While I may have put you off of Phnom Penh by talking about all my friends getting robbed there, a visit to Cambodia’s capital is a must for any visitor to the country.
It’s an odd feeling, visiting a country that has experienced genocide so recently. Atrocities that occurred only a few decades ago are still fresh in the mind of every Cambodian over the age of 40. Making a visit to the Killing Fields and S-21 are truly the only way to really understand Cambodia: its violent past and promising future.
A Bit of History
Khmer Rouge, the ruling party from 1975 to 1979, completely devastated the country of Cambodia and led to the death of over 2 million people. Its insistence on self-sufficiency in an agricultural communist society led to widespread famine. The government also conducted a genocide against the educated city people suspected of “free market activities”.
With the promise of equality, dictator Pol Pot convinced the masses that the poor would be taken care of, not too unlike Mao’s China and the Soviet Union. Masses of poor peasants rallied around the new government, along with lower class city dwellers.
Unfortunately, for those in the cities, the Khmer Rouge had a different kind of “equality” in mind. Every single resident of Phnom Penh was evacuated and sent to forced labor camps. This included not only all doctors, teachers and businessmen, but also poor city dwellers. Schools, hospitals and factories were closed, money and religion were abolished, and anyone with an education was systematically murdered.
The uneducated members of the countryside were taught that the rich city folk are leeches on society, purposely withholding resources to make their lives miserable. Families were separated, living in gendered communes. Children were taken to be educated in the doctrine of the Khmer Rouge; often serving as officers and inflicting torture and executions.
The forced labor camps were not the last stop for the city folk and educated members of society. Many were sent to S-21, a school turned torture prison. They were kept in miserably small cells and tortured until they admitted to crimes they didn’t commit. Once a confession was made, it was on to the Killing Fields.
Many others were sent directly to the Killing Fields. It was here that almost 3 million people lost their lives. Prisoners were kept blindfolded in a shed that contained a loud generator. The camps also blasted music, to disorient the prisoners and mask any noise. One-by-one they were taken to the edge of a large pit and bludgeoned to death with a variety of tools such as sticks, hatchets and metal rods. This helped preserve resources and bullets.
Eventually this reign of terror ended when Vietnam captured Phnom Penh in 1979.
S-21 Torture Prison
S-21, located in the city, is an equally harrowing and confusing experience. With little to no information and signs, I didn’t quite know what I was seeing. My first impression was that it looked strikingly similar to the primary school I taught at in China last year. It wasn’t until later on in the visit that I learned S-21 was an elementary school.
On your visit you’ll see larger rooms used for torture and “special” prisoners, and smaller wooden or brick cells for the rest of the inmates. There are wooden beds with shackles, torture devices and thousands of mug shot photos of S-21’s victims. It was surreal staring at the faces of young men, women and children. Especially knowing that out of the 17,000 imprisoned, only twelve survived.
Get a tour
Due to the lack of signage, I would suggest getting a tour for S-21. The few people I know who purchased a guided tour at the gate got a lot more from their visit than I did. If you don’t want to do a tour, do a bit of reading before you arrive.
For me, the most enlightening (and frightening) aspect of S-21 was the film. This is shown on the top floor of the last building you’ll enter. The movie is long, and you don’t have to stay for all of it, but consider watching for at least fifteen minutes.
The film shows interviews with men who were child prison guards at S-21, as well as one of the only remaining survivors of the prison. The movie was extremely off-putting because the now adult guards talked about their past without a hint of regret. They answered every question without hesitation, giving great detail about how they used to torture prisoners as preteens. Many of the guards even did passionate reenactments of how they used to treat prisoners, laughing and joking with the interviewer!
While I’m not blaming these men for what they did as children, it was shocking to see their lack of regret. A few mentioned that they didn’t want to torture prisoners, and knew they had to follow orders or risk becoming a victim themselves. However, not one interviewee seemed to really regret what they did as children, or act remorseful in any way.
It was a truly odd experience that I suggest you all see for yourselves.
The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields near Phnom Penh are the most famous of the many killing fields scattered around the country. Even now, more fields are being discovered. Located in the countryside near Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields are an extremely enlightening glimpse into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
After a long ride on a bumpy dirt road, I arrived at what I can only describe to be a beautiful park. The Killing Fields were much smaller than I expected. I guess I didn’t think that an atrocity of such an extent could be executed in such a small space. I was picturing a large desolate field, and was shocked by the small compound filled with trees, flowers and a temple.
Once entering the site, you’ll receive an audio headset, which will tell you the story of the space. I thought the headset was extremely well done, and I appreciated the opportunity to sit by myself and listen to the information at my own pace. In addition to teaching the history, the audio tape also contains many stories from survivors, as well as a beautiful symphony piece that you can admire while contemplating what you’ve seen.
