Heaven and Hell – on a trip to Cambodia


Kevin Flanagan visits the Killing Fields and the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat on a life-changing expedition

Kevin at Angkor Wat


It could not have been a worse start. My guide, Diamond, had assured me he had booked a luxury coach from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, at a cost of just $10 each. 

“I will save you money brother,” he said smiling. Diamond is well-named and his heart is in the right place. He may have saved me money but a four-hour journey turned into an eight-hour grind for body and soul. Turns out our “saving” cost us a whole day and what’s that worth? 

“I could have flown back to Chicago in this time,” I said, as the coach shuddered to a halt at yet another interminable stop in the middle of nowhere. Seems we caught the municipal bus, not the air-conditioned VIP coach. I bit my lip, in reality, it was my fault. I had not checked Vietnam’s visa requirements before departure so we had to change our trip. This lost day sitting in a coach was actually the result of my negligence.

We finally arrived and sat in Siem Reap at midnight and staggered stiffly out of the coach to find a bar. Sipping a beer, I try to concentrate on the purpose of our visit. Diamond had told me we would not be disappointed, “You will see the world’s most precious temple brother. Better than Vietnam.” 

And so we are finally here to visit Angkor Wat. We retire at 1am and my knotted, stiff body somehow sleeps.  I have to admit I had never heard of the Cambodian temple before but had been alerted to the importance of  Angkor Wat when talking to my friend Dylan on the phone that night.

“Hey man, you are in for a serious treat. It’s one of the holiest places on the planet. I envy you.” This coming from a guy who is into all things spiritual. He seems genuinely in awe of where I was going. Suddenly, I feel a tingle of excitement. A quick Google search further whetted my appetite. Angkor Wat seemed like a place made up by the Indiana Jones Hollywood screenwriter. An ancient temple lost to the jungle for hundreds of years until a French archaeologist came across it in the 19th century. The fantastical nature of the place is such that the temple complex was used as the main location in the Hollywood movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider. I find this both inspiring and disturbing. If Hollywood finds something impressive, surely there must be a catch. One way or another, we are about to find out.  

At the hotel lobby the next morning, we meet our guide Channy and begin the 4km drive to the legendary temple. It was midmorning when we arrived and I can feel the heat rise. Channy is in her forties and a woman with a rare sense of fun. Some tour guides really can’t wait to be done with you. Channy was different – sharp-witted and smart. Diamond had already visited Angkor Wat so he soon went off, leaving Channy and myself to discover the temple on our own. 

We stand on the other side of a large lake that protects the temple and I try to take it all in. The endless walls, the large moats, the three towers shimmering in the heat haze. It’s the scale of the place that has me gaping. It covers hundreds of acres and is officially the largest religious site in the world. We start the long walk over an endless bridge that connects the outside world to the temple proper. It’s hot, around 30 degrees. Plus there’s extreme humidity.

Soon, the journey changes subtly. It becomes not so much a challenging tourist trek, but something else that I can’t put my finger on. The place is overwhelming and yet completely understated. It conjures up the same feelings I’d have if I was to come across a UFO in the jungle – otherworldly and mysterious. An unexpected awe falls on me. And as we get nearer, I finally understand the feeling – we are not tourists but pilgrims.

I continually gaze around me and have another Oh my God moment – where does this temple start and finish? Angkor Wat is incomprehensibly big. It sits on a site measuring over 402 acres. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu by King Suryavarman II. That was during the 12th century. After that, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. It is unique, being described as the first “Hindu-Buddhist” temple on earth.

The complex was built by the great King in Yaśodharapura, the capital of the Khmer Empire, as the state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is also the biggest mausoleum on the planet, dwarfing the pyramids. Angkor Wat is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Gods in Hindu mythology. It stands behind a moat more than 5km long, which we are now walking across on a temporary bridge. The moat represents the myth of the Churning of the Milk – and the lake represents the water that will bestow eternal life on all who drink it. Perhaps this explains the heady atmosphere that I experience as we cross, approaching the outer wall that is an enormous 3.6km long. Just how did they build such a structure and all by hand, some thousand years ago?

When we finally pass through the entrance in the wall we gaze into the heart of Angkor Wat itself – the three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre stands the three massive towers. This is where the King visited. The place where he was to be buried when he died. The very place where the earth meets the heavens – the home of the gods. 

