“You visited the what today?!”

The Killing Fields.

Oh, and a genocide museum.

People often look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them what we do on our “vacations.” I suppose they’re reactions are not completely unjustified. After all, most people are probably just content to lounge on the beach for a week or, at most, exhaust themselves at Disney World. But our vacations have never been what our friends would consider normal. We tried sitting on the beach in Belize, but even that got boring. Instead, we prefer to spend our vacation time hiking the mountains of New England, volunteering in under-resourced communities, or learning about less than pleasant moments in world history. It’s what pushes us to become more engaged and responsible global citizens. 

So visiting places like the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) is not unusual for us. We feel a strong conviction that we have the responsibility to learn about some of the most tragic events in history; a responsibility not just to learn, but also to act. If we don’t witness the effects of violent conflict first hand, how we will ever learn to appreciate the relative peace we enjoy in America? How will we ever understand just how bad things could really get? How will our country ever know how to avoid the mistakes of the past if we don’t understand what happened and why?

We are separated from such tragedies by less than we like to think.

We must continue to learn from the mistakes of the past. We must remain painfully aware of just how depraved mankind can be. And we, as recipients of this knowledge and as witnesses to the long-term effects of such tragedies, must speak up against injustice wherever we see it happening in the world, both at home and abroad.

And that is why there was never really any question as to whether or not we would visit the sites telling the story Cambodia’s genocide and honoring the lives of its victims — even if we were on “vacation.” So as we concluded our time at S-21, we hopped in a tuk tuk and began the long, nearly half-hour dusty ride outside of Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields, where tens of thousands of prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were taken to be executed.

Below, in photos, is their story:

Over 3 million people were killed during the 3 years and 8 months that the Khmer Rouge terrorized Cambodia. Although many people died of exhaustion or starvation while working in the fields, millions were outright executed. Above is the actual “killing field” where victims were executed. It looks rather unassuming, doesn’t it?

Dozens of “killing fields” existed across Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge, and many have yet to be excavated. It is estimated that over 3 million people were killed in just under four years at the hands of this brutal regime. 

The Killing Fields contain dozens of mass graves, in which the remains of hundreds of victims have been recovered. The victims were thrown into these pits following their execution. Often, the victims appeared to have something in common, either in terms of their manner of death or their gender. One mass grave, for example, contained victims who were all naked; another contained only women and children; still another contained the headless remains of hundreds of victims.

Visitors offer prayer beads and other tokens in honor of the victims.

The bones of victims are still surfacing from the mass graves, even thirty years later. As you walk the paths surrounding the mass graves, it is not uncommon to walk over the bones of victims.

Just as the bones of victims still appear along the paths surrounding the mass graves, so also do remnants of the victims’ clothing. Such sights are absolutely nausea-inducing.

You can’t help but wonder, To whom did this shirt belong?

A sign keeps visitors from walking across the mass grave.

An example of the condition of victims found in the mass graves.

A display case holds bones and clothing remains of victims.

A tree against which the Khmer Rouge beat young  children to death.

The memorial stupa erected to honor the memory of those who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge.

The sign as you enter the memorial stupa. Please remove your shoes and remain silent as you enter the stupa. 

Inside the stupa, a 17-level shelf holds the skeletal remains of the victims that have been recovered from the mass graves.

The Killing Fields are a sobering reminder that although the Khmer Rouge genocide ended in 1979, the effects of its reign continue to plague the people of Cambodia today. Many people who lived through its horrors still remain, while others, born after the genocide have nonetheless inherited its scars.

I appreciate that this is not an easy topic for you to read about, as it is not an easy topic for me to write about either. But I hope my coverage of the Khmer Rouge genocide has done more than just depress you; I hope it has provided you with some insight into Cambodia’s tragic, recent past to help better put into context the condition of the country today as I continue to post on my experience and observations from my time there. 

There are many great experiences to be had in Cambodia, but one should not visit the country without also taking note of its very recent and tragic history. It explains a lot about the Cambodia you see today.