It seems that everyone who visits Cambodia takes a day to visit the S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Pehn. Its almost become a South East Asia backpackers right of passage. It is important when visiting the country of Cambodia to understand its recent history and what its people have been through.
For those who have no idea what I am talking about here’s a quick run down on the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison.
The Khmer Rouge
In the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. The brutal regime, in power from 1975-1979, claimed the lives of up to two million people. Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost. Whole families died from execution and starvation.
Choeung Killing Fields
The Choeung Killing Fields are now a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). The mass killings are widely regarded as part of a broad state-sponsored genocide (the Cambodian genocide).
Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 Prison and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Not only did the Khmer Rouge carefully transcribe the prisoners’ interrogations; they also carefully photographed the vast majority of the inmates and created an astonishing photographic archive. Each of the almost 6,000 S-21 portraits that have been recovered tells a story shock, resignation, confusion, defiance and horror.
Visiting the sites
Choeung Killing Fields
Begin early to avoid the mid day sun. Take a Tuk-Tuk from your hostel in Phnom Pehn to the Killing Fields where you follow a self guided audio tour around the site which teaches you all about the history of Cambodia, the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and about each different section of the site.
Its a very surreal place. While many areas are untouched, it is easy to forget where you are. If you look in one direction it is a very beautiful place. Turn the other way and you are looking at a mass grave.
Yet there is an eerie feel to the place. Emotion and pain fill the air.
After following the audio tour visit the small onsite museum before taking your tuk-tuk to the S-21 Museum. Again, for a small fee you can purchase an self guided audio tour (highly recommend). Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns and lawn-bowling pitches. They have left the ground-floor classrooms in one building as they were in 1977. The spartan interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk-and-chair set that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. There are grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath on the walls.
Although the most gruesome images to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge at S-21.
While I 100% recommend visiting these two incredible places I must warn you that a lot of what you may see, hear and read can be very confronting. Its not for the faint hearted. I recommend also doing it early morning so that you aren’t out in the afternoon sun. And if you can learn anything from me, please, i beg you, don’t have 8 tequila shots the night before. This is not the kind of day you want to experience with a hangover.
Organise your tuk tuk driver the day before to pick you up in the morning. Make sure you let them know where you want to go and they will take it from there (It’s a pretty standard itinerary so they have this down pat). They will wait for you while you visit each location. Remember to keep an eye on your belongings. It’s not uncommon in Cambodia for bags to be snatched from motorbikes.
Visiting Cambodia?Check out my Cambodia Backpacker Travel Guide!
Have you been to the Killing Fields or S-21 Prison? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below?