I stand in uncomprehending awe. What is it about this place? It is so big and yet it doesn’t shout at you. There is a quietness. A restraint. An aura. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stir. I walk on into the shadows of the cavernous chambers with their extensive bas-reliefs, looking at the numerous sculptures adorning its walls. We explore only a fraction of the grand gateway and rooms that welcomed the King and his entourage one thousand years ago, as they made their ceremonial procession on elephants draped in gold cloth. We follow in their footsteps. The wall sculptures show how it would have been in vivid detail. 

First come the King’s lieutenants and their elite soldiers. Then the King himself, followed by his personal entourage. Once through the gateway, the three famous towers rise before us. In front of them is The Lake of Reflection – a lake so calm it acts like a mirror. You can see both yourself and the magical towers floating on the surface. This is Angkor Wat. 

We enter the vast expanse between the gateway and the temple of the Gods. Halfway across, there are two separate buildings set back from either side of the central causeway. My guide Chaney explains they were the place where the King and Queen changed into ceremonial garb in preparation for their ascension. As we go, the noonday sun saps my strength. The humidity makes beads of sweat form on my brow. Finally, we reach the shadow of the three-towered temples. Vast edifices suffused with a quiet majesty, sheltering us from the white-hot heat. I stand like a child lost in wonder.

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Have you ever had that experience when you know something profound is happening to you as it actually happens? Like meeting someone for the first time and realising you are falling in love. That is what I felt at that moment. A sense of knowing that what I am experiencing will change me at some profound level I do not yet understand. It is a stirring feeling.

We are now at the heart of the complex. We come to the final stairway that climbs impossibly high to the top of the central tower. We are following in the very footsteps of the King himself. We clamber up the impossibly steep steps, panting and sweating, until we reach the top – the place where the Gods live. And everything changes.


As Channy guides me up one final set of steps to the ceremonial chambers where only the King and his Queen visit, I pause, momentarily entranced. The air is suddenly filled with a sweet bouquet. I move on as if called by an ineffable power and finally stand dumbfounded. There, in front of me, I catch a shimmer of gold set behind a tall enclosure. On the ground are burning incense sticks set in small round brass containers filled with sand. Flowers are scattered to the side. I have reached the journey’s end. In the enclosure stands the Buddha – the same one the royal couple gazed on a thousand summers ago. The Buddha looks down serenely on me and the world below. 

Without thinking, but with a strange sense of urgency, I slip off my shoes and move forward, sink to the floor and stay awkwardly still. I am waiting for the other handful of worshippers to move on and leave me alone. I am suddenly restless. Something nags at me, forcing me to take actions I do not understand. 

I sit on my hips with my legs underneath me, as I have seen other men sit in temples. The gentle breeze blows. The wind caresses my face. Suddenly, Channy appears and hands me a half dozen sticks of burning incense before moving away. She is sensitive. She intuits my needs.

I hold the burning incense sticks between my hands now closed in prayer, and following what I have seen others do, I make small bows before the Buddha with my hands, chest and head moving forward as one, the incense smoke ascending upwards in thin, blue tendrils. I look up at the Buddha, half hidden in the shadows of his enclosure in front of me. A glint of gold shone through the gloom. This is the moment. I still myself and then do something unexpected. I bow my head and open my heart.  

I am not entirely sure why I am doing this or to whom I am opening my heart, but it does not matter. The Buddha, sitting in his shaded retreat seems to me to be both kind and non-judgemental. Very unlike the Catholic God I learned to fear.

The breeze gets up, wafting the incense in zigzag trails as I hold them clasped in my hands. I suddenly feel a kind of sweet euphoria. And a strange sense of power. The power of this place. The long journey here. (Now I understand the coach journey – it was part of the pilgrimage). But most of all is this rich feeling of something calling just behind the door of my perception. Something I do not recognise yet. And then, as I sit there, it hits me. I feel a great disturbance rise inside. My heart suddenly feels heavy and broken with a sadness I didn’t realise was there until this moment. And finally, I understand. I am feeling the horror of the terrible things I had witnessed just days before. Things I have pushed down, tried to ignore. But the peace of Angkor Wat does not allow this and shows me that my heart is heavy beyond words.

