The Killing Fields and the amazing Cambodian people

September 23, 2014

It may seem strange that the Cambodian Government encourages tourists to visit the Killing Fields; but it’s an essential element of any visit to the country, because the fact is that from 1975 to 1979 an estimated 3 million people – 30% of the population – were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Nearly everyone you meet in Cambodia was affected by what happened, in some way, whether that’s the legacy of growing up without a family member who was murdered by the brutal regime, or struggling to survive in a country that has been scarred by genocide.

Choeung Ek














We visited the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek just as the sky was starting to darken and rain pour down; the suddenly bleak weather a fitting backdrop. We walked round silently as we were shown pits where victims had been buried alive; a tree where infants had been smashed to death; and inside the Buddhist stupa, the skulls, divided into age and sex, each with their own coloured sticker to indicate the way they’d died. You have to force yourself to look, and to read: you owe it to them all.

barbed wire Tuol Sleng











From here we moved on to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where 20,000 were tortured and killed. Many of their photos are on display and it’s impossible to tear yourself away from the harrowing images, so many faces, wondering if they could have known what terrible fate lay in store for them; some of them foreign tourists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time; some of them children. Most distressing is the photo of a woman holding a baby, knowing she’s about to be tortured.

Among the Khmer Rouge’s victims were intellectuals, those who wore glasses, the middle classes; a whole section of society was wiped out in their efforts to control the population and break their spirit.

Souk Cambodian schoolgirl











Ensuring children get an education is now a major priority in Cambodia, and we visited a school and village sponsored by Viking Cruises where the kids used to have to walk two or three miles just to get clean water. Now, they have a water pump and fresh water, and they’re talking about going to university and returning to help their village: kids like Souk, who is 14, loves geography and is looking forward to what the future holds.


Water-borne disease is still an issue in many communities and we saw kids actually swimming in rainwater with cattle. There is a long way to go.

Phare Cambodian Circus














All the people we met were warm and welcoming, so gentle, with wonderful smiles and an extraordinary generosity of spirit. The Killing Fields happened nearly 40 years ago, but there is still a long way to go until this incredible country is healed. There are huge issues with ‘orphanage tourism’ and exploitation; but there are also extremely positive things, like the fantastic Phare Cambodian Circus – a group of young acrobats who with the help of NGOs have come together to create something absolutely awesome.

These are some of the amazing people of Cambodia we met while we were there. Humbled, actually.

Elderly Cambodian woman













We met this elderly lady when we were walking round a village. When I asked if I could take her photograph she put down the very big knife she’d been carrying and insisted on removing her headscarf…

Elderly Cambodian man














…this charming elderly man invited us into his home…

Little girl CambodiaCambodian schoolboy














…..this little girl was just delightful…



…this little boy goes to the same school as Souk. So cheeky, fantastic character…

Mother and daughter Cambodia















…this mum and child were very relaxed on their hammock,next to their cattle…

Mother and baby Cambodia















…and this mum and her baby had such great smiles…
Cambodian kids















…and this group of kids kept wanting me to take their photos and show them the results. Very funny. Just like a group of kids anywhere in the world, in fact.

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