Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia is bustling, vibrant and cosmopolitan, a melting pot of organised chaos, in many respects just like any other capital city around the world.
Away from the hustle and bustle of life carrying on, however, lurks a much darker side to the city, and perhaps the city’s main draw card for foreign visitors.
A far cry from the temples and palaces that bring tourists to other Asian cities, Phnom Penh is home to the main sites where Cambodia’s horrific history played out, the aftershock of which continues to shape its present.
Whilst neither could be deemed a fun way to spend the day, tourists nevertheless flock in their thousands to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, better known as the notorious S21 prison, and to the ‘Killing fields’ of Choeng Ek where thousands of ordinary Cambodian people were slain and buried in mass graves at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
In this blog post, we will share our own thoughts and feelings as we visited both sites as well as some practical information to aid you with your own visit. First though, here is a brief background to the sites.
A History of Horror
For almost four years between 1975 and 1979, The Khmer Rouge waged a reign of terror over Cambodia, resulting in the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million of its citizens. These numbers accounted for between a quarter and a third of the country’s population at the time, although the exact death toll and the identity of all those lost is not known.
When the Khmer Rouge initially stormed Phnom Penh to seize power, they were welcomed by war weary Cambodians who were optimistic of a brighter future, free from the bombing which had plagued them during the Vietnamese war.
Little did they know that Pol Pot’s extreme ideas for social engineering and his visions for an agricultural utopia through collective farming, free from the influences of the outside world and devoid of social class, currency or religion, were to become the darkest chapter in Cambodia’s history.
During ‘year zero’ and over the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, city dwellers were marched into the countryside, often separated from their families and with many sick and elderly dying along the way.
They left willingly, believing as they were told that the evacuation was for their own safety, with further bombings expected over the coming days.
In reality, however, this the start of Pol Pot’s plans for an agrarian society; the few possessions they took with them they were told they’d no longer need in the new Cambodia where ownership of material possessions, land or property was outlawed.
Away from their familiar city homes and occupations, they were set to work on the land with orders for rice production to be quadrupled.
The hours were long and the work physically demanding, with all modern farming machinery banished in favour of traditional methods. Rest was minimal and sustenance pitiful.
Lacking any necessary farming skills, the former city dwellers failed in their endeavours, and whilst exhaustion and starvation claimed the lives of the workers, famine caused more deaths still amongst the remainder of the population.
Modern and imported medicines were banned, and further deaths resulted from treatable diseases such as infections and malaria.
The death toll through misguided ideology, however, isn’t he most shocking part of the story; fuelled by paranoia, the Khmer Rouge opened some 158 prisons around Cambodia where thousands of ordinary Cambodians were detained, interrogated and tortured into confessing to crimes against the government.
Although those with links to the previous government were the first targets, the slaughter didn’t end there. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, educated people and anyone who appeared to be educated were deemed to be a threat to the government.
The ability to speak a foreign language, the wearing of glasses or simply having soft hands not accustomed to labouring, were all taken as indicators to a person being educated and therefore capable of questioning Pol Pot’s regime; all would be tortured and murdered.
Non-Cambodians both resident and visiting were deemed to be potential spies and many Vietnamese and Thai were amongst the victims of the Khmer Rouge. British teacher John Dewhirst along with his New Zealander travelling companion Kerry Hamill were captured whilst sailing through Cambodian waters and were taken to S21; neither survived to tell the tale.
Over time, the paranoid Pol Pot turned on his own army and prison guards as well as members of his own family. No one was really safe from suspicion as he reasoned; “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake”
Once the brutal torturing had yielded a written ‘confession’, the punishment was death; this, however, would be performed elsewhere.
Told simply that they were being moved in order to avoid any resistance, prisoners were loaded into large trucks and driven to the rural village of Choeng Ek under the cover of darkness.
Here, and at the thousands of other ‘Killing fields’ dotted throughout Cambodia, prisoners were often forced to dig their own mass graves before kneeling down beside them, hands tied behind their backs, to be killed.
Bullets were considered too expensive; instead, prisoners were bludgeoned to death with iron bars or had their throats cut. Loud music was played to drown out the screams and surrounding inhabitants knew little of what went on behind the barbed wire fences.
Over 20,000 mass graves sites having been documented in the county since the fall of the regime.
How, one wonders, could such a brutal genocide have occurred for so long without the world knowing?
The answer involves landmines; orphans were amongst the child soldiers trained to lay landmines along Cambodia’s borders and throughout the countryside to keep the outside world at bay.
