Colorful bracelets on posts marking mass graves at Killing Fields, Cambodia

Seeing Cambodia’s Genocide Sites: My Experience

Planning a trip to Cambodia? While I strongly encourage tourists to go to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, be warned: seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites will forever haunt you. And it’ll give you a respect and appreciation for the strength of the Cambodian people like nothing else can.

Some cringe at the thought of seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites. The school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture prison. The orchard where so many were beaten to death, and then buried in mass graves. Why go to such a place? And give yourself nightmares? In a way it seems disrespectful, to tour sites where so much horror happened. I get that.

To me, the bigger disrespect is not learning about what happened. And there’s no clearer way to understand than to stand inside the prison rooms and beside the mass graves. To hear the guide describe how his own family was devastated. 

The Cambodian genocide happened from 1975 to 1979. That’s not that long ago. When 2.5 million people died – more than a quarter of its population. Because they were a threat to their government.

Even today, former prisoners live side-by-side as neighbors with former child soldiers, doing what they can to live a normal life. That’s inspirational. Heroic. I don’t think one can appreciate who they are today without appreciating the gravity of what they experienced. Their stories are worth learning.

In that light, my goal is to provide some information that may help you experience Cambodia’s genocide sites less as a tourist and more as a friend.

Seeing Cambodia's genocide sites

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Contents:

Context: A Very Brief Summary of the Cambodian Genocide

Before seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites, it’s helpful to have some context. I don’t pretend to be an expert or historian … just someone who wants to learn and understand peoples’ stories.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) overthrew the Cambodian government. This was after a five-year civil war. Under Pol Pot’s leadership, the new government sought to make Cambodia a self-sufficient agrarian society. They immediately evacuated Phnom Penh, sent everyone to work camps and started the executions.

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed an estimated 1.3 million people. And when you include starvation, it’s estimated that of Cambodia’s 8 million people, 2.5 million died. MORE than a quarter of its people.

Individuals were targeted based on connections to the former government, to foreigners and to the “foreign” way of life. Professionals, intellectuals. Anyone with specialized training. Anyone with soft hands and glasses. Ethnic Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham. Christians and Buddist monks.

Although the Khmer Rouge was essentially a family dictatorship (the highest ranking leaders had family ties), they devastated the concept of family. Children belonged not to their parents but to Angkar, the ruling organization. When babies were done breastfeeding, they were taken from their mother and cared for by Khmer Rouge girls. Typically at eight years, they were sent to live with other kids under a senior official. And by twelve, they were often heading up work camps. Work camps led by children were notorious for extreme and arbitrary violence.

In 1979 after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism quickly returned to the center of village life. And orphaned children began putting their lives back together.

Seeing Cambodia’s Genocide Sites: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former Security Prison S-21)

If you’re interested in seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites for yourself, the Tuol Sleng museum is a must-see.

Even the concept of this place is chilling. A school once filled with learning and laughter, twisted into a notorious interrogation and detention center by the Khmer Rouge. The exhibits and audio tour are very good at explaining and helping you appreciate the gravity of what happened.

To see Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I recommend giving yourself two hours; more if you want to watch a featured video (see below for details). I do not recommend bringing children, as the images and depictions are graphic and disturbing. In fact, the museum’s website recommends against bringing children 14 years old and younger.

Soldiers were creative in using what was available to make their detainees “confess.” And because doctors were executed and medical libraries burned, new “medics” experimented. You’ll see a lot of this at the museum.

The museum is organized as follows:

1. The courtyard

14 Graves in Courtyard of Tuol Sleng Museum, Cambodia

14 graves symbolize the last victims found at S21 prison

As you walk into the Genocide Museum, a fairly large courtyard greets you. Initially it doesn’t look so bad. There are lovely trees and benches around to rest. But then you see the gallows (that used to be playground equipment) where prisoners were hung upside down and dunked into large pots of water to make them “confess.”

The 14 concrete graves symbolize the last torture victims found at the prison when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979.

