Discovering the heartbreaking history of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh

Please note: this article contains sensitive content and images which some may find upsetting.

To be honest, I didn’t want to visit Cambodia’s capital. My preconception of Phnom Penh – based on a swift scan of our guidebook and some of my favourite travel blogs – was of a city inextricably and depressingly linked with the heartbreak of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Google confirmed this before I’d finished typing ‘Penh’ in the search bar.

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The rational part of me understood the historic importance of these sites, but the thought of visiting the “must see” Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum and infamous Choeung Ek memorial (better known as the Killing Fields) made me feel uneasy and didn’t gel with my idea of a relaxing vacation. Matt on the other hand was keen to learn more about what had happened in Cambodia during the 1970’s and so we came to a compromise – to spend 24 hours on Phnom Penh before moving on to Siem Reap. However, our hasty departure from Vientiane meant that we arrived in Phnom Penh early, with double the time that we’d originally allocated..

This change in itinerary prompted me to reconsider my position; after all, those guidebooks and bloggers had all insisted that to really get to know Cambodia today, you first had to understand it’s recent past  – so the next morning we clambered into a tuk-tuk and set off for the Choeung Ek.

NB – At this point you have to make a grim choice of route: (a) visiting Tuol Sleng first and then Choeung Ek, so following the final steps of the genocide victims, or (b) do it the other way around and avoid the bulk of the tourists. We chose the latter.

Tuk-Tuking through Phnom Penh

As in Laos, Phnom Penh was teeming with tuk-tuks. Unlike Laos (and Thailand for that matter), the passenger area of Phnom Penh tuk-tuks were equipped with wrap-around metal cages, to make it harder for scooter-driving theives to snatch your bag/ phone/ camera. Friends had warned us about the high level of street crime here and I made Matt keep tight hold of our rucksack while I kept a watchful eye out for suspicious-looking-people (which had the ironic consequence making everyone look suspicious!).

After 10 minutes of not being mugged, and forgetting our destination, I relaxed a bit and became engrossed in the sights and sounds of the streets which whizzed by. Haphazard houses of concrete and wood; shopfront-after-shopfront, primarily dedicated to construction of some sort (the dull buzz of electric drills and heavy machinery made a soundtrack to the city); women in brightly coloured pajamas grooming each other by the streetside; goods and people loaded precariously on motorbikes.


Understanding the past

As we headed across and out of Phnom Penh, we witnessed a whirlwind of clamorous development. The city has that tangible sense of change, which juxtaposes barefoot children playing with gravel on dusty streets with minimalist-chic coffee shops selling flat whites, and sees upmarket boutique hotels with green credentials neighbouring abandoned and disintegrating buildings. The chaotic roads are clogged with tuk-tuks and motorbikes weaving between Range Rovers, blaring their respective horns as they negotiate their way forward past potholes and people.

This mish-mash of tradition and progress, wealth and poverty, energy and lethargy is something we’ve seen many times during our travels across Asia. Often what distinguishes it is a recent political or social event, the shockwaves of which are still visible should you look for them (such as the occupation and bombing of Laos, the cultural revolution etc.).

Only 40 years ago, Cambodia was devastated by the attempt of Khmer Rouge party leader Pol Pot to turn the country into a communist agrarian utopia. In reality, this involved the forced evacuation of millions of Cambodians from the cities into the countryside, where they laboured as slaves for a federation of collective farms. Having been brought up in the city, they had no idea how to grow crops or live off the land, and so millions perished from execution, starvation or disease (ironically, doctors were classed as intellectuals – ‘potential opposition’ – and killed, meaning that in the end there was no-one left to save even the most powerful Khmer Rouge).

It’s estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians – 25% of Cambodia’s total population – lost their lives between 1975 and 1979 at the hands of the Pol Pot’s regime – who operated under such dehumanizing mottos as ‘To have you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss.’.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields set up throughout Cambodia in the late 1970s. At the entrance gate we bought audio-tour tickets ($3 each) and walked into a grassy field surrounded by a thick forest of lush trees and bordered on one side by a vast lake. It was a quietly peaceful spot and we joined the trickle of headset-wearing tourists following a guided route round the site, stopping periodically to listen to the horror story which unfolded on each audio track – an account of what we now know based on the stories of survivors.

The stark natural beauty of place took on a new dimension as we learned that the rolling depressions in the grass were the sites of mass graves. Two or three times a month, in the late evening, trucks packed with 20-30 people would arrive at Choeung Ek; the prisoners, blindfolded, were executed immediately or detained overnight only to be killed the following day. A killing field is literally just a field where people went to be killed and buried.

