2 Days in Phnom Penh: Harrowing history lessons

Day 1:

I came to Cambodia with very open eyes, not knowing a great deal about the country’s history or culture. My time in Phnom Penh was a chance to learn about Cambodia’s devastating past, some of which is deeply disturbing and will stay with me forever. For this reason, I warn you that this post is quite upsetting.

We hired a tuk tuk for the day to take us to Choeung Ek killing fields and to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The cost was $18 so split between four people it was reasonable. The ticket for the Choeung Ek cost $6 with an audio guide headset or $3 without. The audio guide was extremely insightful and I couldn’t imagine doing the tour without it.

Before going to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum I admit that I didn’t know much about the war(s) in Cambodia. I knew there were civil conflicts and many Cambodians killed, but nothing on the scale of what actually happened.

On 17th April 1975 the military forces of the Khmer Republic were overthrown and the whole country was seized by another force. This force was the Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge (Khmer is the name given to ethnic Cambodians and Rouge means red in French). The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, an extreme communist who believed that Cambodia needed to undergo a ‘revolution’ after the previous civil wars. The revolution attempted to eradicate all traces of capitalism and influences from the west through social engineering policies in order to create a communist utopia. Pol Pot’s utopia demanded that all Cambodians abandon the cities and go back to their roots to farm and cultivate the land. Everybody was supposedly equal, schools were eradicated, monks were killed and religion was abolished. The only worship was to be given to ‘Angka’ (the name given to the organisation behind the Khmer Rouge regime) and ‘struggle’ in any form was the new prayer.

The Khmer Rouge regime was heinous and barbaric. They starved, abused, tortured and massacred approximately two million Cambodians (one quarter of the population at the time) in unfathomable ways. The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone who opposed or disobeyed the regime and also anyone who posed a threat. This included educated individuals such as politicians, doctors, teachers, engineers and students. Educated people were accused of working for the CIA or as spies against the Khmer Rouge. If they weren’t killed, hundreds of thousands of people died from starvation and diseases such as dysentery or malaria.

The killing fields of Choeung Ek is where innocent Cambodians, like those mentioned above, were taken in overcrowded trucks to be murdered. They were usually told they were being reunited with family members or being taken to work. Between the years of  1975 and 1979 over twenty thousand people were transported here to be killed. There were also many other killing fields throughout Cambodia.

Choeung Ek is essentially a mass grave. Most of the graves were excavated shortly after the country was liberated in 1979, but bones and clothing still continue to unearth to the surface. There is a large collection of clothing in a glass container, and the most heartbreaking item to see was a pair of purple children’s shorts. Some Cambodian people believe this is the unrested spirits trying to break free.


Sometimes there are no words

Despite the heinous crimes that occurred at Choeung Ek, the nature within the grounds has flourished to create a place that beautifully honours the innocent lives lost. There’s a lake where you can walk around or sit on a bench and listen to stories and accounts of survivors, or take a moment to reflect. There’s also an abundance of trees and plants, chickens and so many butterflies.

The stupa is the main memorial in the grounds. It serves as a place where the spirits can hopefully find peace. Inside the stupa are tiers of glass panelled shelves and on the shelves are skulls and bones. I walked around each side of the narrow building and I felt goosebumps prickle all over my arms. These were real human skulls, of real people who had families and jobs and passions. Why and how did this ever happen?

Inside the stupa

After lunch we went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly known as s21 Prison. S21 was originally a secondary school and you can tell by looking at the building blocks surrounding a big courtyard. When the Khmer Rouge took over they seized the building and converted it to a prison to interrogate and torture prisoners. It became the “place where people entered but never left.” Most cells in block A have original furtniture and seeing this made the reality of what happened hit home, hard. I couldn’t stay inside the rooms for too long.

Cells in block A

Throughout the buildings are photo exhibitions of prisoners and Khmer Rouge soldiers and wardens who entered the prison. The photos are mostly mugshots but they are powerful images. The details of what happened to prisoners in S21 are too disturbing to discuss. All I could ask was how can one human inflict so much pain on another being? I’ve thought about this lot since and I think it just goes to show how volatile the human really mind is. Throughout history up until the present day it’s evident that under the right conditions it is easy to break someone down to the point where their way of thinking can be radically changed even if it’s immoral in every way. Fear is also a very powerful catalyst. For the Khmer Rouge soldiers, torturing people was ‘just their job’. They would’ve been tortured and killed if they didn’t comply with the ‘rules’.

It really struck me how recent the Khmer Rouge regime was, and how it was dealt with after on an international scale. A tribunal to seek justice for the millions who died under the regime didn’t begin until 2006. Yep, 2006. Twenty seven years later…

A wall full of messages in Tuol Sleng Museum

We got back to the hostel and I flopped on my bed feeling emotionally drained and disturbed. It was a very intense day and everything I learnt was floating around my mind. We decided we needed to do something fun so we went to the nightmarket for dinner. We had a slightly unconventional three-course meal of deep fried vegetable dumplings, noodles and gluttonous mountain of ice cream for $3.50.

One quote I read at the end of the day struck me: “We need to learn to be wary of people in regimes that threaten human dignity.” We need to keep our eyes open. Always.

May the souls of all those who had their lives taken by the Khmer Rouge regime find and rest in peace. 🕯🙏🌼

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