"Killing Fields" Lure Tourists in Cambodia

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A memorial building stands in the center 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 didn't want to give his name. He lost his grandfather and uncle to the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

"It's good tourists are coming here interested in Cambodia's past," says Stephen 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 center.

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, blood stains and photographs of thousands of people who were murdered.

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 many of the land mines they laid are still killing and maiming.

In a country where the annual per capita income is U.S. $260, begging can pay off.

"Beggars can easily make [U.S.] $3 to $4 dollars a day," says Lim Sehyo, a Phnom Penh taxi driver and guide. "If you work it out, that's over [U.S.] $1,000 a year."

As taxis full of tourists arrive at the killing fields, guides and beggars approach. Horror, memory, education and livelihood commingle at the site.

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