It was only after the fall of the Khmer Rouge due to the invasion of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese army that the true extent of the horrors became evident.
Echo’s of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia today
Sadly, the Cambodia of 40 years after the atrocities which occurred here during the 1970’s is one that is still recovering from the aftermath.
Once a country far more advanced than neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia now struggles to rise above the grips of poverty echoing from the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
Their barbaric and draconian rule eliminated many of the country’s academics, professional and educated people, effectively crippling its ability to recover.
Today, around 80% of the employed population work in subsistence farming, barely generating sufficient surplus income to cover their basic needs.
With little money to spare, children stay at home to help with labouring rather than attending school, and so the cycle of poverty continues.
With poverty comes prostitution, child labour and human trafficking. Much work is now being done by organisations such as NGO and international humanitarian projects to help to address poverty and provide alternative employment for vulnerable citizens. During our visit to Cambodia, we have visited and supported a number of these.
As you travel around Cambodia, visit the cites, wonder through the streets and engage with its people, you realise though that this country is fighting tooth and nail to paint a brighter future for it’s people with a spirit that left us rooting for them to succeed.
Our experience of S21
Walking through the buildings of an establishment where innocent people were brutally tortured was never going to be a bed of roses, but nothing could have prepared me for how harrowing it really was.
I can’t really put into words the sense of foreboding I felt as I walked the corridors, peered into the cells or looked into the eyes of the victims which stared back at me from their black and white photographs, a testament to the Khmer Rouge’s meticulous record keeping.
Very quickly, I was filled with a sense of dread, a heaviness in my chest and a feeling of despair. The horrors which occurred here may be fading into the past, however, the atmosphere that lingers forbids you to forget.
The museum is quite graphic; although the blood that spattered the floors has long since been mopped away, the ominous dark stains on the chequer board tiles betray the buildings past.
In several of the ground floor cells of building A, photographs of the last prisoners to occupy the bare metal bed frames show their battered, broken corpses as they were found when the prison was discovered after the Khmer Rouge fell. Although the faces have been obscured in a few, the extent of their suffering is clearly evident.
Their bodies are buried outside, 14 white tombstones marking their final resting place. The graves are devoid of names, the prisoners battered bodies unidentifiable after they were beaten to death by the panicked guards as the Vietnamese army seized Phnom Penh; gunfire may have alerted the army to their whereabouts, death by more brutal means could be conducted more discretely.
In the other buildings, makeshift cells stand either side of the classrooms, a thin layer of hastily laid bricks marking the division between the cramped quarters, in other places, wooden dividers making the separation.
Cells are tiny, often dark and with munitions boxes serving as the in-mates toilet. The survivors report that any overspill from these they were forced to lick from the floors. Narrow gaps knocked through the classroom walls join 3 or more of the classrooms to form a corridor of misery.
Although ceiling fans provide a welcome breeze through the buildings as tourists wander through, these are a newer addition, no such luxury afforded to prisoners. It’s hard to comprehend the smell and the heat which would have mixed with the in-mates fear as they waited in these tiny cells to be taken for interrogation and torture.
As you stand outside building C and look upwards, the audio guide tells of how barbed wire was added to the front of the building to prevent suicide after one prisoner jumped to his death from the top floor.
Another used the pen with which he was writing his ‘confession’ to stab himself in the neck whilst a further prisoner poured a flaming kerosene lamp over himself to end his life. How desperate these people must have been to go to these lengths to avoid being further tortured.
The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their prisoners, photographing them as they entered S21. Although many of the photographs have been lost or destroyed, those remaining are displayed on boards in the former classrooms.
It’s upsetting to see their faces staring out at you, every one of them to have suffered unimaginable horrors soon after the images were captured.
The photograph of a young woman holding her sleeping baby who looks to be only around 1 month old is especially haunting. Her expression is one of defeat, probably knowing that her infant was to be snatched from her arms moments later and murdered in front of her whilst she went on to face interrogation. As a mother myself, I can’t even begin to imagine her pain and anguish.
Her baby was not the only child to enter the prison; the frightened and bemused faces of other child prisoners sit amongst the sea of faces that represent only a small proportion of the detainees.
But why kill an innocent child, you ask yourself, how could they possibly pose a threat to you? In the paranoid minds of Pol Pot, the answer is simple; kill the parent and the child may later come after you for revenge, their propaganda stating “To dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots”.