2. The torture rooms

Images show how victims were tortured at Tuol Sleng Museum, Cambodia

Illustrations show how victims were tortured at S21 prison

The lower level rooms of Building A (to the left as you walk in) have rusting bed frames and contraptions used to secure and torture prisoners. These large rooms were used for higher-ranking prisoners, like former government officials. Images and depictions on the wall reveal how these contraptions were used. The yellow tiles and walls still show bloodstains.

3. Faces, numbers and names

Faces of staff and victims at S21 prison, Cambodia

Look into the eyes of staff members and prisoners of the notorious S21 prison

More than 15,000 men, women, children and foreigners came through this prison. The Khmer Rouge kept good records and took pictures of their prisoners. Initially, photos included only a prisoner number; later, they added the date of entry and their name. Building B (directly in front of you as you enter) presents many of these faces.

4. The holding cells

Classrooms became cells at S21 prison, Cambodia

Classrooms became cells at S21 prison

Building C (on the far side of the second courtyard) is left as it was back in 1979, with classrooms transformed into tiny holding cells. Something that struck me the most was the barbed razor wire along the upper walkways; this wire was put up to prevent (primarily) the female prisoners from jumping in attempted suicides.

Barbed wire on upper floor of S21, Cambodia

Barbed wire prevents suicide attempts from upper floor of S21 prison

5. Instruments of torture

I only glanced in at this area. By the time I reached this building (Building D, the farthest from the entrance), my stomach was struggling. Methods included electric shock and drowning in vats.

Visitor information:

  • Website: tuolsleng.gov.kh
  • Address: St.113, Boeung Keng Kang III, Chamkarmorn, Phnom Penh
  • Open: Daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    • Documentaries: 9:30-10:30 a.m. (The Killing Machine) and 3:45-4:15 p.m. (Behind the wall of S-21)
    • Survivor’s testimony: 2:30-3 p.m.
  • Fees: $5 for non-Cambodian adult and $3 for youth (10-18); free for Cambodians
    • Personal guide is by donation (in Khmer, French and English)
    • Audio is $3 (in Khmer, English, French, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Spain, Dutch, and Italian)
  • Good to know:
    • Accessibility: Bottom level only (upper floors have stairs)
    • Dress code: Cover shoulders and knees
    • Age: Not recommended for 14 years old and younger
    • No food, cell phones or drones
    • Photography: Allowed for non-commercial purposes
    • White Lotus Room: An air-conditioned room for reflection

Seeing Cambodia’s Genocide Sites: The Buddhist Memorial at Choeung Ek (known as the Killing Fields)

About 15 kilometers west of Phnom Penh lies a former orchard that became a mass killing site and grave for thousands detained and tortured at S21.

Today, Choeung Ek is the best known monument of the Killing Fields. It’s the site of a Buddhist stupa that houses more than 8000 skulls. Many are obviously shattered or crushed.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, nearly 9000 bodies were found in mass graves at Choeung Ek. It’s estimated that 17,000 people were killed here. So while this is the most known site, it’s only one of many where more than 1 million people were killed. You walk along paths between 129 mass graves; 43 remain untouched.

The worst part for me was our guide demonstrating how babies were killed at the Killing Tree. I can still see his arms swinging.

Please stay on the paths and tread lightly. Heavy rains still bring bones and remnants of clothes to the surface.

One hour was enough time to visit the Killing Fields memorial.

Visitor information:

  • Open: Daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • Fee: $3USD + $3 for the audio tour (highly recommended)
  • Getting here:
    • Tuk-tuk: $15USD or so for a half-day return trip; a 30-40 minute ride
    • Air-conditioned bus: $15USD for the Phnom Penh hop on, hop off bus (but it leaves at specific times); includes an hour stop at Tuol Sleng and hotel pickup from certain areas
  • Good to know:
    • Dress code: Cover shoulders and knees
    • No food, drinking alcohol or smoking
    • Photography: Allowed when I was there, but I’ve since read this has changed; please confirm when you arrive
    • Consider bringing a colored bracelet to leave behind in respect

Visiting respectfully: Good things to know when seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites

The number of tourists seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites has grown exponentially in the past decade. While I’d like to think this is a testament to better education and people wanting to learn about history and people’s stories, there are articles about tourists leaving graffiti on the walls of S21 and taking bone and cloth fragments from the memorial.

