Inevitably, one of your days in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, will be spent learning about the Khmer Rouge genocide of the Cambodian people that occurred between 1975 and 1979. On April 17, 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge, led by the deranged despot Pol Pot (are there any Communist leaders that are not deranged and despotic?), took over the country, and in a matter of days turned everything upside down.
One of the most chilling aspects of Khmer Rouge’s history is their establishment of over 300 secret “killing fields” scattered throughout Cambodia. If you knew about the killing fields, you were either in the Khmer Rouge’s inner circle, or you were minutes away from your death by blunt force trauma to the head (the Khmer Rouge did not waste expensive bullets on killing enemies of the state). While exact numbers are unknown, it is reasonable to estimate that two million people–approximately one-fourth to one-third of the Cambodian population–perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities.
These numbers are staggering, but difficult to fathom when they appear merely on paper or on the screen. That’s when a tuk-tuk tour of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum comes in.
Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh, is the most well-known and well-organized killing field open to the public. The fields are not very large. Flowers bloom. Butterflies flitter. The wooden sheds that once housed the victims’ last and worst nightmares have long been torn down.
With your $6 admission ticket, you get an audiotour. And then time slips away as you get lost in the narration by survivors, revealing to you what few people know about this tragic period in Cambodian history.
I ended up spending about two hours at the Killing Fields, lost in the memories of unspeakable horrors. But that wasn’t it for the day. Part Two was a trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21 as it was coded back in the days of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge appropriated a high school and turned it into S-21, a place for them to hold, torture, and interrogate anyone who they found to not be in complete support of Pol Pot and his vision.
As an education major at Swarthmore studying the history of schools in America, you learn a famous quote about how there are only two kinds of institutions that are instantly recognizable by their room layout: schools, and prisons. What happens when you combine the two of them? A wrenching afternoon of almost catching the echoes of screams in the dark stains on the yellow-tiled floors.
That was Building A. Building B has been converted into a photographic memorial for the minimum 12,000 men, women, and children who went through S-21 before heading to their deaths at Choeung Ek. The number of lives lost here is staggering; the photographs (literally) give faces to that number.
Building C was left more or less the way it was when the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. Its three floors held prisoners in different ways: the first floor cells were made of brick, the second floor of wood, and the third floor had large rooms for mass detention.
This day was physically and mentally exhausting, but it is an essential part to any visit to Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng’s presentation is hardly extravagant, and in their simplicity the truer-than-true extent of human cruelty knocks you over with the force of a gale. It’s the kind of stop on a trip that makes you think twice about the whole of your time in Cambodia.
***For these two stops, my tuk-tuk tour, arranged hassle-free through my hostel, Nomads + Encounters, was $15, split between up to 4 people.