Kevin at the Killing Fields memorial


Two days ago I visited the Killing Fields memorial just outside of Phnom Penh. This had been the aim of my Cambodia trip all along. I was, after all, old enough to remember the Vietnam War – the first TV war brought into our comfortable living rooms in the mid-1960s. The Cambodian conflict, and the emergence of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, were the terrible offsprings of that war and it held a fascination in my formative teenage years. So now, 40 years later, I have arrived in Cambodia to witness this history for myself. 

For those that may not know, the Killing Fields happened between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge ultra-communist army took over Cambodia. It coincided with the fall of South Vietnam to the victorious North Vietnamese. America, who had backed the doomed western-leaning regimes in both South Vietnam and Cambodia, fled. But only after having bombed the civilian population into the arms of the fanatical Khmer Rouge and its genocidal leader Pol Pot. 

Once in power, Pol Pot went about destroying anyone associated with the American-backed regime. He was dedicated to murdering everyone who was – or looked as if they had been – tainted by the West. And he used peasant adolescents to do his butcher’s work. 

Days after he took power, the killings began. At first, it was Cambodians who had worked with the former government who were arrested, tortured and killed. Then the carnage spread. Pol Pot was a fanatic who immediately banned education, private property, banks and money upon taking power. He closed all schools and hospitals, set the clock back to Year Zero and decreed that everyone become simple peasants again. To this end, the cities were emptied and everyone was forced back to work the land. And in this brave new world where everyone had to wear the same black clothes, the killings began in earnest. If you did not look and act like a simple peasant, you were murdered.

Professionals and intellectuals were next to be targeted, executed for wearing glasses and having “soft” non-peasant hands. Minorities were wiped out. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and Buddhist monks were the targets of persecution. And the figures were mind-boggling. An analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicates at least 1,386,734 victims of execution. Estimates of the total deaths resulting from the Khmer Rouge pogrom range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of around seven million. And those not murdered died from disease and starvation brought on by the forced hard labour. The killing only stopped in 1979, when ironically the victorious Vietnamese army, also communist, invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, ending the genocide.


The Killing Fields were named by Doth Prin, who was the guide to Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist who was best known for his coverage of the war in Cambodia. Schanberg worked with Dith Prin right up to, and through, the takeover by the Khmer Rouge. The 1984 film The Killing Fields is based on the experiences of Schanberg and Dith Pran and is a great introduction to the history of this time and how it affected people everywhere. The film is harrowing, but nothing compared to visiting the Killing Fields in person.

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The most visited site is found on an inconspicuous road just outside Phnom Penh, on the grounds of a former colonial cemetery and orchard named Choeung Ek. To get there, you take a taxi along a nondescript road with clusters of houses and shops. Nothing suggests the terrible history or the fact that from 1975 to 1979, Choeung Ek was used to dispose of tens of thousands of people. Especially those who had been incarcerated and tortured in S21 – a converted school in the heart of Phnom Penh, where people suspected of disloyalty to the new regime of Pol Pot were held. After false confessions were wrung out, the prisoners were bound and blindfolded and tossed into the backs of trucks. These trucks made their journey late at night, to the cemetery that had been converted into a Killing Field. The trucks were unloaded and the prisoners – many in bad shape after days or weeks of torture – were brought to an open grave. Here, they were forced to kneel blindfolded while their executioners used the various converted farm tools to finish them off.

This would have been no easy task. Bullets were too valuable so the executioners used hoes, hammers, scythes, bamboo sticks and iron rods to hack and smash the prisoner’s skull before they were pushed into the open grave. Many were not actually dead when limestone – used to conceal the sickening smell of decomposition – was scattered over their blood-soaked bodies. But such were the numbers that often the graves were shallow and the earth washed away by the monsoon rains and the shattered skulls and blood-soaked remains were exposed to the flies and maggots that feed on them. 


