I find this difficult to write. The savagely cruel stories of the victims and the gruesome images that I saw inside Cambodia’s Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields bothered me every time I tried to draft this write-up. It was so hard to describe the killings, the slow and painful deaths, and the physical abuses that the victims went through in the hands of Khmer Rouge.
I’ll try to muster all my intestinal fortitude in order to finish this. Here it goes…
Continuing my solo travel in Cambodia, I left Siem Reap on a sleeper bus bound to Phnom Penh. I arrived at 6am and spent half of the day visiting some notable sites before hopping on a bus going to Ho Chi Minh.
Cambodia is rich in history. From the vast temple complexes of Angkor to the museums that tell stories of both the country’s glorious and dark past. I got curious about the Khmer Rouge and how this regime wiped out the capital of its population and forced them to live a peasant agrarian life in the countryside. They were also responsible for the killing of almost 2 million Cambodians during their reign. That was about a quarter of its population during that time!
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
The Khmer rouge was a communist group formed in Cambodia (Kampuchea) in 1968. Their leader was Pol Pot. He rose to power when they won the Cambodia Civil War, subsequently overthrowing the Khmer Republic to install their own form of government.
Pol Pot’s notoriety was recognized when he orchestrated the killing of almost a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Aside from his enemies, victims include, professionals, artists, monks, and scholars who he thought were a “threat” to his reign. This horrific “purification” happened during 1975-1979.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
My first stop was the infamous Genocide Museum. Around 160 prisons were built during Pol Pot’s rule but the most notorious was Security Prison 21. It was a former High School before it was turned in to a torture and execution site.
The S-21 Genocide Museum incarcerated important Cambodian people and their family members. Building A was the interrogation and torture area where about 15,000 people were detained during 1975-1979.
It was a horrific experience when I entered each rooms. I deviated from the crowd to explore the whole place on my own. It felt eerie and sad at the same time, especially whenever I stare at the photos of dead prisoners and the metal beds where they were electrocuted.
There are other torture devices displayed outside. Prisoners were suspended in a bar and were also tied up and then dropped in to large jars upside down. It was said that most of the people tortured here were ages 14 to 20 years old.
Imagine an innocent person who was forced to confess. These soldiers didn’t stop the beating until the prisoner said anything even if it was not their wrongdoing.
Inside another building where photos of the prisoners. I find it quite difficult to walk around due to the fact that all of them were tortured and killed. Just imagine how they stare back at you while you walk through rooms upon rooms with these mugshots.
Building C has the most gruesome appearance in the museum. Barbed wires were fenced around the facade by the Khmer Rouge. These were to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide if ever they escaped.
I entered the building to walk through its dismal rooms. Inside were narrow cells where victims were shackled and got beat up on a daily basis. I looked around and imagined the severe beatings that they had to go through.
At the end of the exhibit was a shrine dedicated to those who lost their lives inside S21. What shocked me were the stack of skulls displayed in a glass cabinet surrounding the room.
I went out to get some air in the middle of the compound where a small memorial was built for the victims. There were also slabs of stones where the names of the victims were carved.
I left the place with a heavy feeling. I didn’t know what exactly happened during the reign of the Khmer Rouge before I first set foot on S21. The history books may tell you the details but a visit to this dreadful place will accentuate the vividness of the genocide.
- International visitors above 18 years of age: 5USD
- International visitors 10-18 years of age: 3USD
- Audio Guide: 3USD (Optional)
- In-House Guide: 2USD (Optional)
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Located 15 kilometers from S-21 Genocide Museum is the infamous Killing Fields. If S-21 is where the victims were mercilessly brutalized, Choeung Ek is where they were trucked out to their horrible deaths.
Today, the pits still exist all over the vast mass graves surrounding the former orchard. In the middle of the area is a stupa that serves as a memorial for the victims. It houses over 5,000 skulls that were dug out around the grounds.
The tour starts in a spot where trucks used to bring out blindfolded prisoners, ready to be murdered.
