More than a few people asked why I would subject myself to a visit to S-21 and the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It’s difficult to describe the reasons; I felt it was important to see these places to better understand Cambodia and the people.
One of the first things tourists notice in Cambodia is that this is a mostly undeveloped country and poverty is everywhere. Most visitors already know about the country’s dark history and what led to the present conditions, which are improving with an influx of foreign business investment. Despite reading some history of French colonialism, American bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Khmer Rouge, it’s difficult to imagine the horrors that Cambodia has endured. And this is what leads many tourists to visit such depressing historic sites.
As I found a tuk-tuk from the port to my hotel following my boat ride from Siem Reap, the driver asked what my plans were for my time in Phnom Penh. He gave me a reasonable price for a day (closer to half-day) at S-21 and the Killing Fields. I was non-committal, but he said he’d wait at my hotel around 9 am if I decided to go. After finding the average cost of hiring a driver for the day, I decided to take his offer the following morning.
I don’t know if it was a common route, but my tuk-tuk took me through a lot of dirt roads and side streets, which allowed me more time to witness the living conditions of most Cambodians. With the dirt roads, I was glad to have my pollution mask from Hanoi, even if it only kept the dirt off my face.
The first stop was the Killing Fields at Cheong Ek. At Cheong Ek, visitors are given an audio tour of the grounds — the audio includes first-hand accounts of the horrors of living under the Khmer Rouge. These stories are more horrifying than any Hollywood film or Stephen King novel. The stories are made even more graphic when visitors sometimes come across bits of cloth poking through the ground — remnants of the mass graves that haven’t been uncovered. There are also desecrated Chinese graves in the area, as it was a burial site for Chinese in Cambodia for a long time before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
There is a memorial stupa that was built in 1988 near the entrance to the grounds at Cheong Ek that contains bones of those murdered at the site. The remains have been studied and documented to discover the torture endured and the final cause of death. The stupa contains 9,000 skulls from the approximately 17,000 people who were executed at Cheong Ek.
After walking around in the early morning heat, I headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21 prison, closer to the center of Phnom Penh. This former high school was where Pol Pot had at least 14,000 people sent, tortured, and interrogated before execution starting in 1976. Only seven people ever survived to tell of the horrors within that prison. There was even fencing put up around the buildings to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.
The museum left most of the rooms the way they were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. There are rooms with history of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the horrors they inflicted on the population, including methods of torture and interrogation. Mostly, the rooms are filled with photographs of the prisoners — depressing photos of all the people who passed through the doors, including the elderly, women, children, and even babies. There were translated “confessions” that were signed after agonizing torture.
After their “confessions,” most of these prisoners and many others were taken to places like the Cheong Ek Killing Fields for execution.
Total numbers vary on how many people were killed under Pol Pot’s rule. In 1976, the total population of Cambodia was about 8 million, and some estimates claim that 3 million people died in the three years of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
After my visit to S-21, I sat down for a brief chat with my tuk-tuk driver. I could tell he was older than I was, which meant he was alive during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I asked if he remembered anything from that time. He said he was a little too young to remember much, but he does recall hearing a lot of noise around his home, including guns, and his mother would take him and hide for days. He didn’t understand what any of it was until much later.
On my visit to the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap, Bill Morse, the tour guide and partner for the Landmine Relief Fund, gave an explanation of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. He asked a Cambodian friend how Pol Pot could empty an entire city in 48 hours. His friend said that the Khmer Rouge used loudspeakers to tell residents that American bombers were on their way. The population was still traumatized from years of bombings during the Vietnam War.
If it wasn’t for Pol Pot’s desire to reclaim land from Vietnam, the Vietnamese would’ve never invaded Cambodia, thus providing the opportunity for Cambodians to reclaim their country. Of course, Vietnam paid for its war against the Khmer Rouge when China invaded northern Vietnam because Chairman Mao was a great supporter of Pol Pot and China wanted to defend its ally. China generally omits its invasion of Vietnam from history books.
After this day, I was mentally exhausted. I asked my driver to drop me off at Wat Phnom. The walk around the temple and the walk back to my hotel helped clear my head a bit.