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"KILLING FIELDS" LURE TOURISTS IN CAMBODIA
By Zoltan Istvan
for National Geographic Today
January 10, 2003
The sight of 8,000 human skulls in a glass shrine stuns visitors into
Outside, where cattle usually graze, human bones sometimes come unearthed
after heavy rains.
In Cambodia, nine miles (14.5 kilometers) from Phnom Penh, the "killing
fields" of Choeung Ek have become a tourist attraction, horrifying and
fascinating. Choeung Ek is one of thousands of other such sites around the
country where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide during the late 1970s.
"There are two things you must see in Cambodia," says Scott Harrison, a
traveler from Australia. "Obviously one is Angkor Wat. But the other is the
killing fields outside Phnom Penh."
In the chronicle of 20th century horrors, Cambodia ranks high. For much of
the last three decades, Cambodia has suffered through war, political
upheaval and massive genocide.
Recently Cambodia has begun to revive. Its dark past is part of the reason:
Tourist curiosity about Cambodia's genocide has become big business.
"Tourism has increased by 40 percent every year since 1998," says Chhieng
Pich, economic counselor at the Cambodian embassy in Washington, D.C.
"Nearly all tourists that visit Cambodia will go see Angkor Wat. Over 30
percent will visit the killing fields, too."
Few sights in one country can differ more markedly. Angkor Wat, the early
12th-century temple rediscovered in the 19th century (and designated a World
Heritage Site in 1992 by UNESCO), reflects a profound spirituality.
1.7 Million Cambodians Dead
The killing fields document death. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer
Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians, or 21 percent of the
population, according to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program.
A soccer-field-sized area surrounded by farmland, the killing fields contain
mass graves, slightly sunken, for perhaps 20,000 Cambodians, many of whom
were tortured before being killed. The bordering trees held nooses for
A memorial building stands in the center of the killing fields. Many of the
skulls inside were pulled from the mass graves.
Hundreds of Cambodians now make a living by guiding visitors through the
killing fields and other genocide-related sites. Many guides tell harrowing
personal stories of how they survived the Khmer Rouge, often by becoming
refugees in Thailand.
Guides explain that bullets were too precious to use for executions. Axes,
knives and bamboo sticks were far more common. As for children, their
murderers simply battered them against trees.
The grisly memories translate into income. "Tourist dollars and capitalism
are helping me come to terms with my country's history -- and my own," says
a Cambodian guide at the killing fields who didn't want to give his name. He
lost his grandfather and uncle to the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
"It's good tourists are coming here interested in Cambodia's past," says
Stephen Bognar, a liaison officer for WildAid Cambodia, a nonprofit
conservation organization. "They're boosting the country's economy and
helping out the people."
Another notorious site is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh.
Once a high school, Tuol Sleng became a torture camp, prison and execution
Today the place looks benign, with palm trees and grass lawns in a suburban
setting. From the outside, Tuol Sleng could be a school anywhere in the
world. But inside are weapons of torture, skulls, blood stains and
photographs of thousands of people who were murdered.
The scene just outside is also heartrending. Amputees of all ages beg near
refreshment and souvenir stands where tourists congregate. The Khmer Rouge
may be long gone, but many of the land mines they laid are still killing and
In a country where the annual per capita income is U.S. $260, begging can
"Beggars can easily make [U.S.] $3 to $4 dollars a day," says Lim Sehyo, a
Phnom Penh taxi driver and guide. "If you work it out, that's over [U.S.]
$1,000 a year."
As taxis full of tourists arrive at the killing fields, guides and beggars
approach. Horror, memory, education and livelihood commingle at the site.
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