The pathways are well-organized. It has a wooden walkway along the mass grave-site. I suggest taking the audio guide and listen to its sad history and even testimonies from survivors and former soldiers who experienced the massacre that the Khmer Rouge committed in this place.
I listened to the audio guide as I walked slowly by the perimeter. There was a long pathway that goes along a man-made lake. It was said that the Khmer Rouge built this body of water to prevent floods from washing the bodies away from the pits.
There are some pieces of bones displayed which where remnants of the 1980 excavation.
During the time of the Khmer Rouge, no one knows the existence of the Killing fields. The victims were blindfolded when brought to the mass death row. Another way for the guards to drown the screams of the victims was to hang a loudspeaker on a tree while they bludgeoned their heads and slit their throats.
No one got out alive, not even children
What made my get a heavier feeling was when I reached another tree where the soldiers beat infants and children to their deaths. How could they stomach such horrendous act? Imagine if a mother was there to witness this barbaric execution.
It was too difficult to continue at this point. I looked at the faces of the tourists around me and saw similar reactions, each of us sharing the same sentiments for the victims. Like I said before. I never knew what happened before setting foot in this place. Most of us were not prepared for this.
I continued to walk around after a few minutes until I saw photos on how the Killing Fields used to look like when it was first discovered. Piles upon piles of bones were everywhere. Just imagine walking along the walkway with these around. It was scary and sad at the same time.
Today, some of the bones were displayed while some are still laying around, serving as a grim reminder of Cambodia’s grisly past.
The Memorial Stupa
I walked towards the stupa to discover its shocking contents. Stacks of skulls and bones encased in glass cases that towers above the 17 story structure (It was that tall!) The walkway inside was a bit cramped as you find yourself face to face with these skulls, most of them have holes at the back, evident of the damage dealt by the executioners.
It was eerie to think that I was staring at the photos of the prisoners in S-21, and then found myself staring at their skulls in this place.
Below are the various blunt objects and knives used to bludgeon and stab the victims. The Khmer Rouge are a cheap bunch. They thought bullets were costly so they used these objects to execute their prisoners.
Last stop was a museum that houses several documents, articles of clothing, photos of Khmer Rouge leaders and places destroyed during the four years of carnage.
This was the heaviest trip that I have experienced so far. My stay in Phnom Penh was short but I find this the most memorable. I am encouraging travelers to put these places to their itineraries when traveling to Cambodia. Most of the people outside the country don’t have any idea what happened during those dark four years. What adds to the dreary feeling is the fact that this genocide just happened recently.
Today, Cambodia is still waking up from this recent nightmare. They may have one of the most beautiful places in the world (I love Angkor Wat and I will definitely go back!), but the tyrannical rule had left a scar to the country’s people and land. (Far-flung places are still riddled with landmines.) And I believe the rest of the world should be aware of what happened to this beautiful country not just to feed ones wanderlust, or tick off an item in their list, but also to look back at its history and learn from it.
How do you feel about S-21 and the Killing Fields? Are you planning to visit these places in Phnom Penh? Tell me your thoughts or share your experiences in the Comments Section below.
- Opening Hours: 8am-5:30am
- Entrance Fee: 3USD
- Audio Guide: 3USD (Optional)
How to get to S-21 and The Killing Fields
- Hiring a tuktuk will cost about 15 to 20USD. Don’t forget to haggle.
- The places are around 15 kilometers apart. Travel time is about 40 minutes.
Via Tour Organizer:
- Alternatively, you can contact a local tour organizer. I decided to get one the night before leaving Siem Reap and contacted them via email.
- Phnom Penh Hop on & Hop off offers a half day tour for only $15usd.
- I think this is more practical since they cost about the same as a tuktuk fare and you get to ride in an air-conditioned mini bus with free water while watching a documentary about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Click here to visit their website.
- They will also pick you up in front of your hotel (or bus terminal in my case).