One of the things that strikes you when you visit the Killing Fields, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is how crude everything once was here. Even the murders. Especially the murders.
Ammunition was too expensive and in short supply so the people killed here were normally hacked to death with spades, machetes or even the spiked plants that grew nearby.
To the murderers, their victims were not even worth the price of a bullet.
The Killing Fields is part of the legacy left by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
When Pol Pot and his murderous organisation took control of the country, he tried to enforce his communist dream through a nightmare of fear and violence. Anyone with the ability to think for themselves was seen as a threat and he set out to eliminate them.
Simply having a career as something like a lawyer, doctor, linguist or teacher was enough to mark you for death. That Pol Pot himself was once a teacher and spoke multiple languages was irrelevant in this brazen genocide.
What are the Killing Fields?
The Killing Fields is a general term used to describe the places where the Khmer Rouge committed mass killings in the 1970s. More than 300 different locations have been uncovered in Cambodia, where more than a million people were murdered.
What is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre?
Choeung Ek is the name of one of the Killing Fields, although for tourists in Phnom Penh, often it’s just referred to as “The Killing Fields” (even though that’s not technically correct). The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is the name of the museum are area that can be visited by tourists.
Can you visit the Killing Fields?
More than 300 different sites have been uncovered around Cambodia and it’s not possible to visit most of them. However, the Choeung Ek location on the outskirts of Phnom Penh has been made accessible for tourists so you can visit the Killing Fields here.
Hearing the history of the Khmer Rouge regime and learning about the genocide is awful enough. But actually seeing some of the locations from that period is even more emotional.
As I walk through the Choeung Ek Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I find it hard to not get upset, to not get angry, to not get confused about how anybody could do this.
If you’re looking for a straightforward and affordable tour to the Killing Fields, then I would recommend this trip from Phnom Penh.
But even though it’s quite a traumatic experience – or perhaps because it is – I think visiting the Killing Fields is one of the most important things you can do in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian Genocide by the Khmer Rouge had such a huge impact on the country and you still see its effects today. Learning more about it will give you a deeper understanding of the things you’ll see and do as you travel around Cambodia.
Like many places you’ll visit in Cambodia, you’ll need to do a little bit of preparation before you head out. But this time it’s more than just logistics.
I would recommend doing a bit of emotional preparation as well, because visiting the Killing Fields is going to be quite confronting.
History of the Cambodian Genocide
When Pol Pot took control of Cambodia in 1975, the country became isolated from much of the world. With nobody watching, Pol Pot set about trying to create the country in his ideal vision.
This meant an agrarian socialist republic (a communist state), where the focus would be on workers in the farms.
The genocide started as the Khmer Rouge began to kill people who stood in the way of this ideological plan. That included those who had connections to the former government or to foreign powers. But then it extended to anyone who could potentially be a threat to the plan.
Intellectuals were seen as potential rebels and were killed. Even people who wore glasses or spoke another language were killed because they showed traits of intellectuals.
The murders continued, and were extended, to all sorts of professionals, religious leaders, and ethnic minorities. Pol Pot and his followers didn’t seem to care how many people they killed – it was all seen as a purification process.
Over the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, from 1975 until 1979, it’s estimated about 2 million people were killed. That was more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time.
Most of these people were murdered at sites across the country that are now known as ‘The Killing Fields.
There was nothing sophisticated about it. There was very little infrastructure. There’s a reason these locations are now called ‘fields’ because that’s essentially all they were.
The victims were brought out in trucks, they were taken to pits that had been dug in the ground, and then they were bashed or hacked or mutilated before being thrown into the hole.
Body upon body piled up on top of each other in the mess of massacre.
Thousands upon thousands of people murdered.
And they weren’t just killed – they were dumped and then ignored, a final revolting act by the genocidal monsters.
What do you see at the Killing Fields?
The main Killing Fields site that you can visit these days is Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
It’s estimated at least 20,000 Cambodians were executed here at Choeung Ek, their bodies left in the pits like at all the sites.
A reminder: Although it’s commonly referred to as ‘The Killing Fields’, the site you can visit in Phnom Penh is officially called ‘Choeung Ek’ and is just one of hundreds of Killing Fields locations across Cambodia.
From an infrastructure point of view, the Killing Fields site is crude. Nowadays there are no originals building left but, even back then, there were just a few small wooden structures.
Comparing it, for example, to the German concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland, you realise how primitively brutal the Khmer Rouge was.
There was no plan for the future, no nation-building grand design. They weren’t trying to create a society, they were trying to destroy one.
