Phnom Penh & The Killing Fields

A heartfelt day in Phnom Penh

On February 5th I arrived in the capital city of Cambodia: Phnom Penh. It was already late, around 8pm, and I had spent the entire day travelling by bus and trudging through disorganized border customs. After a 2.5 km walk to the Royal Hotel I settled down for the night with enough time to call my loved ones.

Keeping in touch with those I love isn’t easy, on any given day I’m juggling three to four time zones across multiple countries. But alas, there is nothing like seeing a familiar bright smile when in a city of strangers.

Phnom Penh

The capital is quite large and there is much to see. I could have spent a few days touring around, however I was on a mission to catch up with my friend Jenna in Siem Reap.

S21 Prison
S21 Prison Museum – Tuol Sleng Museum

Over my one very full day in Phnom Penh, I rented a bicycle for $2 USD and picked off the major sights. It was a hot day and my tour lasted over 10 hours and 40kms.

S21 Prison Museum (6USD)

The secret security centre of the infamous 1976-1979 Khmer Rouge Regime was a sombre place. It is also called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Ghostly, even on a sunny day, the barb wired walls of the prison situated within a narrow downtown block of inconspicuous buildings emanated the horrors that occurred within.

Shackle prisoners
One of the beds used to shackle victims – the last inmate photographed on the wall

The self guided tour included a headset and a recorder (available in many languages) with narratives selectable at my leisure.

What occurred at S21 Prison is comparable to the holocaust of WW2, except with the direct purpose of torturing every inmate for Intel on outside government agencies such as the KGB and CIA. All those that suffered at S21 were condemned at the iron whim of the Khmer Rouge, most were targeted because they were simply educated, wore glasses or had ‘soft hands’.

The Khmer Rouge, led by lunatic Pol Pot and many others still on trial today for crimes of war and genocide by the United Nations killed nearly one in four Cambodians from 1976 to 1979 before being driven out by the Vietnamese military and a Cambodia resistance force.

Monument honnoring the dead
Monument in the courtyard honoring the victims of S21, Left – List of names, Right – Pol Pot

I walked from room to room in udder disbelief at the atrocities; pictures of the last 14 butchered bodies found inside the prison are showcased on the walls. Their white nameless tomb stones were raised in their honour and placed in the central courtyard. I drifted from moments of morose to complete anger and despair. Even today, as I recall my tour I cannot help but feel sad and sick.

S21 Prison courtyard
Front: Torture device used to lift and dunk inmates into water and dislocate arms. Rear: White nameless tombstones of the last 14 victims
Prison hallways and cells
The cells, hallways and caged front of S21, originally a local high school

One of the seven survivors was there that day at the prison. He sold books and embraced emotional tourists in the courtyard. What courage.

The Killing Fields ($5USD)

From S21, I biked the 14kms south to the infamous killing fields; the location where the tortured inmates were finally disposed of and buried in mass graves. Again, a self guided tour of the grounds allowed me to proceed at my leisure. Maybe due to the heat, my exhausting bike ride or my already emotional morning, I made my way from site to site at a very trepid pace and with a very heavy heart.

Killing fields
Choeug Ek Monument Honoring the dead of the Khmer Rouge Regime genocide

The Killing Fields are the final resting place for thousands of Cambodian victims. The ground itself is a patchwork of mounds and holes, one of which was the final resting place of over 400 Cambodians, decapitated for being traitors to the regime.

Killing fields
Baby killing tree and the pit of over 150 innocent women and children

The narration recounts stories from locals, the history and depicts the operations and secrecy of the site. Prisoners were trucked into the compound in the middle of the night, lined up before pre-dug holes and bludgeoned in the head or neck with pipes or machetes to avoid any loud noises that might arouse suspicion. Over two hundreds similar killing Fields have been found across Cambodia since the end of the Khmer Rouge Regime.

Killing fields
Top: Photo of the site being excavated after discovery. Left: Bludgeoning Weapons. Right: Painting of the scene
Killing fields
Skulls and other bones on display inside the Choeug Ek Monument

Visiting these very morbid sites was extremely emotional and educational. Although not suitable for children, S21 and the killing fields are a must see when visiting Cambodia. I will carry what I learned for the rest of my life.

Monuments and Temples of Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Pagoda
Wat Phnom built in 1373
Temple of Buddha
Inside Wat Phnom Padoga – BUDDHA
Government building
Example of the Beautiful Cambodia Architecture
Phnom Penh monuments
Top – Sunset from Royal Hotel. Left – Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, Right – Independence Monument

Foreign guy in a Cambodia restaurant

While en route to the killing fields, I stopped in to a local restaurant for some lunch. I was looking for a deal, something far from the touristy spots. I found this place where they didn’t speak any English at all. It was very amusing for all parties as we played charades in selecting a meal.

Phnom Penh soup
Phnom Penh best soup ever

My soup cost 4,000 Riel or $1 USD, including iced tea, and it was DELICIOUS! The best I have tried to date in South East Asia. It was so good I returned after my tour on my way back to the city for a second dish. They were so surprised to see me! I enjoyed a second different noodle dish for $1.25 USD. This was a nice light hearted point in my day.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tonya says:

    Great post. Well written and informative.

  2. michelle darlington says:

    I am sure your experience was very educational. Sad what people are capable of doing to others.

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