The contents of this post may be traumatic to some readers as it details the horrors of the Cambodian genocide.
In the early hours of the morning, long before our plans to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, I was awake, unable to sleep thanks to jet lag. Hiding under the covers, trying not to wake up my travel buddy with the light from my phone, I found a documentary to watch on the Cambodian genocide. I wanted to familiarize myself with the history that led to these horrific places before I visited them. The documentary shook me to the core and kept me up for hours after the final seconds played, but even that did not prepare me for what I would see and learn at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
The Cambodian Civil War and the Cambodian Genocide
To better understand the significance of these two places, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of the Cambodian Civil War. At risk of over-simplifying it, this was a war between the Communist Khmer Rouge supported by the Viet Cong, and the Kingdom of Cambodia which was supported by the U.S. and South Vietnam. The war took place over 8 years, and resulted in the Khmer Rouge taking victory in 1975.
The Khmer Rouge regime remained in power from 1975 to 1979. In those four years, they instituted their ideologies on the people of Cambodia. This involved torturing and killing between 1.5 to 3 million people, or about 25% of Cambodia's population at the time, in what is now called the Cambodian genocide.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng was once a high school where children learned and played but in August 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took over, it was converted to S-21, a prison and place of torture. Between 1975 and 1979, as many as 20,000 people were taken there on false claims of crimes against the state and espionage to be interrogated and tortured. The goal was to force them to falsely accuse family members and others who would in turn be taken there to be tortured until they named others. If they didn't end up dying from the torture and terrible conditions at S-21, most of the prisoners ended up being trucked over to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields to be murdered and dumped into mass graves. All in all, only 7 people who were imprisoned in S-21 lived to tell of the horrors they endured.
The Khmer Rouge was very meticulous at documenting their prisoners and the torture methods used on them, such as lashings, electrocution, and waterboarding. They took photographs of the prisoners alive and dead, and documented their forced testimonies. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum walls upon walls of these photographs are on display, and it really broke my heart and haunted me to see just how many people came through those doors, and to learn about what they went through. You'll also see the rows of narrow cells that the Khmer Rouge built in what used to be classrooms. I could not fathom how someone could live in those conditions.
To be completely honest, the visit was very hard to stomach. I was close to tears while I was there, and felt waves of nausea as I listened to all the horrific things that humans did to fellow humans. How could they do something like this, and for what?
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
The tuk-tuk ride from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was an unusually quiet one. I was trying to make sense of what I had just learned had happened to almost 20,000 people at S-21. I still can't say that it makes any sense to me at all. It also wasn't lost on me that less than 40 years ago, prisoners were rounded up onto trucks and taken on a similar route to get to Choeung Ek where they were killed.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields was no easier to stomach than the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. There, you'll learn about how the prisoners who were brought there were slaughtered. They were mostly bludgeoned or hacked to death to save on the cost of bullets, then dumped into mass graves. Then chemicals were scattered onto the bodies in an attempt to cover up the stench of rotting flesh, and to kill off anyone who might still have been alive when thrown into the graves. The audio guide described the loud music that was played when the slaughtering occurred to cover up any screams.
Some of the excavated graves were fenced off, with visitors leaving bracelets on them to honour those who died there. Other graves are covered with grass, visible as dips in the ground. And as you walk around Choeung Ek, immersed in the stories of horror and sadness through your audio guide, you might see fragments of bone or strips of material on the ground that once belonged to someone who was killed there that has surfaced thanks to rain or shifting soils. The most upsetting spot at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is likely the Killing Tree. There, babies were bashed against the tree by executioners to kill them.
The final stop at Choeung Ek is the Buddhist stupa that was erected in memory of those who died there. In the stupa, you'll find the skulls and bones of many who perished, showing traces of the trauma that they suffered before they died.
There is no way to sugarcoat how depressing visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields is, but I personally find it so important to visit places like these so that we can learn from history. Sometimes, just hearing about these horrors, it's hard to believe that something this gruesome actually happened. But seeing it all in person makes it so much more real, and I can say that I walked out of both places truly changed.
We visited both the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields on the same day, in that order. We decided to visit the museum first because we thought it made sense to learn about the people who were imprisoned and what they had to endure, before learning about where they were finally killed. I think visiting Tuol Sleng first did make my visit to the Killing Fields more impactful, but some might prefer to visit the Killing Fields first, as it does get very hot later in the day and there isn't much shade there. And just a reminder to please be respectful while you visit as these are memorial sites.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Hours: 8:00am - 5:00pm daily.
Getting here: Easily accessible via tuk-tuk if you're staying in Phnom Penh. Depending on where you are staying, you might even be able to walk there.
Admission: $5 USD, plus $3 USD for the audio guide which I highly recommend, as you will hear from survivors, and learn more than if you just wandered on your own.
Time to spend here: I spent around 2 hours here.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Hours: 8:00am - 5:30pm daily.
Getting here: The Killing Fields is ~15 km southeast of the city, about 45 minutes away from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum via tuk-tuk.
Admission: $6 USD, this includes the audio guide.
Time to spend here: I spent about 1.5 hours here.
This post is linked up on Our World Tuesday, and...