Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?

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(Last updated on: 07/05/2021)

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia? This is a question that many travellers will ask themselves. Whilst it is fascinating to learn about this horrible history, and education is always a good thing, is it right that we as tourists are taking photographs of the victim’s skulls and walking along the paths that once saw such extreme terror and devastation?

Ethics is always a subjective and somewhat grey area and it is a personal opinion as to whether you should or shouldn’t visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia. But if your mind isn’t made up yet, I have outlined the benefits and disadvantages in this informative article.

What are the Killing Fields in Cambodia?

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
You can visit the exact places where thousands of victims were brutally and tragically tortured and killed in Cambodia at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.

In the 1970s, Cambodia saw a civil war. This ended in 1975, and the country was then run by the Khmer Rouge. They were the Communist Party of Kampuchea. There are fields across Cambodia where over a million people were killed and buried; these are known as the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This was the Cambodian Genocide. Around 2.5 million people were killed in total by the Khmer Rouge and their policies – but approximately 1,386,734 were executed at these fields. 

The name came from Dith Pran. He was a journalist, and survived the destructive Khmer Rouge regime. He saw people poisoned or beaten to death – children included. You can now visit the Killing Fields of Cambodia…. but is this ethical? Lets find out…

The history behind the Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge regime was led by Pol Pot. He has since been described as a “genocidal tyrant” due to the sheer scale of the murders carried out by his party. They arrested and killed pretty much everyone who was suspected of being connected with either the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments. Among those executed were Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and Cham a well as Cambodian Christians and Buddhist monks.

This Netflix documentary is a fascinating watch that will teach you all about living in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Regime. It also comes as a book (which you can purchase here), which I highly recommend.

Political criminals were warned by the Khmer Rouge, twice, if they had done something the party deemed “wrong”. After that they were sent away for re-education which, generally, meant they would be executed. Often they were persuaded to confess to their ‘crimes’. These crimes were generally things like having contact with foreign sources or engaging in free-marketing activity.

The Khmer Rouge regime has been described as totalitarian, xenophobic, autocratic, repressive and paranoid. On top of the executions, they had various social engineering policies in place which led to so many deaths. They even had something called the Maha Lout Ploh. This was an imitation of something China did called the Great Leap Forward – an agricultural reform through collective farming which ultimately led to the Great Chinese Famine. Similar happened in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge’s copycat games. The party also insisted on self-sufficiency which meant there was a lack of medicine in many cases. This only led to more deaths.

What can you see at the Killing Fields of Cambodia?

You can visit the Killing Fields of Cambodia. It is best to do so with a guide, so you can really understand what it is you are seeing. There are plenty of tours available, but I generally recommend Viator as they are reliable and have English speaking guides. You can see the tours that Viator are currently offering here. Audio guides are available too.

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
Is it ethical to take photographs of victims’ skulls?

Information points make it easier to digest your surroundings, and there are various things to see at the Killing Fields in Phomn Penh. These include bone fragments and clothes as well as untouched communal graves – the resting places of hundreds of thousands of victims. There is also a Buddhist memorial stupa here, filled with skulls, which is the main focus of this site. It is important to show respect at the Killing Fields of Cambodia, by generally acting in the way that you would at a memorial: no selfies, no smoking, no eating or drinking.

The S-21 Museum

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
The S21 museum was once a school.

You can also visit the S-21 Museum. Its full name is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and it chronicles the Cambodian genocide as well as the general actions of the Khmer Rouge. It is a former secondary school, used as a prison (Security Prison 21) during the regime. Around 20,000 people were imprisoned here between 1976 and 1979. It was also one of the many (around 196) torture and execution centres of the regime.

Did you know: the prison’s chief, Kang Kew Iew, was convicted in July 2010. He was convicted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia for crimes against humanity and multiple breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. He was serving a life sentence. Iew died in 2020.

These are cells that were erected in the former school classroom.

The museum site has 4 main buildings. These are known as A, B, C and D. Many rooms are entirely preserved, left just as they looked when the Khmer Rouge were driven out of power in 1979. Thanks to the records kept by the regime themselves, the museum has a wealth of photographs of prisoners and more. You can see cells, weapons, photo galleries and more at the S-21 Museum when visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

S-21 Museum is open from 8am until 5pm. You can also view a survivor testimony from 2.30-3pm daily.

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
Information plaques tell visitors how victims were tortured and killed.

Reasons FOR visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia

There are many reasons to visit the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Many call it ‘dark tourism’ and while it is (by definition) an example of this, it is also somewhere that is so important in terms of education. There is a reason why the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia) arrange for Cambodians themselves to visit on study tours!

As with many places like the Killing Fields of Cambodia (such as Auschwitz, for example) it is worth remembering the famous George Santayana quote. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This is so true – and the Khmer Rouge regime was less than 50 years ago. It is well within living memory. Remembering what happened and educating future generations is important to potentially prevent things like this from happening again.

Victims’ clothes are displayed in glass cabinets.

Educational tourism is a brilliant way to provide a hands-on, up-close learning experience. By visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia, locals and tourists alike are able to gain further insight into the cultural, social and historical impacts of the Cambodian genocide. This is true of many ‘dark tourism’ destinations. Providing real-life context for the things we can read about in books is a brilliant way of hammering home what happened under the control of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Visiting the area – and Cambodia itself – is a way of supporting the families who were torn apart by this genocide. Given that it really wasn’t so long ago, people are still rebuilding. By shopping locally and putting money into the Cambodian economy, you can support this beautiful country in recovering from its tragic past.

Projects in Cambodia

When visiting Cambodia to experience the history of the Killing Fields, it is worth looking into local charity projects. Many of these exist (and need to exist) because of the tragedy brought upon the country by the Khmer Rouge and the horrific Genocide.

The Starfish Project, for example, provides support for local disabled people through its sales of delicious baked goodies. There are various organisations across Cambodia doing similar things for marginalised groups!

You can volunteer in Cambodia too, if long-term travel is something you are looking into. This is always a worthwhile way to spend your time while abroad. You are able to give back to local communities and ensure a brighter future for many local people and areas.

Reasons AGAINST visiting the Killing Fields

Is it ethical to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
Some people are not comfortable visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Some people would disagree with the idea of visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Many are against the notion of ‘dark tourism’. They say that it is a terrible form of voyeurism, and fetishises the collective trauma of countries and cultures. Does visiting the Killing Fields (or Alcatraz, or Hiroshima) simply render these places a spectacle? Or, as mentioned above, is it a way to remember what happened and educate people? People who disagree with dark tourism are, of course, likely to disagree with the idea of visiting the Cambodian Killing Fields.

There are also personal reasons as to why people may not want to visit the Killing Fields specifically. It is, as you might expect, a heart-wrench experience. There are many people alive today who were alive at the time of the Khmer Rouge regime. They may have memories of what happened during this period of history, or know people who were personally affected by the regime. It is an emotionally disturbing experience. Those with a weak disposition are probably best avoiding a visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

Ethical tourism: the Killing Fields of Cambodia

Whichever side you are on when it comes to the pros and cons of visiting the Killing Fields, it is important to do so ethically. Be respectful during your visit. As mentioned above, this means no selfies or eating/drinking. Dress appropriately too, and treat the area delicately. Remember that this is the site of one of the most horrific genocides in history. It may not be one that gets talked about as often as other genocides, but it is still a regime that killed over 2 million people for no reason. Respect the memory of the people who died here, and their living relatives.

Further reading

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read-

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Dr Hayley Stainton

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Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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