meeting up with others, and in this case, I shared the ride with Carolina from Colombia, Cyril from France and Kari from Norway.
Before your visit
Prior to your visit, take a look at The Killing Fields. The 1984 film is based on the experience of Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran who coined the term “killing fields” after his escape during the genocide.
Read Loung Ung’s stirring account of her life under the Pol Pot regime in First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. It’s a powerful reflection on her experience as a child during this period of Cambodia’s dark history.
In addition, several heartbreaking Survivors’ Stories are posted at The Digital Archive of Cambodian Holocaust Survivors.
Have you visited these sites? If so, what was your experience? If not, perhaps you have other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.