Not a fun day out – but essential for anyone visiting Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole. Lots of things are deemed ‘essential’ in guide books, but these two really really are. I can’t see how you can get a full impression of Cambodia without visiting these two places.
I can’t really explain them in words if I’m honest. Not in a way that would do it justice, but I will try and give a bit of background information about their role in the genocide that happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. In under 4 years, the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 3 million people. The exact number isn’t known, as a large number of the mass graves are deep within the jungle regions, or in areas known to be land mined. This number is even more shocking when you realise that the population of Cambodia (or Democratic Kampuchea as it was then known) at the time was only 8 million. The majority of these people died as a result of the conditions imposed upon them – forced labour; no sanitation or healthcare; very limited food, and a policy of mass resettlement where all of the people in the cities were forced to move into the countryside to set up collective farms. Even Mao declared that he couldn’t have implemented a policy like that.
The Killing Fields and the S-21 prison however, show an even worse side to the Khmer Rouge. As it became clearer and clearer than their ‘social experiment’ was failing and the regime was falling apart, the leadership became even more paranoid and brutal in it’s suppression of ‘suspected traitors’. The S-21 prison (now the Tuol Sleng memorial centre) is situated in an old school (which were all closed in the time of the regime), and was a torture and interrogation centre. It is estimated that 17,000 people passed through this centre on the way to the Killing Fields. I’m not going to describe what it is like, but it has been left in the exact state that it was found, complete with photographs.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek was an old Chinese burial site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge drove people here in trucks from the S-21 prison and murdered them. The bodies of nearly 9,000 men, women, children and infants have been recovered from the mass graves here, and there are still 43 mass graves that have been left untouched. Like the prison, it’s a truly horrifying place, with the memorial stupa being particularly shocking.
I thoroughly recommend the audio guides – the one for the Killing Fields is very clear and informative, and deciding not to get one for the prison was a mistake. We found that without one, it was confusing and harder to understand.
A very difficult day. Lots of emotion, and for me, an overwhelming feeling of anger, not just at the Khmer Rouge regime, but at the Western governments that had continued to support the Khmer Rouge for decades after they had been ousted from power, both politically (they retained their seat on the UN!), and even through financial aid. Words fail me.