Phnom Penh | The Killing Fields and S21 | Cambodia
It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this post and I’m not sure that even almost two months later I’m actually going to have the words to really do it justice, but I’ll give it a shot. I arrived in Cambodia after a long old bus ride with my friend Jade from Ho Chi Minh – we’d been awake for around 36 hours by this point after catching a sleeper bus there the night before and were pretty desperate for our beds. After the best border crossing possible, we spent the first hour in Cambodia waving at all the Cambodians crossing the border after a long day at work in the factories just inside Vietnam – there were so many and they’d been at work for around 14-16 hours but still eagerly waved back at us. We finally arrived at our hostel, we had booked into Mad Monkey after hearing so much about it from other travellers and it certainly lived up to the hype. It was a great hostel and easily the best one I stayed in while in Cambodia, great value for money and really good facilities with a restaurant and a great bar on site. I only stayed two days but I would definitely stay there again if I went back, and it was a great place for meeting people – I actually bumped into a gang of friends I previously met in Pai, Thailand, so we had a great little reunion.I was in Phnom Penh for one reason – to learn about the terrible history of Cambodia, the events of which seem to have been wiped from our history books. It’s amazing how we can be taught over and over again about world wars that happened around a century ago, and how we have to spend so much time learning about Russian history, the Holocaust or Henry the VIII, yet there are such huge gaps in modern history. I’m talking about more recent wars and persecution that we leave school with no knowledge of despite it happening within our parents’ lifetime. To give you some background, a man named Pol Pot led a movement called the Khmer Rouge which murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million Cambodians in the mid to late 70’s – more than a fifth of the country’s population. Almost an entire generation of Cambodians were wiped out and the country is still rebuilding itself – evidence of this is all around you as you walk the streets. The levels of education are shockingly low and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the extreme poverty is shocking, but there is light in those children I did meet who are eager to learn and are starting to see education as a way of improving their quality of life. There is a long road ahead, but moves are being made to build a future for the people.I won’t go too far into the history, because I don’t feel I know enough to do the topic justice, instead I’ll share my experiences of visiting these two historic sites and the reasons why it is such an important place for you all to visit. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for how harrowing the visit would be, I don’t think anyone could ever be completely ready for it. But the Killing Fields is an incredible memorial that is devastating in the graphic portrayal of the Khmer Rouge, and yet manages to honour the victims’ memory. Upon entry we were given an audio tour headset which was to be the guide for the whole experience, you are completely cut off from those around you for the visit and have the voices of survivors and those involved played to you. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most powerful audio tour I have ever listened to. I was so impressed with how sensitively it was delivered, while still managing to really convey the scale of the attack on Cambodian society. The tape was a mixture of personal recollections, music composed, and statements delivered in court cases that are still ongoing today, with various stops around the site. We expected it to take us around an hour and a half, but we’re actually in there for closer to three hours because there was so much to look at and listen to. There were moments when we just had to sit in silence and take it all in, and it is important to let yourself take those moments to really take it all in.As a warning to those who are quite sensitive, there are several horrifying sights around the grounds including several mass graves where hundreds of bodies of women, children and farmhands were found dead and naked. A sign marking where a storeroom containing chemicals used to dissolve bodies, sometimes of those still alive. Bones regularly start coming up out of the soil, especially after heavy rain. There is also the Killing Tree, which guards used t beat children to death against, while another tree was used to hold speakers that played music to drown out the moans of the dying. The memorial in the centre of the grounds is the final point of the tour, it holds hundreds, perhaps even thousands of skulls and pieces of bone belonging to victims who found themselves in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a lot to take in and it is gory in places for those who are a little squeamish, but what overtakes that is the immense power of what you are learning. The Holocaust is shocking enough because of the scale and the fact that it happened just under 100 years ago. Although Cambodia was on a smaller scale, it was a mass persecution of a country’s own citizens and took place just 40 years ago, only 15 years before I was born. Those who visit will have a chance to visit the small museum onsite, this is something that really stayed with me because of one line that was written on one of the walls. It spoke of educating people about what has happened so that when, not if, it happens again, it can be seen in time. Because it will happen again.”Afterwards, we went to S21 feeling utterly drained and depressed by the human race, wondering quite how much more we could handle. S21 is a former high school that was take over by the Khmer Rouge and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. When you arrive and walk through the gates, you feel the silence as you walk through the grounds. No one smiles, no one speaks, it is as though the prison has drained us of everything, even our emotions. There’s barbed wire around the buildings, gallows to the side and inside, cells, old torture equipment and a collection of images of the faces of those tortured there. I didn’t know how S21 could possibly be more hard hitting than the sight of bones and skulls lining the Killing Fields, but it was. Especially when I walked out of one of the buildings where I had stood in a cell with the name Chum Mey written on the wall – I went inside and closed the door to see what it would have been like for the man kept in these four tiny walls. I wanted to know what he felt as he sat in this room, what he could hear, see, taste and smell – the journalist in me wanted to know his story. So imagine my shock when I walked outside and found him standing there, selling books containing his story and everything he went through. I spoke to his son-in-law, who translated Chum Mey’s words and told me what had happened to him – he was kept at the prison and tortured for years, even having his fingernails and toenails ripped out. But it was his engineering skills that really saved him from being exterminated like the rest, he was able to fix the machines used there. Now he sells books in hopes of educating people of what happened to prevent it from ever happening again.As I walked into the final building, I realised I was done, I’d seen enough and couldn’t take much more. It had been a lot of information to take in and I don’t think I was in any way prepared for quite how devastating it was – I don’t think you ever could be. I walked out again without seeing the rest of the building but even without seeing that part, I know that day will stay with me for life. It doesn’t matter whether you are interested in history or not, whether you care about Cambodia as a place or not, these two sites are so important to go and visit while you are there. You will learn so much, not just about Cambodia but also about the human race, and it is important for people to know what has happened. Just as it is important to learn about the Holocaust so it will never happen again, it is important to realise what happened in Cambodia, and the extent to which it was all covered up. It makes us realise quite how easily a nationwide extermination could actually happen without other continents even being aware – even in this time. It will shock you and leave you devastated, it will make you lose all hope in the human race and it will give you nightmares – but that’s the only way we will learn and progress past a world where we can kill our own people like this.
Have you been to The Killing Fields or S21 – what was your experience like? Why do you think it is important for people to visit such sites?
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Tammy L Wong
Thank you, Lucy, for such sensitive writing.
I’m glad you think so Tammy, appreciate your comment.
Hi Lucy! Thanks for sharing this post. Super helpful and informative! Quick question though – do you think it’s enough to see the highlights of Phnom Penh in 1 day? We’d be coming from Siem Reap (3 days) and heading to Sihanoukville (2 days) after. Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks so much~
My pleasure Airra, hope it has helped! Easily – I only spent one full day in Phnom Penh and that is enough time to see both tThe Killing Fields and S21, for me those were the main things I wanted to see there and I was happy with that. I would say the markets and other sights are much better up in Siem Reap and it is far more worthwhile to spend longer up there. I think you have a good amount of time planned for all three areas, I’ll post links below for my Sihounoukville reviews in case that helps – I didn’t have the best time there but Otres Beach is lovely and I’m sure you’ll have a very different experience. There’s nothing really to see in Sihounoukville, its just beachy areas and a link to the islands so a couple of days is enough if you ask me.
Koh Rong – http://wp.me/p4Jjxn-1wV
Otres Beach – http://wp.me/p4Jjxn-1wN
Angkor Wat – http://wp.me/p4Jjxn-1xD
Hope that helps!
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