For my second day in Phnom Penh I had decided to visit the notorious S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). I was nervous to go, because I had already heard such horrifying stories of the Cambodian genocide. But I felt that it was important to see and experience these sites in order to gain a better understanding of the Cambodian people and their history.

A little background

Pol Pot (1925-1998) was the General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge and Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea (now the Kingdom of Cambodia) from 1975-1979. His was a totalitarian dictatorship based on a dream of the utopian communist society. In the wake of French control of Cambodia, Pol Pot hated everything foreign and dreamed of returning Cambodia to the values and way of life of the Khmer Empire hundreds of years ago. He believed in creating an agrarian society and forced Cambodians to leave the cities they lived in, to work on collective farms in the country. Pol Pot is responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people (approximately a quarter of the Cambodian population).

Choosing a tour

I had opted to book a ticket for a hop-on hop-off bus tour as I would rather explore alone than be tied to a big tour group. Also I knew that both places had excellent audio tours that would afford me to immerse myself at my own pace.

The Tool Sleng Genocide Museum

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, chronicles the horrifying genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. An estimated 20 000 people were incarcerated at Tuol Sleng and there were only twelve known survivors, some of which you can meet at the museum today.

In 1979 the Vietnamese army entered Cambodia and toppled Pol Pot. In the aftermath of this offensive Hồ Văn Tây, a Vietnamese combat photographer, was the first journalist to document Tuol Sleng to the world. Hồ and his colleagues followed the stench of rotting corpses to the gates of Tuol Sleng and the photos he took upon arrival are exhibited in the buildings today.

Haunting images

Besides Hồ’s disturbing photos, many of the cells are left as they were found and the torture instruments used during the time are on display.

S-21 is by far one of the most disheartening places I have ever been, as it brings to the forefront the evils that mankind is capable of. I can’t fathom how humans can treat each other in such abominable ways! From the tiny cells where prisoners could hardly lie down, to the prisoner photos of hundreds of people who never made it out alive, to the instruments of heinous torture on display, the museum took me through a history of unspeakable evil. I found myself feeling almost shameful as I could only bear witness to the atrocities.

Tiny brick cells

I walked from room to room, exhibit to exhibit but finally it all became too much and I had to sit down and collect myself in the memorial park in the middle. There I let the emotion wash over me and whilst crying, I also experienced a huge love for these amazing people that have survived and overcome such an unbelievably horrible past. But the respite was short as my next stop was one of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields.

Room of torture

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields are a number of sites throughout Cambodia where more than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves under the Khmer Rouge regime. These include soldiers, civilians, women and children. The best known of the Killing Fields is Choeung Ek some 30 kms outside of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is now a memorial park for the thousands of victims buried there, and holds numerous mass graves, some of them visible above ground. Horrifyingly bones and clothing have been known to surface after heavy rains, due to the amount of bodies still buried in these graves. These are routinely found by visitors to the site.

A mountain of skulls

After S-21 I thought I was prepared for the worst, but the Killing Fields takes your breath away. It is indescribable to walk on wooden walkways above thousands of bodies and to learn how most of them met their fate in the evilest of ways. As the regime wanted to save bullets, most of the victims of Choeung Ek were killed using bamboo sticks, iron tools or machetes. And as Pol Pot believed in killing entire families to avoid retribution, there is even a tree which guards used to kill babies by smashing their heads against it, often in front of their mothers.

The Killing Tree

In the center of Choeung Ek a memorial stupa sits in awe-inspiring majesty. It is filled with the skulls and bones of excavated victims, all separated into various scientific categories. The remains are categorized by gender, age and cause of death. Seeing the mountain of skulls, really brought home the extent of the genocide and as I removed my shoes and entered the stupa, I said a silent prayer to any and all gods that might listen, praying that such atrocities would never happen again!

The memorial stupa of Choeung Ek

Final thoughts

The busride back to Phnom Penh was silent and a sombre mood pervaded. It was clear that everyone had been affected by the day’s experiences. But anything else would have been strange! Seeing the physical evidence of what had up until now only been a history lesson was painful and hard, but also inherently meaningful. I would recommend this experience anytime, as sometimes we have to look evil in the eye instead of trying to avoid seeing it. Only by doing so can we hope to avoid something like the Cambodian genocide ever happening again!


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