The Killing Field Tour in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This is perhaps the toughest post to write yet.  I have sat here with this screen open many days and written, erased, and written again.  The problem is that even though we did this tour a month ago, I still have yet to process all that I feel about the day. Let me attempt to explain.

I knew coming to Cambodia that I had a lot to learn about the country's tumultuous history, but once I got here and started to read more about the Khmer Rouge and speak to locals in Siem Reap and Battambang, I realized how little I really knew.

After visiting the killing fields in Battambang, I knew I really wanted to tour the main fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital and the first city that Pol Pot evacuated during his 4-year siege on the country. I feel that it's important to be reminded of the bad things that happen in the world in order to prevent a re-occurrence in the future.

As my 13-year-old and I left for the day, we looked at each other, silently acknowledging that this was going to be a tough one.  It surprised us, though, just how tough it was and continues to be as we look at the faces of the locals all around Cambodia knowing anyone over the age of 40 lived through hell and possibly participated.  No justice was ever served.

We drove through the streets for almost an hour and that in itself was difficult to see, past all the factories where children and women poured out to grab a quick bite to eat.  The heat was staggering and from the looks on their faces we could tell their working conditions were not good.

As soon as we arrived at our first stop, the Killing fields themselves, we were greeted by men and women, shockingly thin, missing limbs, and begging for help.  Sadness doesn't even begin to cover the feelings, but at the moment that is all I can remember.

The mausoleum, where the skulls of visctims have been displayed
We entered the gate at Choeung Ek, and were pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the ticketing counter and the audio tour provided (included in the cost of entry, around $3 per person).  As we walked the grounds listening to the tour tears were present nearly every moment.

The tour is done beautifully, no guide just your listening device needed.  It takes you around the property explaining what happened and telling the tales from survivors of the Pol Pot regime.  In their own words (translated of course), and touching to say the least.  We were comfortable there and left feeling that the whole world needs to see this and hear this as a reminder.  We cannot forget this was less than 40 years ago.   Read here to learn more of Cambodians tragic history.

The killing tree, where infants were smashed against, bullets were not to be wasted

A moving tribute surrounding the area that women and children were found in a mass grave
Clothing, shoes and bones are still being discovered everyday!
We took a somber drive quietly reflecting on what we just saw for nearly 45 minutes to S21, the prison from where the victims of the killing fields originated.  When we arrived there was a sudden urge to leave, almost immediately we both felt very uncomfortable there. Walking through looking at hundreds upon hundreds of morbid photos, touring the torture cells that have been left the way they were found, and seeing the drops of old blood in the minuscule holding cells proved too much for my son.  He sat out the rest of the tour through the prison, but gained a lot of insight and perspective throughout the day.

Very small cells
The holding area
One of the many torture rooms
I am glad he came and so is he.  We stayed at the prison for about 1 hour and left with a deep pit in our stomachs.  How can anyone be so cruel, how can a nation have gone through such atrocities and retain their friendly, trusting manner?  So many thoughts and questions ruminated in us for weeks to follow.

I think what we found to be the most difficult component to the day was being in an area that symbolized deep prejudice and injustice.  Pol Pot killed people that were different, any difference at all.  He ordered children to kill family members and rid the population of as many educated people as possible in order to create the agrarian society he thought would benefit Cambodia most.

The perversion of logic is so hard to imagine and accept as reality  Facing the realization, head on, that there is a depth of cruelty possible in the human race that I prefer to 1) shield myself and my family from, 2) think does not exist, and 3) am still shocked to see and hear about, is a very humbling experience.

We have talked a lot about that day and can't help but feel that heaviness throughout the country.  It is still with them, a nation of people that are lacking in certain age ranges, that cannot build up an economy due to the landmines still in place, and that still look at us with genuine love, smiles and happiness.

Of all the things we've learned here, it isn't the atrocities or bloodstains that will stay with us the longest, it is the gentle people who we have had the privilege to know and the resiliency of humans to overcome even the worst that this world has to dish out!