We observed the glass box filled with fragments of bone and bits of clothing, washed up in the rainy season. On the ground next to the path, more pieces of clothing, bone and teeth were visible. We then stood in front of the thick tree trunk against which Khmer Rouge soldiers had, holding them by the feet, swung babies and small children until they were dead. Adults were clubbed to death with sticks, or hacked at with farm implements or sharp palm branches. After all, money was tight and bullets were expensive.

It was as terrible as I had anticipated; impossible to comprehend and too much to bear. I had to stop some of the audio-tracks part-way through,  conscious that I would never be able to un-listen to them.

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The guided tour ended at the Memorial Stupa, a tall white obelisk towering above the surrounding trees, erected in memory of the victims. Inside the memorial are thousands of skulls, arranged neatly by age and sex, many disclosing evidence of the trauma suffered in their last days or moments.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

Back in the tuk-tuk we returned to the centre of the Phnom Penh and stopped outside an innocuous looking mid-20th Century concrete building, on a dusty urban road packed with bustling grocers and cafés. This building was Tuol Svay Prey High School until 1975 when it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into S-21, one of the regime’s top-secret security prisons. From here, prisoners were loaded onto the trucks which transported them to their final destination at Cheoung Ek.

S-21 quickly became the largest and most notorious of the network of around 200 prisons; it’s estimated that between 17,000 – 30,000 Cambodians were imprisoned here, interrogated and brutally tortured. Only seven are known to have survived, and the site now serves as a testament to the horrific crimes which it bore witness to.

Again guided by an excellent audio-tour, we walked slowly and silently through the former school buildings. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous in keeping records of their inhuman cruelty, and the museum is a harrowing collection of the black-and-white photographs taken of the prisoners, and the transcriptions of the often bizarre forced confessions they made.

At the Killing Fields that morning, we had witnessed the shadows of the genocide – unidentifiable remains and marked graves. At S-21 however, we came face-to-face with thousands of pairs of eyes, of men and women and children and babies and these eyes bore a searing hole into my heart. While imprisoned, they had been shackled to the concrete floor or to each other in tiny makeshift cells, without mats or blankets. They received four small spoonfuls of rice soup each day and were forbidden to talk to each other. Routinely beaten and tortured in the most horrific ways, and made to confess to being CIA or KGB members – yet from the language they used it was clear that many had no idea what these organisations were.

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You’re not allowed to take photos inside the museum, but I did take one – below – which was the final straw for me (after this I took a seat outside in the garden and waited for Matt to finish the tour). The little chap in the middle reminded me so much of my brother as a baby; unbelievably chubby cheeks and a mop of dark hair – only he wasn’t given the opportunity to grow up. This was one of hundreds of photos of innocent children.


One of the few prisoners to survive S-21 is Chum Mey, pictured below with Matt. After ten days of torture he confessed to being a secret agent for the US, but managed to survive due to his skills as a mechanic. He now returns to the former prison each day where he sells his memoir. You can read about his story in this BBC News article.


There is a lot written online about the Cambodian Genocide, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng and I wanted to focus this blog more on our personal impressions than an in-depth account of the history; however, if you are interested to learn more about what happened:

Last thoughts

Given that I wasn’t keen to visit Phnom Penh – and more specifically those sites now dedicated to remembering the recent genocide – do I regret my decision to go?

It was certainly difficult. There are some images and stories that I imagine will haunt me for a long time – perhaps forever – and the experience clashed with my usual criteria for a ‘holiday’; but in this case I’m glad I pushed out of my comfort zone. And not for the reason I expected.

Setting out on this day-trip I’d convinced myself that I would learn more about Cambodia’s history and in doing so, would better understand the Cambodia we would experience over the coming week. To an extent this was true, but another very powerful reason occurred to me over the course of the day: if people like me don’t visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, then there is a risk that one day there won’t be any demand to keep them alive. These sites rely on tourists who can afford to pay the entrance fee – an unrealistic prospect for many ordinary Cambodians. A charity stand in Tuol Sleng asks for donations to fund visits for local schoolchildren, who otherwise may grow up wondering “was it really all that bad?”, or even worse, “did it really happen?”.

I’m not saying that visiting these places is the right thing for everyone, and I put a disclaimer at the start of this blog post for this reason. It’s emotionally exhausting. But we need to remember how easily the genocide happened, and how devastating the repercussions were for a whole country.

– Emma










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