44 years later on a January morning in 2023, I walked around Choeung Ek in a silent daze, listening to the audio tape that listed in incredible detail what happened. The heat of the day was cooled by a gentle breeze that swept across the trees. Choeung Ek has an atmosphere that is strangely subdued. And this atmosphere seemed to affect the dozens of visitors that walked the grounds. The majority were Western tourists with a scattering of local Cambodians. Many were young. All were silent save for the occasional whispered words as people stopped at one of the viewing points – each with its own stomach-churning story to tell. Whole families were murdered here. At this very spot. You could see their remains in glass cases – skulls, femurs, teeth. And scraps of their clothing – faded blues, reds and greens. And under the gentle sloping grass knolls at our feet, we could see items of that clothing still peeping out, a testament to the killing spree that happened at our feet. It was a surreal experience.   

Choeung Ek was a dirty secret to be kept hidden from the surrounding population during the nightly killings. In order to do this, the cries of those being slaughtered were drowned out by large loudspeakers that played martial music and songs praising Pol Pot. 

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those sent here. Like me, they would have been educated with the deadly “soft” hands – a crime in itself deserving of death. The helpless victims arrived in the orchard in the dead of night, bound and blindfolded. Dizzy and weak from days of torture. They were made to wait while the music blared. Then shoved forward and forced to kneel, hearing only the shouts of the teenager who was the executioner. Perhaps your last impression of life on earth was the grunt as they lifted the hoe or machete or whatever was to hand, and brought it down on your head. 

I walked the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek that morning with one question on my mind. How could this happen? How did this happen? Part of me revolted at the very idea. But there was no denying the sight of my eyes or the chilling stories of the handful of survivors that played on the audio guide. There were also confessions from the executioners themselves, some of whom were caught after the war. Many of them ended up in the Killing Fields themselves, victims of jealousy and paranoia as the regime would go down. For when moderation goes out the window, madness reigns. 

There are 19 stopping points on the tour of Choeung Ek. The starting point is the place where the trucks arrive. Next, a holding station where the prisoners were held. This is beside the hut where the executioners’ implements were kept. Beyond are the Killing Fields themselves. 

This is a journey not for the faint-hearted. There is a notice asking visitors to point out to the stewards any fragments of bone that may emerge, so that they can be properly buried. A truly disturbing stop was the tree where babies, torn from their mothers’ arms, had their heads smashed before being tossed into the open grave on top of the corpse of their just murdered mother. And at every stop, there are glass cases with fragments of bones, some large, some small, along with collections of clothes. And all the time, it came back to me the strange reality – this happened just over 40 years ago. In my lifetime. I saw it on the news. 


The final stop is a stupa – a hemispherical structure usually containing the remains of Buddhist monks. A building that is also used as a place of meditation. This particular stupa is filled with the skulls of the victims that have been excavated from the Killing Fields. They are placed row upon row all the way to the top – some 10m high. Discreet coloured dots attached to the skulls show the sex, age and method of killing. I paused before entering. There is a sign saying this is both a shrine and a place honouring the nameless victims of a crime against humanity.  Three young Dutch women had gone in before me. I had heard their whispers as we went around the site and shaking off my shoes, I followed them in at a discrete distance. 

It is strange looking at row upon row of human skulls. They had all been forensically cleaned and many bore the signs of their end. Jagged holes where the blows had fallen. Shattered jaw bones. Broken teeth. It was all too much. 

I soon left and stood looking at the exit gate a hundred metres away. There was no way I could comprehend what I had just seen. Zealous teenagers hacking you to death for no reason other than you talked in an educated accent. All the while, the demented pop music kept blaring. I left the Killing Field thinking that few things could match that level of human depravity. But I was wrong.  

Where interrogations happened


You could pass S21 and not notice it – if it wasn’t for the large sign above the entrance announcing The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s an innocuous looking four-storey building set around a grass-covered courtyard. An early clue that all is not well is the barbed wire that still surrounds the top of the walls. Before the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng was an elementary school – not unlike the school I pick up my grandson Kuba from in Dublin. But Pol Pot had other ideas and he soon changed this complex, which had only recently been filled with the laughter of children, into a hell on earth.  

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Security Prison 21 – S21 – is one of the darkest places I have ever visited (and I have been to Auschwitz) so I would be careful before deciding to go there. Several people I met had given it a deliberate miss and I can understand why. But we paid the entry fee of $10 and using the excellent audio guide, we began our tour. 

The guide is filled with the accounts of former guards and interrogators and the handful of survivors. For if you were brought to S21, you were guilty already – there was no way out – you were only here to confess and then be slaughtered. 