If you get a chance to visit, I highly suggest it to anyone over age 12.  If you cannot get to Cambodia, please honor these people by educating yourself so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and move forward.  The history of Pol Pot is an education on Cambodia as a whole, while the numerous memoirs, like First They Killed My Father, will give you an inside view into the average Cambodians life throughout the siege.

Please share this story and spread the word that this can and does happen!

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  1. We (12 and older) just read First They Killed My Father in preparation for going to Cambodia. We'll be visiting the Killing Fields next week. We had a similar experience at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany... so horrific, so unfathomable to our way of thinking... and yet... within our capacity as humans. Those are not easy days, but I think they are some of the most important as they (hopefully) build compassion and teach our children things that will keep history from repeating itself. Kudos to you for doing the hard thing and taking your son to the graves.

  2. Thank you Jenn. The book is incredible isn't it?! I will be very curious to hear your take on it and the thoughts of your children. It was tough but so very important. You just can't teach perspective on a thing like this, the same way, out of a textbook!

    So grateful to be able to have and share these experiences with my children!

  3. I've done this tour, I remember hundreds of butterflies at the killing fields site, it was rather beautiful and tranquil. S21 on the other hand was vile. I read " First they Killed my Father" while we were there, years later I read every book on the subject I could find. They were the only books that I found I actually couldn't read sections of, I had to skip chunks. There was a huge contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia as we crossed the border, Cambodia was just so empty. I'm not sure my children are ready for all of it yet, they're too young to comprehend such atrocities. Thanks for the post, brought it all back. A

  4. I've read a few bloggers' moving posts on visiting the Killing Fields but yours is the first I've read with a child's perspective. I got goose bumps while reading this and looking at the pictures. It's heartbreaking to read the atrocities that the Cambodians endured. Thank you for sharing your experience and this wonderfully written post. When my kids are a bit older, I will be sure to share the memoirs with them and maybe follow in your footsteps because it's much more important and powerful to have this experience in person.

  5. I think what's especially disturbing about what happened in Cambodia is that many of the lovely people you meet were involved in the killings too, and that's something that's almost incomprehensible to me.

  6. yes Theodora that is difficult, the thought that no justice was served. I try to remember that there was a lot of brain washing and propaganda used against these very simple people. And real bombings by us going on all the time. People were scared and desperate and it just got way out of control. But I agree horrible, and even worse that Pol Pot was able to live out his life in relative peace!

  7. What a hard post to write. I actually had no idea about any of this and thank you so much for sharing. We had a similar experience visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. I went with my jewish husband and his parents. His mum broke down and had to sit most of the museum out. It is similar with a glass floor filled with shoes of the gas chamber dead. There is a room with millions of photos of every child that died and children's voices over the sound system. It was so hard. It is often not down to the man alone who commits the crime (ie. Hitler), but those who did nothing to stop it. May we always learn from the past in the hopes of never repeating them.

    1. I agree, it is so important to learn from our history! It also give you a deeper understanding of a country!

  8. Such a powerful piece. I shared this story with the Unschooling Blog Carnival.

    I hope you'll become a frequent contributor because your blog is wonderful!

    1. Thanks so much Sue! It was an incredible experience! I have also written several articles on unschooling under the travel schooling section!

  9. I felt that way when I had the chance to visit the concentration camp at sparked such a desire to try and understand the "why??" and "how could someone do this?" of that place and time. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, walking those grounds and -seeing- with my own eyes.

    Thank you for the book recommendations - I would like to learn more about that part of Cambodian/world history too.

    1. You are so welcome! I hope you find them informative. Sad but so important!

  10. What a very powerful post. I skipped Phnom Penh the first time I visited Cambodia. I didn't want to see the reminders of Pol Pot's horror. It knew it would be too diffucult. I'm going back to Cambodia in a month and my husband convinced me that we should go see the killing fields. He said that it may be ugly but its a huge part of our history we should learn from. He and your post convinced me that we should go indeed. I guess to appreciate the resilience of the wonderful Cambodian people and how far they have moved on, it's worth seeing the horror of their past. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. I am so glad to hear that. I really feel like it is so important, and I am so happy I brought my son. We both gained a deeper understanding of Cambodia.

      It is a very hard day but so worthwhile. Take your time, let tears flow, and learn as much as you can from it!