Most of what you see now is what you would’ve seen at the time – fields that had been dug up to create mass graves, rudimentary weapons or other instruments of death, reminders of the stolen lives scattered across the ground,
The audioguide paints the picture well. It describes in more detail how the site would have looked during the Khmer Rouge’s reign and includes first-person accounts of those who were there at the time. It puts into perspective what you can see today.
And much of that is confronting because it appears so simple yet represents so much more.
Dug-out pits with rags of clothing still half-buried in the dirt; human bones protruding from the ground; even the tree the guards would smash babies against to kill them.
The main new addition is the memorial building, officially known as the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. The modern stupa with traditional Cambodian architectural styles houses the skulls and other bones of thousands of victims.
It’s a tribute to those who lost their lives, and a grim reminder of the horrors of what happened here.
The skulls look out through the glass doors and windows at the fields in front of them – the fields of death.
Killing Fields tours from Phnom Penh
In the next section, I’ll share some information on visiting the Killing Fields independently. But transport can be a bit tricky, so this is one of those destinations where a tour is often the better option (and there are some affordable choices).
For example, this tour from Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields (and to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) is great value because you’ll get all the transport included plus a guide to add context to everything you’re seeing (although the group can be quite large).
Another good choice is this full-day city tour that will take you to the Killing Fields but also include about ten other important sights in Phnom Penh.
A lot of the Killing Fields tours are private tours, which can be good value if you’re in a group or, even if there’s just a couple of you, offer a lot more flexibility to make the most of your time in Phnom Penh.
I’ve picked three here that I would recommend:
If there’s a bit of discrepancy in prices, check to see whether the entrance fees are included (which also saves any nasty surprises).
Visiting the Killing Fields
It’s possible to visit the Killing Fields independently, and really the biggest issue is getting there, because it’s about 10 kilometres from the centre of the city.
There is no public transport to the Killing Fields from Phnom Penh so unfortunately you’ll need to get there another way. If you don’t want to take a tour, you’ll have to either rent a motorbike (or car), or use a taxi (or tuk tuk or rideshare).
Most taxis/tuk tuks/rideshares will drive you there, wait, and then drive you back. The price can range a little bit depending on the season and your bargaining skills, but expect it to be around US$15-20 for the return trip.
A really important thing to remember about visiting the Killing Fields is that this is not a tourist attraction. Choeung Ek is a memorial to the thousands of people who were killed here and, as such, there are some things to keep in mind.
- Official rules at the site mean you can’t wear clothing that exposes your back, shoulders, stomachs, or knees. Normal shorts will be ok but don’t wear short shorts. Singlets are also not appropriate.
- Although you’re allowed to talk, there are lots of signs asking that you keep your voice down and try not to be too loud. Basically, act as you should at a graveyard.
- If you go into the tower that holds the skulls of the victims, remember to take off your shoes before you enter.
Overall, I would recommend spending about 90 minutes at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. It’s not a large site, but it’s not somewhere you’ll feel like rushing through.
If you’ve chosen to take a tour, you may have a guide who will explain what you’re seeing at the site. If not, I would highly recommend getting the audioguide. It only costs US$3 but it is really good and will add to your experience.
Where are the Killing Fields?
The Killing Fields are about 10 kilometres south of the centre of Phnom Penh. The site is officially called the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and the address is Roluos Village, Sangkat Cheung Aek, Phnom Penh.
You can find it on a map here.
How do you get to Killing Fields?
From Phnom Penh, there is no public transport to the Killing Fields.
The easiest way to get to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is to hire a motorbike/car and drive yourself, or to take a taxi/tuk tuk/rideshare, which will cost about US$15-20 return and take about 45 minutes each way.
When is Killing Fields open?
The Killing Fields is open every day from 7:30 – 17:30.
What is the Killing Fields entrance fee?
Admission to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre) costs US$3 per person, as well as another US$3 for the audioguide.
Are there tours to Killing Fields?
Another important site that will add to your understanding of this period is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the S-21 Prison.
It’s in Phnom Penh itself and is easier to visit logistically, although it’s just as draining emotionally.
Some people prefer to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum on the same day as the Killing Fields because of their similarities (and that’s how many tours do it). But it makes for a very heavy day, so you might also want to consider splitting the visits so it’s not too upsetting.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN PHNOM PENH
With accommodation quite reasonably priced, I think it’s worth finding somewhere nice to escape the rather hectic streets of Phnom Penh.
Social without being too loud, Onederz is in a great location and even has a rooftop pool!
For a cheap hotel, Saravoan Royal Palace is wonderfully quiet, modern, and centrally located.
A natural oasis in the city, Jungle Addition has large rooms, a swimming pool and garden, and a delicious breakfast.
In a grand historic building, Raffles Hotel Le Royal has everything you would expect from this iconic SE Asian name.