On the 17th April 1975 Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge troops. In the next four-year period roughly 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime which was 1 in every 4 Cambodians that died through this period.
It is recommended to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as S21 before you head out to the Killing field. As the people were tortured at S21 before they were sent to die at the Killing field and this will give you a greater appreciation of the Killings fields.
The Killing fields at the Choeung Ek Genocidial center
This place is so powerful, hearing stories of survivors and of those who weren’t that lucky.
There are no buildings left behind on the grounds as the angry locals ripped everything down after the war as the country was in desperate need of food so they took what was left and used what they could to sell in order to eat.
Walking around the grounds there are photos of what the different houses would have looked like back in the 70’s. With the entrance ticket of $6 you get an audio guide (15 languages available) which has 19 stops plus extra personal stories.
I have never been to a more quiet tourist attraction. Everyone is walking around silently with a set of headphones each and no one is smiling.
Using the audio guide and walking between the 19 stops, you hear about things like how the people arrived on big trucks, the old Chinese graves, the killing house, the lake where some people are still buried and many more facts about the place. There is even an audio track from a Khmer Rouge guard in court who single-handedly took responsibility for over 10,000 deaths.
It really hits home when you see the bones fragments on the ground with signs saying to not stand on them. I had to take a moment and just reflect. What a place, where every year more bone fragments appear during the raining season and the death number gets higher. All the surviving families that have no idea what happened to their family members, who are just hoping and praying that one day they will walk through the front door.
There are 129 mass graves around the place, divided into men and women and children. Next to one of mass graves there is a killing tree, a tree which children and young infants were smashed against and killed because their parents were accused of some sort of crime against the Khmer Rouge. This was so the children wouldn’t grow up and take revenge over their parents deaths. The Khmer Rouge have a saying, ” you have to kill the roots as well as the tree”.
On the tree there is a sign which reads “Chankiri tree against which executioners beat children”
The place is so powerful, yet so depressing. I think is a must see for everyone. It reminds us of the past and reminds that us that such a horrible and unspeakable crime should never happen again. I think the 17th April 1975 is a date that will always stick with me and hopefully I will never forget.
At the end you walk in to the memorial stupa (building) with 17 levels of around 8,000 human skulls. They are divided into how they were killed with little stickers indicating the sex and/or how they were killed. Looking at these you want to cry. Seeing bullet holes going through the skulls is just heartbreaking.
Getting to the Killings fields
The drive to the Killing Fields is around 15km form the city centre. With negotiations you can get a tuk tuk for around $10, the driver will wait for you and take you back to the city.
Cycle, you can cycle, not sure it’s advisable to cycle 15km each way in 30+ degree heat. Renting a bicycle will set you back $3.
Scooter, rent a scooter for only $6 for the day. Hopefully you won’t run into a police officer who will ask you for a tip in order to continue your journey. (Not a bribe, a tip apparently)
Tuol Sleng Museum, S21
S21 was the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons, which held around 20,000 prisoners where they were tortured during the Khmer Rouge regime. Prior to this this particular bulding becoming a prison it was a school. It is now set up as a museum to chronicle the brutality of the Cambodian genocide.
S21 Prison Rules
When prisoners were brought to S21, they were given ten rules that they were to obey during their incarceration.
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
There was one prisoner on the list that was particularly interesting given Jeremy is from New Zealand; and that prisoner was Kerry Hamill.
Kerry Hamill, a fellow kiwi, was captured by the Khmer Rouge when the yacht he and his friends were sailing strayed into Cambodian waters in August 1978
The Cambodian interrogators were convinced he worked for the CIA and would torture him to try to get answers. In his confession, Kerry stated that Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, was one of his superiors, he used his home telephone number as his CIA operative number and mentioned several family friends as supposed members of the CIA.
Kerry Hamill also highlighted the reference to a public speaking instructor named “S Tarr”, saying it was evidence that Kerry was trying to send a message to his mother, Esther.
It hits home a little bit more when you can assimilate to the person in the story. Kerry was an innocent kiwi bloke who was just one story out of the 3 million that went down in this regime.
Brother Number One is a New Zealand documentary about his story
During the tour you walk into the different prison cells where the prisoners were held. The Khmer Rouge closed off the air vents with cement to make everything worse for the prisoners. One of many things done just to make life just a touch more horrible for the prisoners.
Here you also get an audio tour (available in 15 languages) for $3. Entrance is $3, free for students with a valid student ID. During the audio tour you walk between 32 stops with extra stories along the way.
Getting to S21
Located on the corner of 113 st and 350 st. Boueng Ken Kan 3, Chamkarmon, Phnom Penh.
Opening times from 8am to 5pm daily