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Cambodia: Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and S-21 Prison

Hello Cambodia, a country that took us far too long to visit and one we were excited to explore. Our first stop, the capital city of Phnom Penh and the gateway to discovering Cambodia’s dark and heart wrenching past, something every visitor should not skip nor avoid.

Ahead of our visit, following many conversations with other backpackers on their love and experiences in Cambodia, visiting the Killing Fields and s-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was always one to simmer on their lips, but with a quivering warning about how emotional and mentally draining the realities of one of the most devastating occurrences in history. A period of time that we had never ever heard of despite it taking place no more than 40 years ago.

You see, while learning about the Khmer Rouge and the mass genocide of 3 million Cambodians, there comes an additional appreciation you never expected nor needed to feel for such a beautiful country brimming with positivity, smiles and the sweetest people in all of Southeast Asia.

But when you do arm yourself with the knowledge, not only do you start to notice the true effects such a brutal past has had on the country, such as a missing generation. For us, we couldn’t help feel such admiration and love for a country before we had even stepped outside the capital.

We didn’t need to explore more. We didn’t need to visit the oldest religious complex in the world (Angkor Wat) or see its golden coastline and rural villages. Yup, we were already in love. And the minute you delve into Cambodia’s saddening history, you will find yourself head over heels as well.

So while there are plenty of things to do in Phnom Penh, for this blog we’re going to focus on our main must sees and highlight, if that is the appropriate word to use. And with so much information out there, from  documentaries on Netflix (First The Killed My Father) to the umpteen blogs all sharing experiences and information, we too attempt to explain Cambodia’s history and the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, for anyone who wants to learn before they arrive.

And while we urge anyone and everyone to take some time to visit Phnom Penh;s Killing Fields and s-21 Prison, do so with knowledge that it will leave you with a heavy head, tired eyes and a broken heart.

Brief Introduction To The Khmer Rouge:

Back in the 1970s, in the midst of a massive power struggle created by civil war in Cambodia, and also fuelled by the Vietnam war, a guerrilla group hidden in the jungles of eastern Cambodia called the Khmer Rouge rose to power.

A Communist party, the Khmer Rouge received support from the North Vietnamese (also Communists) and Norodom Sihanouk, the King Father of Cambodia, in their fight against the Khmer Republic government, a US puppet government.

Similar to what was happening in Vietnam, the Khmer Republic was the USA’s attempts to prevent the spread of Communism and together allowed the deployment of over half a million tons of bombs which killed more than 300,000 Cambodian citizens.

Pretty pissed off, as you can imagine, the survivors joined the Khmer Rouge under false promise of a revolution and from sheer resentment towards the pro-American republic.

By 1975, the Khmer Rouge had full control of Cambodia. Their promises of a fair and equal society became polluted from their extreme ideals and the dreams of millions became a true nightmare.

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A Dark History

The first action undertaken by the Khmer Rouge was to evacuate the cities, sending the civilians into their rural work camps. The cities and villages which were once home to the hardworking Cambodians, rich or poor, educated or with faith, whether they had ambitions or skills, whether they were men, women or children, all were forced to contribute to the Khmer’s new founded “perfect society”.

A class-less society which had no schools, no religions, no money, no transport, no entertainment, no personal belongings, no private property, no family relationships… absolutely nothing. The Khmer Rouge closed down schools, they turned Pagodas into prisons. They murdered monks. They wiped out the upper and middles classes, from teachers to doctors and lawyers, to anyone who wore glasses!

They wanted a nation of farmers, an agricultural society, one with no free market, and no capitalism. They wanted to start again. They wanted to “turn the clock back…to year zero”.

The next four years turned Cambodia into hell on earth, where over 3 million of its civilians were murdered in a mass genocide.

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Even schools became prisons

The reality is that the entire world had no clue what was happening in Cambodia because the borders were closed and communication cut off. Only invited diplomats from other countries were allowed to visit, with the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, showing a false reality of a freer Cambodia.

In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese, Pol Pot and whoever was left fled to the Thailand border. Vietnam had helped establish a new Cambodian government, but because of their involvement i.e. Communists, the rest of the world failed to recognise it.

So for a further 10 years, with the Cold War on-going and the increasing fear of Communism, Cambodia remained isolated from the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, to the outside world, the Khmer Rouge was still recognised as the leaders of Cambodia. From US to Europe and even Australia, this recognition led to the Khmer Rouge gaining a seat in the UN which meant they then received financial aid. Despite the fact that the murderous group had fled back to the jungles were they remained hidden.

The financial aid and world recognition continued up until the 1990s. All while the people of Cambodia struggled to put their country back together.

Despite his “defeat” in 1979, Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge for a further 20 years. He died in 1998, some say from poison and others say peacefully in his sleep. But unlike the millions of victims, Pol Pot remarried and enjoyed a life with his love, his children and his grandchildren, dying at the age of 78. Yet some of his victims barely made it to 2 years of age.

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The remains of over 5,000 men, women and children.

