The capital of Cambodia and main transit point for travelers, Phnom Penh is a strange city in a perplexing country. On the surface the city is a modern, international metropolis full of food from every corner of the world and shopping malls with the biggest brands and latest fashions. Going to see the sights as a tourist will reveal some of the darker recent history of the city and the country, which the country is still staggering from.
While Cambodia seems pleasant and easy to travel if you run the normal travel route with Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Phnom Penh as yours stops, keep in mind that most people you see that are in their fifties or older have seen some incredibly harsh times. You’ll learn about the evils of the Khmer Rouge while visiting the torture site that was Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, but you won’t hear about the current prime minister Hun Sen’s involvement with the Khmer Rouge or most of his cabinet’s activities during those times. For more information on Hun Sen and Cambodia’s recent history, check out an informative book to get you up to speed. Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are emotional places to visit as well, and will get you more involved in the history of the Khmer Rouge and their genocide that killed as many as three million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.
Tuol Sleng (S21)
Just a few kilometers from the elaborate golden roofs of the Royal Palace sits a run down old building surrounded by barbed wire. As you approach you’ll notice that tuk tuks and buses are flowing to and from this non-descript building, and once you pay your $6 per person entry fee (Cambodia uses USD alongside Riel as their currency) a worker will hand you an audio guide and a map. You have the option of foregoing the audio guide and saving $3, but that would be a huge mistake as this device and the information it gives are really what make the visit.
Inside the perimeter of Tuol Sleng (also called S21), you’ll find what was once one of the hundreds of designated torture sites throughout Cambodia. Your audio guide will inform you that tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians were murdered where you’re standing, throughout the rooms and in the courtyards at Tuol Sleng.
In 1975 a communist uprising occurred while the military dictator of Cambodia, Lon Nol, was out of the country. The leaders of the coup called themselves the Khmer Rouge, Khmer being the people of Cambodia, and Rouge being the red color of communism. The Khmer Rouge was led by a French educated Cambodian named Saloth Sar, also known as Pol Pot. Pol Pot envisioned a communist nation that would turn back time to the year zero and start again as a society based solely on agriculture and subsistence farming. In order to make his vision come true he had his army, which was mainly comprised of young, uneducated boys, march through the country and round up anyone with any education, who wore glasses (a sign of education or wealth), or who had been mentioned as a threat, and move them into camps. Everyone was displaced as the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and moved the entire population either to the fields to work as slave laborers, or to a camp where they would be tortured into confessing to generally fabricated crimes against the state.
Walking through the rooms, graphic images of the dead bodies of murdered victims are hanging from the walls, and victims’ skulls inside of a wood and glass case adorn one of the final rooms. A gallows of sorts sits in the courtyard, showing how prisoners were hung upside down, with their heads being dunked into large jugs of water or other liquids for torture. The audio guide has a narrator explaining each building and has some survivors speak, along with the warden of the prison, Duch, confessing to his crimes while in a court hearing some 30 years later.
At the time of writing there was an opportunity to meet a couple of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng, with two of them autographing their books inside of the compound. Our visit lasted three hours and we didn’t watch the movie that is shown twice daily, as we visited in between showings. We walked to and from Tuol Sleng so we didn’t feel any pressure to move on quickly, as you would if you had taken a bus, so take that into consideration when deciding how to visit. Tuk tuks are cheap in town, or if you are staying near the Royal Palace it’s a easy walk of a couple of kilometers.
The Killing Fields
Nine kilometers from town, which took us about 40 minutes by tuk tuk due to traffic, is another monument to those killed under the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Fields. Entry to the Killing Fields is $6 per person again, and the audio guide is included in that price and invaluable as at Tuol Sleng. Walking into the fenced compound, the only striking landmarks are a tall pagoda straight ahead and some low wooden fences throughout the relatively empty field.
Your audio guide will tell you about how people were trucked to the field with no idea of what was happening, and guides you to the sites where they were dropped off. Moving along, you’re shown shallow depressions in the earth where mass graves were unearthed shortly after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979. Every year during rain season, when the ground gets soft new bones and skulls can be found around this area.
The tens of thousands that were killed in these fields were generally unable to be identified, and hundreds of their skulls sit inside the tall pagoda you passed on your way in. Walking around the perimeter of the field, stories from survivors detail the gruesome scenes of soldiers smashing babies against one particular tree, how another tree was used to mount speakers to play music to drown out the murders, and you’ll pass bones and clothes still stuck in the ground from victims that haven’t been unearthed.
We visited Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields on two separate days, as visiting both in a single day would’ve been too emotionally taxing for us. We’ve visited genocide museums in Germany and Rwanda before, and visiting these sites was equally distressing. The institutionalized murder of almost a quarter of all Cambodians only 40 years ago is a hard thing to imagine, especially seeing what appears to be a pleasant place to live today in Phnom Penh.
Visiting these sites should also lead you to question the current government, as many of the high ranking officials served in the Khmer Rouge movement. While Cambodia today is infinitely better off than during those years, Hun Sen is still known to kill off his political opposition each election season, and it’s still dangerous to voice dissent within the country. As with anywhere you visit, what you see on the surface may not be the entire reality. Seeing these places brought this tragedy to life for us, and taught us a lot about a period that isn’t focused on in the west, hopefully your visit will be as enlightening for you as it was for us.