If you’re like me, you know a little bit about a lot of things. I knew that Pol Pot was the man behind some pretty nasty stuff in Cambodia but I wasn’t aware of the scale.
For a quick catch up on the history, after seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous regime that lasted around four years.
With the aim of establishing a classless communist state, void of capitalism the Khmer Rouge evacuated cities and sent everyone to the countryside to farm, no matter their experience or the lay of the land. Anyone who didn’t conform to the Khmer Rouge’s rules ended up in prison. Over 1.5 million Cambodians lost their lives during this time.
Our main motivation to visit Phenom Phen was to visit the two sites where outsiders can learn about what went on during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was tough going. So tough in fact that unlike many visitors who will visit both the S-21 camp and the killing fields at Choeung Ek in one day, we spread the visits out over two.
Both sites require tickets, but they are affordable and easy to get – just turn up and wait in the line.
The site at S-21 remains largely as it was found when the regime left it. Formally a high-school ground in central Phnom Penh, its was surprising how non-descript the buildings are. Sadly, what went on here was anything but non-descript. It was here that prisoners were sent to be interrogated, tortured and forced to live in tiny cells. Here they would also be pressured to confess false crimes, then executed.
Going through the site, you see the faces of many of the 20,000 inmates who passed through the doors. The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of each prisoner and facets of these are visible throughout the museum, the most obvious being the many many black and white portraits. Each space has a focus, and a very compelling audio guide walks you through from the beginning to the end of the regime.
It took us much longer to move around than we anticipated, and we left feeling pretty hot, flat and deeply disturbed.
Visiting Choeung Ek
I’m gonna put it out there, the fields are more heartbreaking than S-21. Again, there is an audio guide that walks you through from place to place and explains the history. Now, what you can see is just rural countryside, but it’s easy to imagine the horrors explained as you walk along the forged tracks. You occasionally need to avoid stepping on a bone, or piece of clothing, that is rising in the soil as the years go on.
Here is where the memorial stupa is set up, where 8000 skulls are located, arranged by sex and age. Visible behind the glass panels are the cracked skulls, broken bones and various tools used in the murder of prisoners. Bullets were expensive, so other items were used to brutally kill those who found themselves here.
The tuk-tuk ride to and from the fields is not long, nor expensive, but it felt like a lifetime on our ride home. On there, we took some quiet time for ourselves.
An important message
One of the last things we heard on the tour was that many Cambodians feel it’s important for others to hear their story to ensure those who died are not forgotten. It’s a similar wish to the families of those who have died in war and other atrocities. We can only hope that by learning about these things, we can avoid them happening in the future.
Cambodia isn’t all shock and awe. Phenom Phen is a bustling city with an eclectic mix of new industry and old city charm. We loved the cooking classes, markets, malls and our hotel pool.
Cambodia was the end of our trip in Asia. From here, it’s onwards to the USA!