Every country we visit will have a dark side.  For every beautiful, sunlit temple there will be a dark memorial, a reminder of violence, power struggle or corruption. For every smile we get from the locals, there is a tear being shed behind closed doors. Every scenic beach, filled with ice cream sellers and souvenir hawkers, has its counterpart in a dark, shady side of town where they have to go home to at night.

Sometimes the dark side seems abstract and hidden far away. Weren’t there always evil kings, greedy maharajahs, and conquering conquerors? Everybody has those buried somewhere deep in history. Sometimes we, the visitors, will know about it and sometimes we may even care. We always talk about the joys of travelling and experiencing new worlds, but seldom of the horrors when you are all of a sudden confronted with a part of a country you would rather not know about. And as much as we may insist that it is our hard earned holiday, our joyful time that we don’t want to spoil by seeing horrible stuff, I think we have to see it. I don’t think it is okay to visit a country and close our eyes to all the bad things that may have happened or may still be going on. I don’t think it is okay just to go straight to the beaches or the pretty historic landmarks and not ask a single question of what lies behind this shiny facade. I think as travellers we have a responsibility to see also the dark.

I was actually shocked when I started to read about Cambodia’s recent history before my trip, not only for the horrors of the history itself, but also because I really hadn’t known anything about it at all. I was embarrassed that something so tragic, which only ended 1979, the year I was born, had completely evaded my knowledge. The knowledge of a history nerd I may add. I tried to make up for it and started reading. It became clear to me that seeing the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh would become a highlight of my trip, albeit a horrific and sad one.

lucky at killing fields

We go on a hot August day and our guide’s name is Lucky. Ironic and fitting at once, considering that after losing 3 children due to famine during the Khmer Rouge regime, he was his parents’ forth child. He speaks slightly detached, but also passionate and when he sees our faces unsure whether we can ask questions or take pictures, he says, “Take pictures, ask questions, go back to your home and tell everybody about it. We need to make sure something like that can never happen again, so the world needs to know about it.”

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into a communist agricultural state. Ironically Pol Pot himself was an intellectual, educated in France. However with his vision for Democratic Kampuchea he decided to persecute anyone who was literate, spoke a foreign language, was critical towards his doings, wore glasses or had soft hands as they were a sure sign of an educated elite for him. Blaming the Americans for alleged bombing threats he managed to evacuate the whole capital Phnom Penh within 3 days, dispersing the entire population to the countryside. There city people had to learn farming and live amongst the villagers, working towards his ideal of a country with an agrarian socialism.  With this uprooting came famine and terror. Thousands of political enemies or those perceived to be were shipped off to the now called Killing Fields, the ones on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, being only one gruesome example.

killing fields

mass grave killing fields

They are now eerily beautiful, lined with green hills and blossoming trees. That is till you learn that the hills are untouched mass graves and that certain areas are roped off, because during rainy season too many homeless bones and teeth still wash up. Trees, usually a sign for life, were perverted in their use here. Strong and spiky palm tree leaves were used to saw prisoners’ heads off and the so called Magic Tree was used to hang loudspeakers to drown out the moans of the executed. The most horrifying one, the one that was used to kill babies in front of their mothers’ eyes. I couldn’t take a picture of the entire tree, it seemed too big and too horrible to grasp. I took only pictures of the blessings visitors have left on the tree over the years, praying that the dead would find peace at last.

killing tree killing fields

A lot of graves have been excavated and 20.000 still unidentified skulls can now be seen in a stupa in the centre of the fields, finally resting, but still reminding the world of what has happened. One can leave incense and flowers as blessings. It seems too little too late, but I leave some anyhow.

stupa and skulls

We move on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which used to be the Security Prison 21 (S-21). Here high-profile enemies of the state used to be kept and often tortured for information, they didn’t have. The building used to be a school and again blossoming frangipani trees, sweeping lawns, and a swing set remind of better times. Until you realize that the swing set has been turned into the prison’s gallows.


prison yard

Cells have been left intact as possible: the bed has no mattress but shackles, the toilet is a metal box, and there are still blood stains the walls and floors. I feel embarrassed, but I try to stay as far away from the walls as possible. There is barbed wire everywhere and the fear and desperation people must have felt, is still in the buildings now. I don’t know how buildings contain horror so well.

prison cell

corridor barbed wire

Another area is dedicated to pictures of inmates and keepers. Young faces and old faces, some friendly and handsome, some aloof and dreary. Unless you read the inscriptions closely there is no way of telling who is who. I always thought evil would have a really ugly face.

cell and pictures

The reign of terror lasted from 1975 – 1979 then the Vietnamese freed Cambodia. By then an estimated 3 million had died; 1.7 million directly killed by the Khmer Rouge, the rest due to famine and sickness. A third of the population gone, the country was left with 25 teachers, about 20 doctors and the task to rebuild itself completely.

Only few made it out alive from S-21. Two of the survivors have written books about their lives, which are on sale by the entrance. We are lucky on our tour because both of them are there too, signing books and posing for pictures. Then I am told, no, they are there every day. I wonder what kind of person it takes to go back to a place of such sorrow every day. Is it a way to process the past or their way to at least make a quick buck out suffering they endured? I don’t know and I dare not ask.

Pot Pol conveniently died of Malaria in the jungle. Only few got prosecuted. Many not only got away, but are still working for the government. Knowing this I don’t know how people like Lucky move on. To have no retribution, no revenge for loved ones lost, how does one find peace and continues with life?

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!