Towards the beginning, you won’t see much, just empty places where warehouses and prison sheds once stood. Eventually, you’ll make it to the excavated pits, where you can see fragments of bone and cloth sticking up from the dirt. Bone can even be found on the walking path, which they urge you to try not to step on. When it rains, volunteers collect the bone, cloth and teeth that rise up from the dirt, and place them in boxes to be viewed by the public.
One of the more shocking aspects of the Killing Fields were that many teeth, bone and cloth fragments were placed on top of the boxes. You could easily reach out and touch one of the victim’s jaw bones or hold a tooth if you really wanted to. Obviously, none of the tourists did this, but it shocked me that they were just sitting there.
Another harrowing experience was seeing the Killing Tree. This tree, covered in prayer bracelets, was used to murder babies. Mothers would watch as they smashed babies against the tree and threw them into the pit, where the mothers would join shortly after.
Finally, you’ll visit the temple where you can see the sculls of many of the victims separated by age. The temple is meant to serve as a monument to those who have passed at the Killing Fields, and serve as a reminder of the horrors of mankind.
While I wasn’t sure about how I felt taking pictures in these places, both the Killing Fields and S-21 encourage you to take photos of everything to show these atrocities to the world, and bring attention to the horrors that happened in their country. I decided to take a few snapshots for this post, so that those of you who don’t have the opportunity to visit Cambodia can see for yourself.
A picture is worth a thousand words. I can try to spread what I’ve learned through my blog and writing, but to truly understand what happened to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, you’ll have to visit these places yourself.
How to get there
For those of you who want to visit these places yourself, you can hire a tuk tuk for the day. I hired one through my hostel, but you may be able to get a better price if you find one elsewhere. I think my friend and I paid $15 for the day.
We were picked up in the morning and taken to the Killing Fields first. This is a good idea because the Killing Fields offers much more history and information. After the Killing Fields, he drove us back into the city to S-21.
Before or after S-21 we had the opportunity to eat lunch at “Tuk Tuk Café”, where my driver obviously made a commission. While I was a little annoyed, I was completely starving after visiting S-21 (I probably should have eaten before), so we decided to eat there. The restaurant was filled with tourists but wasn’t too overpriced and served some of the best food I had in Cambodia, which was a pleasant surprise.
If you’re visiting Cambodia, be sure to check out my 48 Hours in Phnom Penh itinerary, which I believe is more than enough to see the city. Also be sure to read my story of how my friend got robbed twice in Phnom Penh to be sure it doesn’t happen to you.
Have you ever visited the Killing Fields or any other genocide or prison museum? What did you think and how did you feel?
13 comments on “Cambodia’s Killing Fields”
I went to Cambodia a few years ago but didn’t have time to spend in Phnom Penh and missed visiting the killing fields. We did get to do a bunch of museums in Siem Reap. You’re experience seems very similar to my experience when visiting the Concentration Camps in Germany and Austria. I never regretted visiting them. I wish now I had had a chance to go to the killing fields. Knowing the history and culture of a place is so much more important than taking pictures of a temple that you could see easily on the internet.
I would definitely recommend taking a quick trip if you ever head back to SE Asia. It’s definitely something worth seeing. It’s always an odd feeling visiting Holocaust museums or other similar places. It’s very depressing but enlightening as well.
I did my senior thesis on the Cambodian Genocide and wanted to experience it for myself. It was a very somber and enlightening. I had a guided tour so it was very informative
Wow that’ a great topic for a thesis. I really wish I had a guided tour for S-21, I feel like it would have been a lot more meaningful.
Everyone who visits Cambodia must take this in and dedicate a whole day in order to reflect on the enormity of the injustice. I was shocked when I went there and even though it was a while ago I still think of it often.
Me too! I’m glad I went at the beginning of my trip to Cambodia so that I could keep it in mind throughout the rest of my travel in the country.
Sorry to hear about your friend’s bad experience, but yeah, Phnom Penh is a worthwhile visit for this grim bit of world history, but the city is a vibrant place for those willing to see how it has advanced in the time since the bad years … great post!
Thanks David! I agree, it was a fun city and I really enjoyed the weekend night market and walking along the river in the evening
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The killing fields and the prison were a very special experience. I felt so sad walking around there. It just gave me the chills…blegh….but it is important to visit i think.
I totally agree. It’s a sad visit, but very important to understand the history of Cambodia.
It really interesting site to visit as you describe. However according to my schedule really in quick short of time what is your recommendation between the Killing Field and S 21 prison ?
Hi Roma. If you really don’t have a full day to see both, I would definitely pick the Killing Fields. THey’re a bit outside of downtown, but definitely worth the trip! They also have an audioguide so you have a full picture of what happened there. I hope this helps!