Some of the 8000 skulls on display at the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek.
Some of the 8000 skulls on display at the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. Brett Wortman

Killing Fields tourism

IT WAS only 7.30 in the morning but the heat oozing from the tarmac left me in no doubt that I had escaped an unusually cold Australian winter and landed firmly in the tropics.

Moments before, I had been gazing in awe out the plane window at the landscape of endless rice paddies as our plane descended over Cambodia's capital.

Threading its way through the patchwork of ponds and paddocks and palm trees was the mighty Mekong River. This massive brown artery connects Cambodia with Laos and China to the north and Vietnam to the south-east, where it drains into the South China Sea through the vast Mekong Delta.

The bustling city of Phnom Penh is on the convergence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers. These days, most visitors include the charming city on their travel itinerary because of the genocide tourism that has developed out of the horrors that were committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

The other reason people come to Cambodia is for the temples, which are mostly to the north-west around the town of Siem Reap. Built in the Angkor period between the ninth and 13th centuries, they are the pride of the nation and a marvel of mankind.

I quickly fell in love with Phnom Penh. The city is alive with activity and you could spend a week just sitting on a corner watching life go by and not tire of the spectacle. It's a city of opportunity in a country still trying to find its way after the murder of almost two million people by the Pol Pot regime.

Exclusive hotels and restaurants accommodating the growing tourist trade sit awkwardly among the relative squalor of local life. The legacies of the Vietnam War saw up to two million refugees choke the small capital before it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Despite falling to Vietnamese forces in 1979, the Khmer Rouge maintained a guerrilla war throughout the '80s and it wasn't until 1998 that the organisation was finally erased from the history books.

Put this in context with tourism in 2011 and it is easy to understand why Cambodia can seem a little perplexing to the outsider looking in.

Our first tourist destination was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, which is the official residence of the king. These sparkling buildings seem a tad overdone for today's monarchy, but if you want to look at lots of gold, silver and diamonds, then this is the place to go.

Nearby is the National Museum, which is worth checking out for a history lesson before heading to the temples. It contains original statues and artefacts rescued from temple areas.

The palace and museum are near the French-inspired riverfront known as Sisowath Quay.

It was here that we concluded our first day with a sunset river cruise, fine waterfront dining complete with a traditional dance show and a stroll through the quasi-carnival atmosphere along the esplanade. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was a school that became the S21-Prison.

An estimated 17,000 people were tortured here before being trucked off to the Killing Fields.

Visitors can tour the classrooms where inmates were chained to beds and walk the playground that was converted to a torture arena.

The tragedy truly hit home for me when I reached the thousands of mug shots of innocent men, women and children who perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The looks in the eyes of the helpless souls is enough to break anyone's heart.

A painting of human babies being tossed in the air and shot like clay targets is imbedded in my mind. I would like to imagine the crude depiction was a figment of a sick imagination, but sadly it depicts a time in Cambodia not too long ago when the most unimaginable of horrors were a daily reality.

From Toul Sleng, we travelled the same road that the truckloads of prisoners would have travelled to the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek, 17km from Phnom Penh and situated along a quiet dirt road amid farmland.

You'd easily miss the morbid tourist attraction if it wasn't for the towering Buddhist stupa.

The monument, containing more than 8000 skulls arranged by sex and age, is a significant tribute to the dead, yet I couldn't help but feel uneasy as we gazed into the opened cabinets with skulls inches from our faces.

This uneasiness intensified as we walked through the fields of mass graves that are no more than open pits overgrown with weeds. Scraps of clothing and even shards of bones could be seen around the edges of the pits, making it hard to know where to walk. I'm not easily upset, but I couldn't wait to leave the killing fields and even now recalling the visit has my eyes welling with emotion.

It's a strange way to spend a holiday but I'm glad to have experienced Cambodia's genocide tourism. The world needs to know what went on here, for even today the perpetrators of these horrors are still being brought to justice. Cambodia is much more than its grizzly past but all those who visit the beautiful country should take the time to respect what has taken place here.

The author was a guest of Air Asia.

Good to know about Cambodia

Air Asia flies to Cambodia via Kuala Lumpur ex-Melbourne and Perth daily and Coolangatta five times a week with increased services over the Christmas period.

Entry to Cambodia is either through Phnom Penh (twice daily) or Siem Reap (once a day).

Fares from Coolangatta to Kuala Lumpur start from $220 and you can get from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh for as little as $45.



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