Not all of the photographs of children displayed were prisoners; many of the guards at S21, like the executioners at the killing fields of Choeng Ek, were barely more than children themselves. Orphans and other youngsters from peasant families were brainwashed to echo the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge leaders, turning them from innocent youths to ruthless killers.
A memorial now stands at the far end of the courtyard as you conclude your tour, benches inviting you to sit and reflect on all that you’ve seen and heard, to ask yourself “why?” and for an answer to fail you. Of the thousands of men, women and children who passed through the S21 prison, only 7 men and 5 children survived.
For several years now, two of the adult survivors have returned to the site daily, where they engage with visitors in broken English and sell their memoirs ($10 at the time of writing). We were humbled to meet Bou Meng whose ability to paint saved his life, although his wife and his children died.
Shaking his hand and looking into his kind gentle face, it is hard to imagine the pain this elderly gentleman has endured as he points to his own paintings depicting himself being tortured and his wife’s throat being slit.
Although few words were exchanged between us, I felt a genuine connection looking into his eyes and an understanding of why he wants the world to know what he and his fellow countrymen suffered.
With most of the visitors to S21 plugged into their audio-guides, there is a sombre silence to the site and an oppressive atmosphere which feels anything but peaceful despite the quiet.
In the words of J K Rowling describing the dementors of Azkaban, the place appears to ‘drain hope, peace and happiness out of the air around it (them)’; I honestly cannot think of a better description of S21.
Our Experience of Choeng Ek
We made a somewhat sombre group as we departed S21, all reflecting both inwardly and openly on our experiences, but we were nevertheless determined to see this thing through and carry on to Choeng Ek.
After hailing our tuk-tuk, we were on our way along the bumpy route that was unknowingly to be many Cambodian citizens final journey. Half an hour later, we had arrived.
It is interesting that when you read other travellers blogs, many find Choeng Ek more confronting than S21. For us though, this wasn’t the case; as we stood in the grounds listening to the birdsong it was hard to equate this peaceful spot to the atrocities of the past and none of us felt that same oppressive feeling that we’d experienced at S21. Perhaps for us, this was the place that marked the end of the suffering, however brutally that end was met. In the end, someone else’s experiences can only guide you so far as to your own.
Again, we took advantage of the audio-guides as we made our way around the site learning about the horrors of the past from a survivor who narrated its brutal story.
Your eyes are quickly drawn to a tall tree adorned with colourful friendship bracelets that wave in the breeze. It is only when you reach the tree and read the sign that you realise why so many visitors have felt compelled to leave these beautiful tributes; this large tree is known as ‘the killing tree’.
It is here that babies and children were snatched from their mothers and beaten to death against the tree before their eyes.
As the guide will tell you, when the site was first discovered by a man searching for food, he was horrified to see fragments of bone and hair and blood on the bark of the tree.
It was only after the grave in front of it was opened that the age of the victims became apparent.
Several of the 129 mass graves at Choeng Ek have been excavated whilst others remain untouched. Many of these graves were dug by the victims who lay within them. Weakened by starvation and torture, these poor souls only managed to dig shallow graves. Consequently, it is not unusual to see fragments of bone and fabric still emerging from the soil, especially after heavy rain, and something we saw with our own eyes during our visit.
The focal point of Choeng Ek is the memorial stupa, a towering tribute where thousands of skulls excavated from the graves are organised by age and gender in multiple layers behind glass.
This macabre display is a powerful visual tool in demonstrating the extent of the massacre although what is contained within is barely a fraction of the death toll.
The skulls betray the cause of death in many cases, caved in by the force of a metal bar or punctured by an iron rod; the weapons are displayed alongside.
Much like S21, Choeng Ek will leave you asking “Why?” It would be wonderful to think that the visiting of these sites and of those such as Auschwitz and Dachau would serve as a lesson to all, a stark reminder that this should never be allowed to happen again.
The saddest thing of all is that of course, it has happened again and again and furthermore, continues to happen. With recent events in Myanmar and Syria, it makes you wonder whether people will ever learn from history and reinforces the idea that mankind will, in the end, be the orchestrator of its own downfall.
Visiting S21 and Choeng Ek; the practicalities
S21 is a short ride from the centre of Phnom Penh and easily accessible by tuk-tuk, either hailed from the roadside or by using the GRAB app; the latter is generally cheaper. Be sure, as always, to negotiate the fare before you hop inside if hailing your own.
From S21, Choeng Ek is half an hour away by road. There are plenty of tuk-tuks loitering outside S21 and again, the GRAB app is invaluable. The same is true when you leave Choeng Ek.