These sites have been set up primarily for locals, as a way to honor their dead and learn from their past. As outsiders coming to pay our respects, here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

  • Dress code: Cambodian custom when visiting a memorial or religious site is to cover shoulders and knees.
  • Solemn behavior: Keep your voice low, turn your phone to silent mode (and don’t make/receive calls), and generally keep noise to a minimum. At Choeung Ek, stay on the paths.
  • Consumption: Eating, drinking alcohol and smoking are not allowed; please don’t eat your lunch at these places.
  • Photography: Allowed for non-commercial purposes. I’ve since read that photos at Choeung Sleng are not allowed but I remember our guide saying it was okay; please confirm when you arrive.

Guided tour options to see both of Cambodia’s genocide sites

Having a personal guide take you through Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Memorial is well worth the extra cost, in my opinion. With 1 in 4 Cambodians who died, chances are high that your guide will have a very personal connection to that time.

A guide can answer questions, give insight into Cambodia since then, and avoid you having to find and negotiate a tuk-tuk. Plus, this is also a way to contribute to their local economy.

Tour options with both the museum and memorial:

  • Half-day (4 hour) bus transportation ($15USD): Called a hop-on, hop-off tour, this is essentially air-conditioned bus transportation to the museum and memorial, with dedicated times in the morning and afternoon. Includes hotel pickup/drop-off from certain areas of Phnom Penh.
  • Half-day (4 hour) guided tour ($26USD): A guide takes you through Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. Includes an English guide, transportation (no hotel pickup/drop-off) and entrance fees.
  • Full-day (8 hour) guided city tour ($74USD): A guide takes you through Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, plus Royal Palace, National Museum and Wat Phnom. Includes hotel pickup/drop-off, lunch with market tour, an English guide, transportation and entrance fees.
  • Full-day (8 hour) guided boat tour ($110USD): A guide takes you through Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, plus Mekong Island (silk weavers, Buddhist temple, floating fish farms, home visit) and Mekong boat tour. Includes lunch at an NGO, an English guide, transportation (no hotel pickup/drop-off) and entrance fees.

Since the Cambodian genocide: Trials against Khmer Rouge Officers

After seeing Cambodia’s genocide sites for myself, I was eager to learn what happened after the Vietnamese took over in 1979. It was disappointing to learn that it took 30 years for the first Khmer Rouge leader to be brought before a tribunal in 2009. And that Pol Pot died well before in 1998.

Commonly known as the Cambodian or Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a panel of Cambodian and international judges investigated high-ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

Ten former Khmer Rouge leaders were investigated; three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Four of these 10 have died; four others were released; and, two are still serving life sentences.

There was very strong local support for these trials. More than 135,000 people observed the first two trials (the second lasting 212 days) and nearly 67,000 people from rural areas attended video screenings.

Two boys walk along a grassy marsh in Cambodia

Photo credit: Boudewijn Huysmans from Unsplash.

Helpful resources

When we drove through the countryside and saw families working and playing together, children laughing with their parents … it reminded me not to leave the people of Cambodia in the killing fields. Those who survived and still live are doing what they can to live a normal life today.

So, I encourage you to see Cambodia’s genocide sites for yourself. Take some time to absorb it and reflect. Do what you do to respect their memory: say a prayer; maybe have a strong drink. And then do what you do to make life a little better for those around you.

Book

Book Cover (Dith Pran): Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by SurvivorsChildren of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors is one of the best books I’ve read about the genocide. These memoirs are a very hard read, but worth reading. Compiled by Dith Pran.

Film

Film (Angelina Jolie/Loung Ung): First They Killed my FatherThis film, First They Killed my Father, recounts the experiences of Loung Ung who was forced from Phnom Penh into the countryside. It was directed by Angelina Jolie, and is quite good. As of today, you can find it on Netflix. 

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