Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The Killing Fields: Controversy Surrounding Your Visit to Choueng Ek

There are differing opinions on whether a trip of Cheoueng Ek in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh is worth it or, even more important, ethical.  In my opinion, yes.. it’s both.

The controversy at hand is two fold. First, is paying to wander through the site where thousands of people were ruthlessly slaughtered right?  In that sense, it is strange and even has an eery feeling to it.  Unfortunately, sites of tragedy, death and war are an important part of history and have become tourist attraction across the globe.  What’s disappointing to many here is the way in which the tragedy is presented.  Human bones are left scattered along trails, boxes of victim’s clothing are set out for all to see and what many consider the worst offense – the Memorial Stupa where the skulls of hundreds of killing field victims are displayed.

Memorial Stupa, Killing FIelds

Memorial Stupa, Killing FIelds

The second controversy only adds fuel to the fire for those against the killing field attraction.  The Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center is currently owned and operated by a Japanese company.  In the early 2000s, the Cambodian government struck a deal with company to improve, maintain and operate the Cheoung Ek site.  That doesn’t sit well with many in Cambodia, and it rubs a lot of tourists the wrong way.

Here are two of the many news articles that detail the issues surrounding the sale of Cheoung Ek to a foreign operation:

Japanese Firm to Manage Choueng Ek

Japanese Killing Field Site Tries to Quiet Critics

However, despite the frustrations over ownership, from an outsiders viewpoint the site is a powerful, and for the most part, tasteful reminder of the atrocities that occurred there, and the accompanying tour does a fantastic job of detailing the horrendous nature of the violence the innocent victims were subjected to before they died.

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Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

One can only be shocked when reading about the ruthless violence Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge inflicted upon the Cambodian people, but the overwhelming feeling of seeing what remains of the site of such horrendous acts cannot be put into words except to say the killing fields has given me an insight like I never imagined and helped me to full grasp the vicious nature of Pol Pot’s rule.

I actually happen to think sharing victims courageous stories is one of the best ways to honor their memory.  Unfortunately, not all tourists are alike, and I can’t deny that a few don’t grasp the gravity of the site and parade around taking photos of themselves grinning stupidly in front of the Memorial Stupa or The Killing Tree.  People claim S-21 is worth a visit, and I’m not arguing with that, but there is nothing more respectable about S-21 than Choeung Ek, except the fact that it’s not run by foreign investments.  Those who find the Memorial Stupa offensive, arguing the victims remains should be respectfully buried, tend to overlook the fact that S-21 houses a room full of skulls displayed for the public.

S-21 Prison

Tuol Sleng S-21 Memorial Room

If anything, the accompanying audio guide, an addition to Choeung Ek after it was sold the Japanese, sets the killings fields far apart from S-21.  The guide provides by far the most impactful, chilling account of what happened during Pol Pot’s regime.  Not only do visitors hear survivor stories, they also hear from Khmer Rouge soldiers who blindly and heartlessly murdered dozens of people, most likely to save themselves.

In my humble opinion, not only is the Choueng Ek Genocidal Center worth a visit during your time in Phnom Penh, it’s a must if you want to truly learn about the  murderous acts that happened in the not-so-distant past.  On the same token, I truly believe you should devote a good portion of your time to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21 Prison, as well.  Both can easily be visited in the same day by hiring a tuk tuk or car.  For more on the experience at Tuol Sleng click here.