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Cambodia’s Dark Past

June 3, 2013

Before deciding to travel to Cambodia in December, I had heard of the Khmer Rouge but didn’t know much about it except that it was one of the oppressive and violent regimes of Southeast Asia’s past.  Much more familiar to me was the glorious history of the Khmer Empire in the thirteenth century and the phenomenal works of art and architecture at Angkor.  However, when WWW and I settled on Cambodia as the location of our travels over the holidays, we made a conscious effort to learn more about the darker aspect of the country’s past before our visit.  We began reading When the War was Over, one of the many recent books about Pol Pot’s regime, in the weeks leading up to the trip.  Likewise, we knew that we wanted to incorporate into our itinerary learning more about the Khmer Rouge and paying homage to its victims.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

So, on our final day in Phnom Penh after visiting Wat Phnom, we headed to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum on the south side of the city.

Entrance to one of the high-level prisoners' rooms

Entrance to one of the high-level prisoners’ rooms

Toul Sleng was originally a high school.  But, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a high-level security prison and torture facility.  The former classrooms of the four main buildings at Toul Sleng were transformed into cells and interrogation rooms.  The buildings were enclosed with barbed wire and the windows were barred.

Similar places popped up all over Cambodia during the regime, but Toul Sleng is perhaps the most famous due to its size, location in Phnom Penh, and the high-profile prisoners it held.  The facility could hold over 1,000 prisoners at a time, and it is estimated that between 17,000 and 20,000 individuals accused of espionage by the regime passed through S-21 before their execution.


High-level prisoners, such as academics and officials of the previous government, were housed in individual rooms, while lower-level inmates slept head to foot in large rooms or occupied tiny makeshift cells.

Bed with objects used in interrogation and torture.

Bed with objects used in interrogation and torture.

Prisoners were soon interrogated after their arrival at Tuol Sleng.  They were asked to write thorough autobiographies, which their interrogators would later use as “evidence” for the accusations against them.  Many inmates were coerced to give false confessions during sessions of torture that included beating, electric shock, and waterboarding.

Often prisoners’ families, including their wives and small children, were also brought to S-21 for interrogation and eventual execution.

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Of the thousands of prisoners that passed through S-21 between 1975 and 1979, there were only twelve known survivors.  Given the mass exodus of foreigners from the country when the Khmer Rouge took power, most of the victims were Cambodian.  However, Vietnamese, Thai, French, and American names can also be found on the prison roster.

Today the entire compound is maintained as a museum.  Some of the rooms remain almost exactly as they were discovered in 1979, while others now include photographs of the facility’s many prisoners, displays of the instruments of torture, and even a gallery of paintings by one of the survivors.

$3.00/person (+ extra for private tour)
Open everyday, 8:00am-5:00pm.

***I highly recommend paying extra for a guided tour (you can solicit a guide when you buy your tickets at the entrance), as the museum has limited signage or any explanation of what you are seeing.  We paid a reasonable price for an hour-long tour, and I think got a lot more out of the experience than if we had wondered around the complex on our own.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

After our tour of S-21, we headed outside the city via tuk tuk to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (known as the Killing Fields).

Path at the Killing Fields with bone fragments.

Path at the Killing Fields with bone fragments.

At first I was skeptical about going here.  Since it is about 15km outside the city, I was worried it would just be a huge field with little context.  However, the grounds are extremely well-maintained, and paths with many signs along the way are clearly organized so visitors can trace the steps of and easily understand exactly what happened to prisoners who arrived here from S-21 in Phnom Penh.  Additionally, admission to the memorial includes a fantastic audio tour.

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More than one million people, including inmates from S-21, were executed at the Killing Fields during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.  After 1976, the guards at S-21 ran out of spaces around the complex to bury bodies and began sending prisoners and their families to Choeung Ek outside the city.  Here, they would be beaten to death and buried in mass graves containing half a dozen to over a hundred bodies.

Woven bracelets left by visitors on the fence of a mass grave.

Woven bracelets left by visitors on the fence of a mass grave.

Today, the Killing Fields are marked with a large Buddhist stupa that serves as a memorial and contains the skulls of many victims unearthed around the area.  Dozens of mass graves are also visible above ground.  Some of these have been fenced off, and visitors leave woven bracelets around their bamboo posts as tribute for the victims.

Listening to the audio tour, we followed the many signs indicating the happenings at the park under the Khmer Rouge.  The audio includes survivor accounts, as well as the stories of S-21 guards and soldiers who partook in the executions.  The tour ends at the park’s Buddhist memorial which calls visitors to remember these victims and the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime.

$2.00/person (includes audio guide)
Open everyday, 8:00am-5:00pm

Getting There:

Most any tuk tuk around the city will offer many times and be thrilled to take you to the Killing Fields.  Since the distance is about 17km (30-40 minutes) outside of Phnom Penh, drivers can earn more making this trip even once in a day than many short jaunts around the city.  Haggle to get a good price, and your driver will wait for you at the entrance to the Fields while you walk around on the audio tour.  We spent about an hour and a half  here.

While visiting both S-21 and the Killing Fields was emotionally taxing, learning about this aspect of Cambodia’s past felt essential to us.  I can’t imagine having ignored this part of the country’s history, and as individuals lucky enough to travel around the world, it seems like our duty to at least remember and share the memory of these egregious crimes against Cambodia’s people.

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