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A Somber day of tourism in Cambodia: Visiting the Killing Fields and S-21

The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek

The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek

I just arrived to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Because I had a few days to kill in the city while I was waiting for the Vietnamese embassy to process my visa, I decided to see some of the sights.  Instead of visiting temples as I have the last week or so in Indonesia, I decided to visit some sites that pack a little bit more of an emotional punch-the killing fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

A quick history on the Khmer Rouge:

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 led by Pol Pot.  Immediately, his regime started a systematic genocide, targeting intellectuals, city-dwellers, anyone who seemed to pose a threat to the regime, and many other people for random and undeserved reasons.  In total, the regime killed between 1 and 3 million people-totaling about 25% of the population.

Choeung Ek

I spent my morning at Choeung Ek, one of the most well-known killing fields in Cambodia and located 17 km south of Phnom Penh.  In total, 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek.

It’s a chilling memorial.  The grounds are beautiful and it’s hard to imagine the atrocities that occurred there.  The price of admission includes a self-guided audio tour.  The audio tour is great because it gives a lot of history of the Khmer Rouge as well as gives some first hand accounts of the killing fields, both from victims and from members of the Khmer Rouge.

Bracelets memorializing some of the fallen.

Bracelets memorializing some of the fallen.

I spent almost 3 hours walking around the grounds of Choeung Ek, learning all about the atrocities that occurred there, and in many other locations around Cambodia.  The most chilling thing that I saw was the “killing tree,” a tree where children were killed by swinging them into the tree and breaking their skulls.  Absolutely terrible.

The Killing Tree where children were killed by swinging them into the tree, breaking their skulls

The Killing Tree where children were killed by swinging them into the tree, breaking their skulls

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school and site of Security Prison 21 (S-21).  As many as 20,000 people were tortured and killed here between 1975 and 1979.

One of the buildings at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

One of the buildings at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Like Choeung Ek, it’s not exactly uplifting tourism.  Photos of the deceased line the walls and torture equipment is on display.  It’s a vivid reminder of the atrocities that occurred here not too long ago.  It took me about an hour to wander throughout S-21 prison.

After my long stay at Choeung Ek, I felt like I had a good background on the Khmer Rouge.  This allowed me to better understand S-21.  If you ever go to these sites, I definitely recommend visiting Cheoung Ek before Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

On the way out of the Tuol Sleng, two survivors of S-21 were seated and were selling their books.  It was extremely humbling to see these old men who had clearly been through hell and back.  If I weren’t so constrained by space in my 44L backpack, I would have bought a book.  Their stories are fascinating!

One of the cells inside S-21 prison

One of the cells inside S-21 prison

These sites in Phnom Penh aren’t exactly high octane tourism, however they are essential visits if you really want to understand the history of Cambodia.  They are definitely worth a trip if you are in Phnom Penh.

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