This description was haunting. I could somehow see the teenage Khmer Rouge cadres, hooting with bloodlust as they shoved their bound and blindfolded victims into their cages. 

Once inside, the prisoners were photographed, logged and then led to their tiny cells where they were shackled in irons. The next day the interrogations began. S21 leaves its mark on the modern-day visitor. I walked the first floor of Building A and entered the classrooms now fitted with single steel-framed beds. Here prisoners were stripped naked and shackled to steel fume where torture, in the form of electric shocks, was administered by the enthusiastic young cadres – purifying society with pain. 

It was a grim journey visiting those torture chambers. I went alone. Few visitors followed. This is a dark place made darker by the fourteen victims who were left shackled to the steel fans of their deathbeds when the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979. Grainy black and white photos showed the victims as they were found hours later. Dead, bloodied, broken figures – lying Christ-like on the bare steel bed. Their eyes glossed over. It was gruesome in the extreme and I felt my gut heave in revulsion. The room, the bed, the shackles, and the torture instruments were pretty much all left as they were found. It is not difficult to feel the horror of those rooms and a small voice warned me not to linger. If evil can manifest itself, then it is surely in those classrooms converted to torture. 


Outside in the courtyard, the  ‘Rules’ of S21 were placed in a prominent position for all to see. Rule 2 struck me. It said that all prisoners will not cry out while being electrocuted and if they do, more shocks will be administered. This struck me most forcibly. An Orwellian nightmare dystopia that happened in my lifetime. A place where you were guilty up until the moment you confessed your guilt and were executed. It was the definition of madness. 

Blocks B and C offered more cruel horrors. Each prisoner was photographed on entry and a gallery of these photos made for disturbing viewing. Though many may guessed at the fate that awaited them, some prisoners look confused. A “why am I here?” look. And it made me think of my own life and my family and friends. What if one day as we are going about our business, the world is turned violently upside down? And not only do we lose everything we have: house, job, comfort, food, drink and companionship but suddenly, we are guilty of a terrible crime – we are not one of them, the merciless disciples of Pol Pot. We are city folk and must be liquidated. And that is what I caught in these photos. The question “Why?”. I guess we all face this question because we are all condemned to die. But many of us get the chance – the privilege – to live life before we die. Not here.

I skip the final two buildings – I can’t take any more. I stand for a minute on the steps facing the exit. My brain is racing. Churned up. What can it all mean? I see Diamond and walk towards him. There is a moment’s silence. What can we say? What does it mean? We leave and outside, life in Phnom Penh goes on as if nothing has happened. But something has. Deep inside me, fathomless and still unknown. 


Kevin at Angkor Wat

Two days later and I am kneeling at the top of Angkor Wat. The last few tourists have left and there is only me and the smell of sweet incense and the glimpse of the Buddha, robed in shimmering gold. And as I kneel alone, the anguish at what I saw in the Killing Fields and S21 is revealed. I am suffused in pain. And this is strange because I am no stranger to death. I found my brother Michael dead on the floor of his small flat, alone and neglected. I have also been called on in the middle of the night to give permission for the life support system of my other brother to be turned off. I stood with both my hands on his cold feet, watching as the dials show Patrick’s life slipping away until it was no more. I thought I had the ability to grasp and even understand death and all that accompanies it. But in the holy quiet of the temple of Angkor Wat, I realised I was wrong. That the visit to S21 and the Killing Fields had disturbed my spirit. 

And so I sat and bowed my head to the Buddha, which is strange for I know very little about the Buddha. But my heart guided me. I understood I needed to just be open. Open to the grace that saturated the air, at the place where the earth meets the heavens. 

But there are only words. All I can say is a deep peace descended on me and I felt it. And this peace did pass my understanding. And when I stood up, I felt the change. Something had happened. I don’t know what, but I have a sense of why. I was given a blessing as real as the sweltering heat. A grace that touched my aching heart with a peace that remains to this day.

My visit to Cambodia has subtly changed my life. I am grateful I travelled there. It is the blessing of stepping on a plane and leaving a land you know for one you don’t. Taking on an adventure. For I have learnt that if I open my heart something will come to comfort and guide me.




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