Between 2010 and 2018, four Khmer Rouge leaders including Tuol Sleng, the chef of the S-21 Prison, were all sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and guilty of genocide.

This year (2019), Cambodia marked the 40th anniversary since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Visit The S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum:

From a high school to a secret prison and now a mass grave, it is estimated that 20,000 civilians; men, women and children were all sent to the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, all tortured, starved, beaten, shackled, confined and driven to death. Even if one family member was thought to be against the Khmer regime, or working with the enemy or for the CIA – all suffered.

The horrific conditions and brutality is evident in the graphic photography and prison remains. Lads, this is truly a heart-breaking place.

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School turned secret prison

For some prisoners, promises of opportunity led them naively to S-21. For others, they were arrested, along with families and forcefully brought there. All were unaware of the sheer cruelty they were about to face.

Firstly, their clothes were taken. Each one photographed and their height, previous profession, skills and biography all noted. They were shackled and confined in tiny brick alcoves. All endlessly tortured by ways you cannot even imagine. Such as the old school outdoor gym, where prisons were hung from the hands that were tied behind their backs.

Malnourished, no water and one bowl of porridge or maybe rice, depending on the season, served once a day and shared among a handful of people. Chained, a long metal bar in a room of over 40 people, all with their ankles restrained for days and weeks on end. Sprayed with a hose maybe once a month to eliminate the smell of urine and defecation, and then left to starve and suffer.

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Coming face-to-face with reality

Sometimes they were given water and medical treatment, but only to help prolong their life to merely endure further beatings and acts of cruelty. The Khmer Rouge wanted a confession. And for the prisoners, who, in pure desperation, admitted guilt to whatever the accusation, were either killed on the spot or sent 17km to what is known as The Killing Fields.

They say that out of the 20,000 prisoners sent to S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, only 20 survived. Two of which hold daily talks on the premises from 2.30pm.

Costs:

It costs $5 entry (€4.50) and $8 with an audio guide (€7) and yes, it is most definitely worth the extra few euros for the audio guide.

We had watched a number of documentaries the night before which did help us understand a lot, and although the audio tour isn’t necessary because there is plenty of information displayed, the guide certainly offers more in-depth information.

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One of the many eerie rooms onsite

Take it from two people who didn’t actually opt in for the audio guide, an instant regret when we found ourselves later chatting to people who had slightly more information that what we thought we knew. So fork out, this is one of those moments where learning and experience outweighs the cost.

Times:

Open from 8am to 5pm, based in the city centre makes a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum easily accessible, even by foot. We would encourage walking to the museum as it allows for a nice ramble around the perfectly grid-like city.

If you are visiting midweek, arrive before 2pm and visit the Meeting Room to meet and speak with victims of the Khmer Rouge and on some days, a survivor of the S-21 prison. The talk lasts 30 minutes and there is an English translation.

There are also two documentaries played each day in the Movie Room. The first is ‘The Killing Machine’ shown from 9.50am-11am and the second is ‘Behind the Wall of the S-21’ from 3.45pm-4.15pm.

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Makeshift Prison Cells

How To Get There:

If you don’t mind the stroll, you could walk to the museum. Or take the local bus Line #2 for 1,500R (€0.30). Alternatively you can haggle a tuk tuk for $1 from anywhere in the city.

Or if you wanted to visit both the S-21 Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields you could negotiate a price for both with a tuk tuk driver which may cost minimum $15 maximum $20 – $25 (bear in mind the driver will wait for you while you visit both so essentially you are hiring a driver for the day.)

Note: We also suggest visiting the prison before visiting the Killing Fields as you it will help with having a better understanding of both.

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A mass grave

Visit The Choeung El Killing Fields: 

Located around 17km outside Phnom Penh, the site of the Killing Fields, Choeng Ek, was once a Chinese burial ground. Already a land full of death, the Khmer Rouge picked this location as a place to conduct their more murderous crimes, simply because it was out of the way.

Majority of the victims came from the S-21 torture prison with trucks of 30 people, all blindfolded and cuffed, arriving every two weeks. Upon arrival, they were killed almost immediately.

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The Memorial Stupa

In 1978, those same trucks started to arrive every single day. Prisoners were usually tricked into the transfer so they wouldn’t create any issues when being transported. Apparently some knew their fate whereas others had hope. But many of them, suffering so much, they were relived arriving knowing their death was finally here.

Bullets were expensive and so shooting was seen as a waste. Instead the Khmer Rouge soldiers used anything and everything possible to slaughter the prisons. The stalk on this sugar palm tree for example, so sharp that its jaggered edge is similar to a saw. This was used for nothing more than to slit the throats of the thousands of innocent prisoners.

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“To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss” – Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge

When dumped into the many burial pits on site, some prisoners were not actually dead. A chemical known as DTT powder (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – we can’t say it pronounce it either!) was spread over the bodies and into the pits to finish the job. It was also used to eliminate the smell of decay.

At the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, they were over 129 mass graves scattered over 6 acres where over 20,000 victims were killed and dumped. It is estimated that around 300 people were killed a day, the largest grave holding 450 people.

