Cambodia’s Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

One thing on our checklist before we came to Cambodia was to visit the infamous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge reign of the country.  

We did some research into trips to the Choeung Ek killing fields and the Tuol Sleng (S21) genocide museum and decided that the best way for us to do it on a budget was to do it ourselves rather than through an organised tour with a guide as this could have cost up to £60 for us both.  Instead we arranged for a driver for the day for $15 to take us to both sites.

Our Tuk Tuk picked us up at 8am from out hotel and it took about an hour to reach the location of the killing fields, and would probably have been less if the traffic wasn’t so bad. When we arrived we opted to take an audio tour ($6 each including entrance fee) rather than have a private guide. The audio tour was extremely informative, including first hand accounts from a range of people who lost relatives and someone who worked at the camp. 

The whole place is very sombre and silent and you are taken aback at the thought of the suffering that thousands of Cambodians endured as they were callously executed.  Listening to the audio guide depicts a scene from a horror film, which invited you to pause at several points, one of which is at the site of one of several mass graves, some of which held up to 1000 victims.  As you are guided around the site, bone fragments and pieces of clothing are clearly visible on the ground, having risen to the surface in the wet season.  Despite the hundreds of visitors around us, the site is eerily quiet in the baking heat.

The walk around the fields is very emotional and thought provoking with an overriding feeling of sadness; it’s hard to comprehend the horrors than went on not so long ago.  There are some truly shocking scenes; a tree to which babies and young children were physically thrown against to smash their skulls as a crude killing method (to save bullets for the rest of the Khmer Rouge) as well as a demonstration of the haunting music that was played simultaneously alongside a recording of a Diesel engine, all to drown out the screams of those being executed from those awaiting their fate in nearby sheds. 

At the exit is a large monument to remember the dead containing the skulls of many who were killed.  Most skulls clearly show impact wounds from axes, bayonets and the like and are stacked according to age. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum 

Once a school, S-21 was turned into a secret prison in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners were brought here, photographed and then tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes they were accused of, all of which were fabricated.  The ideal of Pol Pot was to create an almost classless and self sufficient society so he ordered the Khmer Rouge to execute anyone who was educated, linked to any foreign country as well as a host of other criteria.  Cambodian people were driven from cities and forced to work in farming with little food and water.  Peasant types already in the countryside were promised food and jobs in return for the efforts.  As a result, almost 3 million Cambodians died between 1975-1979, either executed by the Khmer Rouge or killed by disease or starvation.   

At S-21, prisoners were forced to write and sign their confessions, and then they were either murdered or sent to Choeung Ek to be executed.  Dead bodies were photographed with confessions and inmate numbers attached and sent to Khmer Rouge authorities as proof that they could no longer ‘betray’ them. 

Some of the original fixtures still remain in place in the rooms such as beds and shackles, which show the horrors that people endured in this prison. One building block houses hundreds of photographs of the malnourished victims, some even after they had been killed. 

There were only a handful of people who survived Tuol Sleng whose stories you can find there among those who lost family members and those showing what life was like after Khmer Rouge. Most of these were spared as the Khmer Rouge used them for specific skills such as engineering and art. Videos and talks often take place there, including occasional meetings with survivors which unfortunately weren’t available on the day of our visit. 

The entrance fee to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum was $2, you can also hire a guide there. If we were to go again we would probably hire a guide to get a more in depth understanding of the Khmer Rouge and the their reign. 

At the end of the day we both felt numb, struggling to take in the barbaric nature of what we’d just seen. 

I didn’t take any pictures at either the killing fields or the genocide museum out of respect for the innocent victims who had suffered so terribly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

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