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The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)
January 18, 2003 Saturday Final Edition
HEADLINE: The Tourist Fields: The Killing Fields of Cambodia are one of the most horrific legacies of
the 20th century. Now they are a tourist attraction, and that's good, the locals say
SOURCE: National Geographic
BYLINE: ZOLTAN ISTVAN
The sight of 8,000 human skulls in a glass shrine stuns visitors into silence. Outside, where cattle usually
graze, human bones sometimes come unearthed after heavy rains.
In Cambodia, 15 kms 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 per cent 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
The Killing Fields documents death. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7
million Cambodians, or 21 per cent of the population, according to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide
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 death. The bordering trees held
nooses for hangings.
A memorial building stands in the centre 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 did not want
to give his name. He lost his grandfather and uncle to the Khmer Rouge.
"It's good tourists are coming here interested in Cambodia's past," says Stephan 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 centre. 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, bloodstains and photographs of thousands of people who
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 the land mines they laid are still killing and maiming.
In a country where the annual per capita income is $260 U.S., begging can pay off.
"Beggars can easily make $3-4 a day," says Lim Sehyo, a Phnom Penh taxi driver and guide. "If you work
it out, that's over $1,000 a year."
As taxis full of tourists arrive at the Killing Fields, guides and beggars approach. Horror, memory,
education and livelihood co-mingle at the site.