Cambodia :: Phnom Penh, Prison 21 & The Killing Fields

“I don’t consider myself a politician or a hero. I’m a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices.”
-Dith Pran

Cambodia was one of my “first list items”. The first countries I knew I wanted to see when I started planning this trip. Angkor Wat had, like Petra, been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember. I decided to start out in Phnom Penh though, because the plane tickets there were cheaper than to Siem Reap. I’m practical at least half the time…

After Malaysia I decided on Cambodia because I needed to do something I really WANTED to do. I felt I needed to get back in to the groove of things for real and find the unbridled enjoyment I had had in the beginning so I thought checking off some stuff I had wanted to see for years would be a good way to do that. Also, I expected Cambodia to be super-friendly and chill – which suited my mood at that point.

I wasn’t wrong about Cambodia being super friendly and chilled – the people definitely are, with a few exceptions of course. I found Phnom Penh to be very “hassly”. People trying to sell you everything under the sun, often aggressively (not mean, just wont necessarily take “no” for an answer) and constantly. Kids showing up selling bracelets or whatever and not taking “no” for an answer, telling you to exchange money at the hostel so you have smaller change so you can buy their stuff and if you tell them to come back tomorrow they “can’t” because “they have school” (at 8pm? really?) – they still show up the next night claiming you promised to buy something if they came back. These two boys were particularly rude and aggressive about this, so much so that I actually got seriously annoyed, which doesn’t happen to me very often. In the end they left when they realized they’d lost any chance of me buying anything and this other boy from the neighborhood came over and sat next to me while I worked on my computer. He was friendly, nice and polite so I let him play some online games on my computer while I watched him. He asked what my iPod was and when I told him it was for music he asked if he could have it. I said no, of course, but it was all smiles anyway. If you never ask, you’ll never get, right? 😉

In Phnom Penh I stayed at a hostel costing $4 per night. A shabby bed in a dorm with a shabby bathroom, but great people. (Also, Cute Guy, here’s hoping he doesn’t read my blog much (“Hiii!” *waving*)). I had a lot of fun here, good convos and a few bottles of beer. Ended up splitting a tuktuk with another dude that checked in the day after, Jari from Finland. He was negotiating a tuktuk to see the museum and Killing Fields and I overheard, so I jumped in, asked if he was going to these places and before I could ask to join, I was invited. So we piled in with out lovely driver for the day and he took us first to Prison 21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) and then to the Killing Fields.

The museum is situated in a former high school which was used as the so-called “Security Prison 21” (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge. “Tuol Sleng” means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”, charming name… It was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. Countless people were tortured and executed here (the “most difficult” prisoners were skinned alive) and when the site was shut down

One of the first things you see when you arrive is signage showing the “security regulations”. When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of 10 rules they had to follow (grammar mistakes are from the original signage):

  • 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.

Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors. The last 14 victims at the S-21 site, killed before the Khmer Rouge fled the city, were found by the mixed army liberation troops and the remains interred in the courtyard area. It is believed that the victims may have been high-ranking officials. These 14 graves are clearly visible as white stone tombs you can see from everywhere you stand in the first courtyard of Tuol Sleng.

The 14 graves in Tuol Sleng

The 14 graves in Tuol Sleng



Choeung Ek is a former orchard which served as a mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge – killed between 1975 and 1979 – about 20 km south of Phnom Penh. It’s the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over 1 million people between 1975 – 1979.

To say this was a somber experience is an understatement. We arrived and bought our audio guides (which I would definitely recommend, they contain a lot of information) and went in while our trusted driver was buying beer because he misunderstood Jari and thought we’d asked for it. (Jari had asked if he liked beer… just as a conversational topic, but what can you do) 😉

The Killing Fields is a horrible, but beautiful place. It’s quiet and, as I said, somber. One of the first things you see is the shrine in the middle. The tower containing the human skulls of so many of the victims. Anonymous people brought in by the truck loads only to be executed in the middle of the night, without hesitation or ceremony and then dumped in the ground en masse. The skulls are organized by age and put in chambers marked “aged between 20-40”, “aged between 40-60” and “victims under 20 years”… they also have color markings to indicate gender (red = male, blue = female) and how they were killed, if that can be determined at all… Beat to death, stabbed, shot, what manner of weapon was used… It’s a horrible thing to see, to take in…

I may catch some backlash for this, but I have never been one of those who think the killing of children in genocide or massacres “makes the whole thing 100 % worse”. I have always wondered at this, even though I understand the want and need to protect children and I understand that they are inherently more defenseless than adults. I still think genocide and massacres are bad enough already. The fact that children get killed as well doesn’t make it more evil, it adds to the heartache. Genocide and killings like these are already completely evil. Nothing can change that, for better or worse.

That being said – The Killing Tree is a chilling thing to behold. Not worse than the dents in the ground showing where they dug up thousands of dead bodies. Not worse than the skeleton on display of an unnamed victim. Not worse than the signs describing exactly what went on here and how they tried to drown the sounds of killing with propaganda blaring over the speakers in the dead of night. Not worse, but equally chilling. Equally horrifying. Equally, desperately sad. To save ammunition the executioners (often young soldiers from peasant families) used poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks (sharp enough to slit throats). The infants and young children would get bashed against the tree until they died, and were then thrown in the mass grave with their parents. The “logic” was that they could not be allowed to grow up and avenge their parents.

Visitors to this place often leave a bracelet of some sort on the pillars, trees or fences. I had read about this before coming and knew I wanted to follow this tradition. It may seem like an empty gesture, but I believe that the more people who visit these places and are moved enough to do this gesture (however “empty”) the less likely we are to have a repeat of it. Will it stop genocide in the future? Probably not, but if everyone would come here and feel how I and, I would bet, most of the other visitors did after seeing it, it probably would.

Afterwards we returned to Phnom Penh and our hostel. I felt like a cliché saying my “head was full and my heart was heavy”, but that’s how I felt. Jari recommended the night market because they had chicken curry and various other foods so we trotted through the streets in search of sustenance.

The night market was a nice end to the day – I went apeshit and just bought lots of stuff I didn’t know what was. Then I ate it. It was yummy. Good times.

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