Visit the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)

The Choeung Ek Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is one of the vivid reminders of the brutality of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields from Phnom Penh

Although it can be a harrowing experience, learning about the Khmer Rouge atrocities at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is an important part of your time in Cambodia.

To help you with your planning, I've put together some useful information about visiting the Killing Fields from Phnom Penh.

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.

Visit the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. (Choeung ek genocidal centre)

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.

Visit the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. (Choeung ek genocidal centre)

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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,

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

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?

Yes, there are lots of tours to the Killing Fields from Phnom Penh.
One of the most affordable options is this tour from Phnom Penh.
There’s also this good full-day tour that includes other sites in the city.
Or there’s this excellent private tour to the 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.

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For a cheap hotel, Saravoan Royal Palace is wonderfully quiet, modern, and centrally located.

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LUXURY

In a grand historic building, Raffles Hotel Le Royal has everything you would expect from this iconic SE Asian name.

24 thoughts on “Visit the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)”

    • I think the emotions you feel would be similar to somewhere like Dachau but the infrastructure is so different. There’s so little to see at the Killing Fields and there’s a horror in that – just how crude it was.

      Reply
  1. I have read about this place before and compared it to many other similar situations in history.

    The problem that I have is I think overall 99.99% of people are good. So when I read stories like this, it kind of gets me thinking about the soldiers that helped and the people that participated.

    It backs up the theory that the human mind is extremely fragile and words or objects can affect our future actions. We are easily brainwashed or affected. We are easily persuaded to go along with the majority instead of standing out in the crowd.

    I can not understand why these things happen but I still want to believe that all the people who participated in the killings, were fundamentally good at heart. Somewhere along the line, they just lost their humanity.

    Reply
    • Yes, fundamentally most people are good. And for those who were soldiers, it’s hard to pass judgement because you don’t know the context of the lives they were living and what had come in the past. To many, at first, the Khmer Rouge seemed like a good option after the war that had been going on around them.
      It’s the leaders who are the hardest to understand. Do they realise how evil their actions are or are they blinded by power?

      Reply
  2. I found the tree on which they killed babys the most gruesome. It is a very sad place, but I think it is important for tourists to visit these places in order to understand Cambodia truly.

    Reply
    • Yeah, that tree is awful, isn’t it? Not just because of the way the babies died but because it says so much about the people doing the killing that they have such little respect for life and honour.

      Reply
  3. I visited the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng when I was fairly young – still in my teens and I was utterly horrified by the cruel acts that took place there. Such evil. Knowing the thousands of people who had died there, was very raw and very uncomfortable. Reading your words brought me back to what I was feeling at the time.

    Let us hope that these places will stand as a reminder that we should not let it happen again.

    Reply
    • It would be really tough to see somewhere like this as a teenager, I imagine. But perhaps it has more of an effect on the way you choose to lead your life. If more people understood the horrors of the past, perhaps the world would be a better place.

      Reply
    • My opinion is that the prison is a lot more confronting because there is more to see. But there’s something about the Killing Fields that is important to experience as well. It really goes to the heart of the simplicity of what the Khmer Rouge were trying to do.

      Reply
  4. Yet to make the journey into Cambodia during our current time here in SE Asia, but when it does happen I know that myself & Franca will have the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre at the top of our places to visit.

    We visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last summer and couldn’t fathom the incredible capabilities of human beings, even more so the cruelty & preparation for methodical killing.

    Going to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre will undoubtedly be tough, but worth it.

    Reply
    • It’s somewhere I think you really have to visit if you’re passing through Phnom Penh – or even Cambodia more generally. It’s crucial to the country and the way so many people who live here see it. Remember, it was only 30 or so years ago, so many people in Cambodia still remember the Khmer Rouge regime vividly and have all been affected by it.

      Reply
    • Thanks, Veronica. Travel isn’t all just lazing on beaches and eating good food. It’s also about thinking and understanding the world and this is such an important part of Cambodian (and world) history!

      Reply
    • Thanks, Jennifer. This whole region is fascinating and there’s so much to learn about these SE Asian countries. I think a lot of people just see cheap party holidays but they forget that there are centuries of really interesting history and cultural clashes!

      Reply
  5. When you read posts like this it brings home the horrible fact that mankind is really not very civilized at all. When you look back on history at similar atrocities, Nazi concentration camps, Bosnia and countless others, you have to wonder are these same atrocities being carried out right now in another country.

    Reply
    • Yeah, this kind of behaviour is certainly not isolated to Cambodia. It’s a human nature thing, in some ways. And this kind of thing will pobably keep on happening as long as the international community lets it happen.

      Reply
  6. A more positive story is now emerging from the gloomy terror filled years of the Cambodian civil war. A proposed documentary is about Cambodia’s General Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey and a 26 year old Australian whose life he saved in 1971 when targeted by the Khmer Rouge.

    “Dale of Cambodia” is a true story of an unusual friendship between the Australian adventurist, Spencer Dale and Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey. The 7 hours of full colour Super 8mm film and hundreds of still photos captured by Dale during that period were intended to be a personal rather than public record of his adventures. Now, after 40 years these incredible images and an even more incredible story will be made publically available for the first time.

    It’s a story of commitment, loyalty and friendship towards a man and a country facing complete inhalation from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. While set in a horrific wartime environment, Dales story is uplifting and inspiring as it focuses on his untiring dedication to help and support his Cambodian friends and a nation abandoned by Australia and the rest of the world.

    What eventually followed in Cambodia became known as the ‘Killing Fields’ and will be etched in history for its systematic genocide of some 2 million people.

    I hope this documentary will help with the healing of this beautiful country and its wonderful people.

    Details of the project can be found at http://www.daleofcambodia.com and http://www.facebook.com/daleofcambodia

    Reply

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