At the time of writing, the fee to visit S21 is $5 for adults and children over 10, under 10 year olds enter for free. If you want an audio guide, this is a further $3 ($8 total). Our children were all under 10, and we were given 2 additional pairs of headphones to enable our older children to share our audio guides.
Even with the benefit of extensive prior research about the prison and the Khmer Rouge regime, the audio guide was invaluable to explain what you are looking at and to put the displays into grim context. Alternatively, guided tours of the site are also available. We would certainly recommend that you chose one or the other, rather than wondering around without.
At Choeng Ek, entry is $6 with the audio guide and $3 without. Again, the audio guide is essential to explain the site, especially since several of the original structures have been demolished since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The guide is beautifully narrated and helps you to make sense of the site as well as telling the stories of survivors and of one of Choeng Ek’s former executioners.
Quite reasonably out of respect for the thousands who suffered here and for those who died, there is a dress code to be adhered to. Short clothing which does not cover the knees and strappy tops are forbidden. If you’ve come unprepared to S21, you can borrow long pants or a T.shirt for a $5 deposit which is refunded on return the garments.
How long does it take to visit?
If you use the audio guide at S21, expect to spend between 2-3 hours here depending upon how long you spend exploring the displays between the different excerpts.
Choeng Ek takes around 1-2 hours with the audio guide.
Is it suitable for children?
That’s a tough one to answer; it really comes down to your personal preferences, your specific children and how you think they will handle it; the decision to take them or not to take them is something that only you can decide.
We made the decision to take our children, aged 8 and 9, to both S21 and the killing fields, although we agreed that we’d have a low threshold to leave if they were finding it too much. (We took our youngest son, aged 5, however, he was pretty oblivious to what it was all about.) Had the kids struggled with S21 then we wouldn’t have taken them on to Choeng Ek.
Many parents decide not to take their children to either site; a quick search through the blogs of other travellers and Trip Advisor forums will tell you that, and indeed, there were hardly any other children at either site when we visited. That said, none of the few we spotted appeared traumatised.
Do we regret taking them? Not at all. Were they upset by it? Moved, yes, sad by what they had seen and learnt, certainly, but traumatised? Not at all.
Before we left Australia, I had conducted an enormous amount of research on both sites, knew the history and knew what to expect. We gave the kids the simplified version of events and told them what they’d see at both sites, no gory details spared. We asked them if they wanted to visit; they did.
Before we entered each of the rooms at S21, we listened to the audio guide. We talked about what we were about to see and whether they wanted to go in, which they always did. We agreed that if they found it too much, they were to remove the headphones and leave, we would follow.
They managed the whole thing very well, asked questions, expressed their feelings and engaged in an interesting discussion in the evening. Their young minds had processed the information, accepted it, questioned it and learnt from it.
They are quite resilient kids, and given how I, as an adult, struggled to fully envisage the events I knew had occurred here, I suspect for them too it was all a little unreal which afforded them some protection from the full horror of it all. That said, many adults who visit the sites are deeply upset and traumatised by it.
In the end, you have to make a judgement call; you know your child, you are best placed to decide whether they will cope with it and whether it will be beneficial for them to visit.
I would suggest that if you do decide to visit with children, you brief them on what to expect and gauge their reaction before making the final decision. I would also recommend you too have a low threshold to bail out if it’s all too much for them.
Should any of us visit?
It’s a valid question; should these sites of torture, suffering and death be a tourist attraction? Isn’t it a little ghoulish to go and gawp at shattered skulls and images of bloodied corpses?
There are a few articles on the internet I’ve stumbled across whilst researching the history of the Khmer Rouge which ask much the same questions about ‘dark tourism’. Whilst its clearly wholly inappropriate to be snapping selfies next to the skulls of those who have perished, these articles largely conclude, as I do, that actually it is important to visit, to learn, to reflect and to pay your respect to those who suffered.
There are few Cambodian people today whose families haven’t been affected by the genocide either directly or indirectly as the country struggles to build a better future in the shadows of its brutal history.
By visiting these sites, you come to understand the troubles of the past which underpin the struggles of the present. It’s less ‘dark tourism’, more education. So yes, do visit, but visit with respect and compassion and visit to learn and to understand.
Perhaps in time, future generations will finally learn from the mistakes of the past and we will eventually learn to live side by side and value the good in everyone.
*The historical photographs in this blog, are on display at the sites and were photographed by us during our visit