Th agonies of Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields and S21 Museum


Throughout Cambodia there are clear signs of the Khmer Rouge and the destruction and chaos that they brought to Cambodian people. My main reason for visiting Phnom Penh was to learn about the history and to visit the killing field.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of the Khmer Rouge I will enlighten you….

Back in the 70’s (scarily recent!) the Khmer Rouge took over the country. They decided that they wanted everybody to be equal and they abolished money and trading, communication ie. Telephones, TV’s, radios, and all people who had previously worked for the government, who were intelligent or foreign. They made everybody dress the same and to work in rural communities with little food rationings. Everybody was sent away from the cities because they were ‘corrupted’ by the Western world. The idea was that Cambodia would become a self-sufficient country and that they would achieve a class-less society. The Khmer Rouge, ran by Pol Pot, killed anybody that they did not like or that got in their way. They sent people to prisons and then killing fields where they were beaten, brutally murdered and put into mass graves. This went on for some years and wiped out a quarter of all Cambodians until Vietnam invaded and put a stop to the Khmer Rouge.

So as I say, there is evidence of this destruction all over the country. First off I noticed this a lot when in Siem Reap, because the Khmer Rouge also wanted to abolish religion, they broke off many Buddha’s heads, to rid them of their sacred-ness. This was very sad to see in such astonishingly beautiful ancient temples, but little did I know that there were far more despairing sites that I would encounter throughout my journey’s of Cambodia.

There were killing fields all over the country, however there is one in Phnom Penh that has been opened to the public to share the tragedies of the country. As sad as it was, it was a huge part of the country’s history and so I decided to visit this whilst in Phnom Penh.

The killing field was horrific, I had heard that people had left crying in the past, however I don’t think I quite prepared myself for what I was about to see. The area felt creepily eerie, it felt as if I was surrounded by eternally bereaved spirits, sorrowful to have lost their lives during such tragic and outrageously evil events. Seeing the mass graves that they had dug up, knowing that the site before me would have been the last things they had seen, picturing the suffering crowds enduring their last few minutes of life, surrounded by corpses of their loved ones, their friends and their neighbors, was simply horrifying. It all felt so distressfully real and current.

The mass graves were organised into different types. There was one dedicated to women and one to headless corpses! There was also the killing tree, where they would hit babies and young children against until they were dead. There was a display of some of the clothes that the people had been wearing at the time and there were their skeletons themselves. Standing there, seeing these sites was not like visiting a museum, or reading a history book, or watching a documentary. It was real and right before my eyes. It was heartbreaking.

mass grave

killing field

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In Cambodia they have things called Stupa’s where they would put the ashes of a dead person and which is supposed to house their soul so that they do not do have to walk the earth for eternity as a ghost. So they built a huge Stupa and put many of the bones inside, organised by age and sex in the area of the killing field. To this day, not all bodies have been recovered and not all mass graves have been dug up. For those that were killed during this time and therefore did not have a proper funeral etc, it is believed that to this day they are still suffering, because they now walk the earth as ghosts. I think this is so very sad.

human skulls Cambodia

Before arriving at the killing fields many had endured time at the S-21 prison. This used to be a Cambodian school before the Khmer Rouge transformed it into an horrific prison where they would torture innocent people, often until their death. They built brick and wooden cells within the classrooms, and it would house hundreds of people. People would be tortured and barely fed before they were taken to the killing field. Here there were photographs of the people when they arrived to S-21, and some had photographs of them once they had died. It was terrible to see. You could see the genuine fear and terror in their eyes, and in all the tourists’ facial emotions and expressions as they walked around this historic war site.

S-21 museum

S-21 prison cells

There were only 7 people out of thousands and thousands that survived their time at the S-21 prison and their stories are told within the museum. It was fascinating, yet so incredibly tragic.

S-21 museum rules

Prior to visiting Phnom Penh I had little previous knowledge of communist societies, of war, of torture. As horrific as the histories and the tales were to hear, it made me feel so appreciative of the life I have. There was me, putting my rucksack on my back and traveling throughout SEA without a care in the world; My life couldn’t be more different than those that had previous stood where I now was, of those that were quite possibly the same age as my parents, those that did not deserve the destiny they were given.

The stories of the Cambodian people will be with me for life and it was such an experience to learn about it. I sincerely hope that no horror like that happens to this country again. There are still the landmines planted by the Khmer Rouge scattered throughout the country, and there are many limbless beggars as a result. It is very sad that the effects of Pol Pot and his regime are still being seen today and that they are still so prominent throughout the country. The people of this country are very, very brave, I take my hat off to them and wish them a happy future.

Whilst traveling through Cambodia I read this book that I strongly recommend- a tragic, yet amazing read that really helped me understand exactly what these people must have gone through!