The most famous sites in Phnom Penh are unfortunately well-known for a tragic reason. That’s because Cambodia suffered a genocide, one of just a few countries and peoples in the 20th century. The Marxist Khmer Rouge regime murdered at least a million of its own people in just a few years in the late 1970s, in an attempt to wipe out professionals, intellectuals and minorities, among others, and create a socialist agrarian society. To mark this gory past, there are two main sites in the capital city, one a former execution site and mass grave, and the other a former prison.
Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields (the places where executions took place and which a movie about the genocide was named after), and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) are where visitors can learn about the genocide first-hand. It’s a staggering thought, to know that one is walking the grounds of places that great evil happened. At least one million (possibly up to three million) Cambodians were killed by the regime led by the dictator Pol Pot from 1975-1979. Intellectuals, professionals, anyone who was suspected of having foreign connections, and Chinese and Vietnamese were among those targeted and killed.
I went to both sites by tuk tuk, a motor scooter-powered rickshaw. The driver, Mr. Evan, was the friend of the guy who’d driven me the previous day from the bus station to the hotel. I first went to Choeung Ek, which is 17 kilometers outside of the city and in a rather rural area. The site is where several thousand Cambodians were killed and buried, dumped into unmarked graves. Sadly, this is only one out of 20,000 such mass graves.
It’s a very somber place, resembling a garden or orchard with a placidness that belies the death that happened here decades earlier. And yet this serenity is the best way to honor and remember the dead. When you enter, you get an audio guide and brochure that outlines a series of numbered places on the grounds, allowing you to easily make your way around and understand the backdrop of the site.
The site is dominated by a towering stupa that contains skulls piled up on over seven shelves.
From there, you make your way on a path that winds through grave pits and execution sites, including one that was specifically for killing babies – a tree stands at that point where the babies were bashed against to death. Be warned though, there are actual bone and teeth fragments throughout the ground that have washed up due to floods that come after heavy rains. Right at the edge of the site are a field, a stream and a pond that leads to a larger lake.
The site used to be a cemetery for the local Chinese community, and there was a few remains of Chinese tombs. There’s a small museum onsite that’s worth a stop before you finally leave.
I then went to the Tuol Seng genocide museum, which was back in the city. Tuol Seng was the S-21 prison during the genocide, before that it was a high school, which is a really twisted notion. Indeed the place still looks like a typical secondary school, except that as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed there.
Tuol Seng features two main rectangular blocks, each three stories high, and you can walk through most of the rooms. The balconies on each floor are covered with barbed wire, a remnant of the prison days and which was put up to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping to the ground.
It’s a very depressing place and reminders are everywhere. In some of the rooms, you can view blown-up black and white graphic photos of dead prisoners killed while shackled to bed frames, often the very ones which you are standing next to since they’ve been left intact in the rooms. In a room that houses a shrine to the dead, the bones and skulls of victims are piled in glass cases. However, for me the most poignant exhibits are the portraits of hundreds of prisoners, all of whom met a bloody end.
The prison was eventually shut down when Vietnamese forces and Cambodians rebels came into the city, forcing the Khmer Rouge regime out. Only 12 prisoners were known to have survived being in S-21, and one of them was actually on site when I was there, sitting at a desk outside where you could buy a book and get his signature.
In addition, you can also see devices used for torture ranging from crude shovels and axes to a wooden compartment and barrels in which prisoners were submerged in.
There’s also information about the trial of Khmer Rouge officials, stories of prisoners killed at S-21, and somewhat hauntingly, former Khmer Rouge guards who worked at the prison. The accounts of the officials show the deliberate nature of the evil and unrepentant attitudes, while statements from the former guards show a fearful and pragmatic attitudes to their jobs, a vivid example of how evil can often be banal at the lower levels, when it’s mostly carried out by people obeying orders.
Besides Cambodians, there were also Western victims including tourists who were imprisoned at this prison and who also later met a bloody end. On the grounds lie the graves where the last 14 killed captives were buried after being found by liberating soldiers. There’s also a large wooden frame in front of the graves, from which prisoners were hung from and interrogated.
Sadly, there’s a sign that says that the purpose of maintaining the site is to remember the genocide and its horrors, in order to prevent other such events from happening. That’s a noble aim, but unfortunately is one that failed, with genocides in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Darfur all happening later on, within the last two decades.
A view of traffic on the way back into the city from the Choeung Ek killing field. The tuktuk (motorscooter-powered rickshaw) on the left is pretty much the same as what I was in.