Death on the hippy trail: from the pristine beaches of Malaysia to the Killing Fields of Cambodia

In 1978, three young men sailing through Southeast Asia strayed into Cambodian waters and were captured by the Khmer Rouge. Four decades later, the unthinkable atrocity that unfolded has left surviving family still struggling to forgive.

It was June 1978 when Hilary Dewhirst received the final letter from her brother John. “He used to write to me on his travels,” she says, 40 years later. “They were getting the boat ready and he was going on his final trip before coming home.”

John Dewhirst was 26 years old. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education with English from Britain’s Loughborough University, he had headed for Asia. He had always been adventurous, says Hilary today, “and outdoorsy. He loved writing – poetry, fictional stuff – he had a very unusual, quirky style.” Also known by friends to be sensitive, gentle and thoughtful, family members would find out much later that John had been described by the person who ordered his murder as “a polite young man”.

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