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A sign that should not exist

During the “Rouge reign” even the Khmer soldiers had much to fear. In one particular grave, the remains of 166 decapitated soldiers were discovered. Pol Pot and his army grew paranoid, realising their dream for a class-less society was slipping through their fingers and so began to see everyone as an enemy.

Soldiers who were once ordered to execute prisoners were called forward, unaware that they themselves were to be murdered and buried on site. The reason they were decapitated was to symbolise that while their body was with Cambodia, their head was with the enemy.

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“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake” – Pol Pot

As we walked around Choeung Ek we fought back the tears and swallowed hard lumps in complete shock at what went on. But as we arrived to one particular corner of the Killing Fields, neither of us could contain the emotions that had risen from the emotionally churning discoveries.

The Killing Tree.

Where mothers and children were torn apart, stripped naked, and murdered. The children were held by the legs and beaten against the thick tree bark before being thrown into the nearby pit along with their deceased mothers. Murdered because if even one member of their families were at the Killing Fields, all members had to be exterminated – no matter the age or innocence. The Khmer Rouge also wanted to prevent all possibilities of these children every growing up to seek revenge.

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“To Kill the grass you must remove the root” – Pol Pot

Still to this day bones, teeth and closes rise to the land’s surface. Caretakers of the site search and collect the materials every few months, even more so during rainy season.

And while the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is one of the most visited mass graves around the country, it is not the only one. There are many more, from mountain tops to caves, where 3 million, out of the 8 million in total population were killed for an unrealistic an psychotic regime.

That is 1 in every 4 people executed, and all for a false cause.

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5,000 skulls

Costs:

There is $3 (€2.60) entry fee or $6 (€5.30) with an audio tour. Unlike the S-21 where you could skip the audio tour if you really wanted, we definitely recommend paying for the audio tour here.

While there is some information, a museum and a short documentary aired every half hour, the audio tour literally guides you around the grounds, almost like an aural map and so without it you will miss a lot of significant sites as not everything has information displayed.

The audio tour also shares survivor accounts, first hand experiences, and recorded audio which gives a feel for the atmosphere the thousands of victims suffered during the torturous times spent at this location. For example, listen to the rebel songs that were played continuously as a brainwashing tactic, as well as some direct quotes as said by the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his followers.

If you decided not to purchase the audio tour, we suggest visiting the on-site museum first for a detailed introducing and understanding of exactly what took place at the Killing Fields. The 15 minute short documentary is shown in the museum’s movie room every half hour. The last one of the day at starts at 4.15pm-4.30pm. Please remember to remove your shoes before entering.

Times:

The site opens from o8am until 5.30pm and we suggest allowing at least three hours here. It is outside and uncovered so bring plenty of water, sun cream, we even brought a light snack to have the river, away from the memorial site (out of respect of course)

Remember that they do ask for visitors to dress respectively. So while it may be extremely hot, bring a wrap or sarong to cover knees or shoulders especially when approaching and entering the Buddhist stupa. You will also need to remove your shoes as you enter the memorial Stupa where up to 5,000 skulls are displayed in memory of the Khmer Rouge victims.

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Entering the Killing Fields

How To Get There:

You can easily negotiate a tuk tuk to bring you out and back for around $15. A lot will quote you $20 -$25 and this is only worth it if you plan to visit both the S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields in one day as it means hiring the driver for the day. If this is the case, it might be best to arrange a small group in the hostel to split the costs.

When we were leaving the grave we did overhear a couple, who clearly only arranged transport for one way, haggle with a tuk tuk and agreed on a trip back to city for $5. If you do this, you most definitely won’t be stuck as there were plenty of tuk tuk drivers hanging around the entrance.

If you’re comfortable riding a motorbike, this would be the most cost efficient as it cost us $6 to rent one for the day (not 24 hours!) from our hostel. Parking onsite costs 1 riel / $0.25 and we only put $1.50 which got us out there, back and around the city.

Finally, we highly suggest visiting the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh’s centre before visiting here as large number of victims suffered within the prison walls before being transferred to the Killing Fields which became their final resting place.

As we said before, if there is one thing that you should do while visiting Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh it is exploring the history and coming to terms with its dark past. Known as ‘dark tourism’, to visit these sites is a way for us, as visitors, to involve ourselves more with the Khmer culture and achieve a better understanding of the nation’s mindset, attitude, pain and recovery.

It wasn’t until we visited and learned about the above did things become a little more clearly. The most horrific realisation being the moment you start to notice a missing generation, discovering that 70% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30, and coming to terms with the fact that nearly every single Cambodian you meet has been directly affected by the Khmer Rouge regime.

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Katie Hogan

Author Katie Hogan

I’m a self-diagnosed wanderlust sufferer, a victim of the travel bug and someone who has yearned for the freedom to travel for as long as I can remember.So I decided to quit my dream job, from the "marriage and baby" queries and trade the societal life for a life on the road, wandering through the unknown, all while building websites, teaching English, writing, filming, snapping and reminding myself to stop talking once and a while.

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