Visiting the Killing Fields and S21 in Phnom Penh

Of all my travels and all the things I’ve done and learnt along the way, Cambodia touched me like no other country. A lot of people say it, and it’s kind cliche, but there is a reason for it. In particular, the killing fields and S21 prison (or Tuol Sleng) made a huge impact on me.

Again, people say that often about a lot of things, but I really mean it. I, always the first to whip the camera out and snap away, didn’t even take a single photo on the day I visited these sombre museums. Here’s why…

  • I have a bad habit of letting the photos speak for themselves – and normally they do, and they do it well – but this would never be one of those occasions.
  • It didn’t feel appropriate to me, the genocide was in my parents lifetime even, it’s still raw.
  • Lastly, we take photos for memories, I would never forget what I saw.

I’m not going to give a complete education on the Khmer Rouge regime, but I will go into a bit more detail than I normally would about my time in Phnom Penh and it will be more serious than my usual posts.

If you don’t know much about the regime, please do some research online though – it’s an extremely important part of recent history and very much a part of the Cambodian people still. Better still, the book First they killed my Father is a brilliant way to discover more about this sombre period in Cambodian history.

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

This is just one of many killing fields across the country and is a mass grave and final resting place to thousands of people (8985 bodies were found), many political prisoners who came from S21, and also children, babies and mothers.

A Buddhist stupa with 8000 skulls on display sits at the very front of the genocide centre, organised by gender, age and form of death. It’s a harrowing sight, but not the only one in the museum. As you walk through the centre – past mass graves, prior torture scenes and tools (trees seem to have been used heavily for this form – babies were beaten against a large tree in front of their mothers, or the sharp edges of leaves were used to slowly cut victims) and shreds of clothes with bones still sticking out – it is hard not to feel something.

17,000 innocent people were killed in that very small area not so long ago, often for no other reason than being educated, wearing glasses (it meant you could read) or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often they saw a slow death. Bullets were too expensive, people would be blindfolded and killed ‘like chickens’.

I thought the killing fields would be the hardest pill to swallow, but I was wrong.

S21 (Tuol Sleng)

There’s two particular parts of this museum (it feels wrong to call it that) that will never leave me – and I really mean that. I urge you, again, to find a more comprehensive source of information about what went on in S21.

To sum up briefly, Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was used to imprison, torture and interrogate inoccent people and their families (many officials from the previous government, many for no reason.) 20,000 people ended up in the prison, only 7 survived.

After exploring some of the prisons cells, I noticed a large poster of Vietnamese soldiers with a small number of children (four our five). Once Khmer Rouge were overthrown, they attempted to kill anyone left in S21. A little boy overheard the soldiers looking for the children to kill, he hid under a pile of clothes with another little boy and was eventually found (alongside three other children) by Vietnamese soldiers. They had stayed in the prison where their parents had been killed, waiting for someone.

As I take in what I was seeing, that little boy, now a grown adult, walks forward. He greets me with a smile and it took all I had in me not to cry in front of him. Composed, I immediately burst into tears as soon as I was out of his sight. How could someone’s heart survive what went on there?

The second thing that haunted me (everything moved me, but this took my breath away), was the faces of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. I had a vision in my head of grown men torturing starved and confused Cambodian people. A board inside one of the cells showed the faces of the soldiers…. and they were all children. This made me even more sad.

Dotted around the prison are more photos of victims and soldiers, and there is an opportunity to meet two more survivors and purchase their books about their time there.

Again, please do read as much as you can about the atrocities, it must never be forgotten. If you are thinking of visiting Phnom Penh, pay a trip to these places. It’s sombre and moving, but extremely important.

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