Though Angkor Wat is arguably the most iconic cultural element of Cambodia, most that come to the country will have heard of the horrific atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when nearly a quarter of the population was killed in what is still one of the world’s most devastating instances of genocide. Though Cambodians are eager to move past this dark time in recent history, well-managed museums demonstrate the importance this event plays in the lives of modern Cambodians. To get a true and sincere understanding of the country and the context for its struggles, understanding the Khmer Rouge era is absolutely imperative. Though difficult to witness, learning more about this period of time enriches any visit to Cambodia.
The whole of Cambodia was affected by the Khmer Rouge era, but much of its remnants are centralised in a few significant locations in the country. In Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison Museum are perhaps the most illuminating places to explore the history.
In Battambang, a lesser-visited but nonetheless significant destination is the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, where a portion of the three million people victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed. Now marked with a small memorial holding the bones of victims and a large, reclining Buddha statue, the killing caves are important historical landmarks for the country.
There’s no particular time of the year that is best to visit the Khmer Rouge museums and landmarks, but inclement weather during the rainy season can sometimes make the ascend to the Killing Caves impossible. Avoid the worst of the heat and rain between October to November and March to April.
It’s a popular tradition among locals to place bracelets on the fences marking mass graves in reverence for those that perished here – so if you do buy small, locally-made bracelets during your visit to Siem Reap, bring along one or two to leave behind at the Killing Fields in homage to its victims.