Nowhere With You

Phnom Penh: Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and Tuol Sleng Prison

Monday September 7, 2015 (Asia, Cambodia, Southeast Asia)


WARNING: This post contains both disturbing content and imagery.

We grabbed a flight from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh to do a little whistle-stop tour of the big city. For better or worse, Phnom Penh’s most popular attractions are those dealing with the genocide that took place at the command of the Khmer Rouge during the years 1975-1979 under the watch of leader Pol Pot.

For a very quick rundown of the history behind the genocide, the gist is that Pol Pot led an iron-fisted movement championing the ideals of "agrarian socialism” in which huge numbers of people were relocated from cities to work in rural areas. Religious and ethnic minorities were targeted by the regime, in addition to intellectuals and many other groups. Many were sent to brutal prisons and many were executed. In all, it is estimated that about 2 million people were killed, or about 25 percent of the entire population of Cambodia at the time. This was a horrific time for people here.

We began our journey at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, also known as “The Killing Fields”. Blindfolded captives from Tuol Sleng Prison (also known as “S21”, which I'll talk about later) were brought here in trucks in large numbers. In order to keep them calm throughout the journey, they were told they were being relocated to new homes. Upon arriving at Choeung Ek, they would disembark the trucks and enter a holding area. They would all be individually murdered during the night while Communist propaganda music blared from loudspeakers to drown out the sounds of death. Over 8000 bodies were found at this mass grave site alone, and hundreds of such mass graves are scattered throughout the country.

Many visitors would leave bracelets or small monetary notes to honour the dead. Different mass graves were used for separate groups. Some contained women and children, others contained only decapitated men. Some even contained bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers thought to be traitors by an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot toward the end of the regime's power.

Bones and cloth still litter the ground surrounding the paths you walk along. Every few months, volunteers scour the site to collect the latest pieces of clothing, teeth, and bones that have surfaced from the earth.

The audio tour at the site begins and ends at a memorial stupa filled with the remains of some of the thousands of people discovered buried there. You can easily see the effects on a human skull of being killed by a blunt instrument, an axe, a cleaning rod, or a bullet. An unthinkable number of skulls rise above you level after level. The audio tour was excellent and provided a great historical background to help come to grips with the conflict. Obviously this isn’t a happy place to visit, but we felt it was important to learn what we could.

Our next destination was Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh. This is where people were kept before being sent away for execution. Ironically, the prison was converted from its former life as a high school. It changed from a place for education and higher learning to a hell of confinement and torture for thousands of innocent people.

Tuol Sleng has since been converted to a museum of sorts. Although a bit sparse on textual information and background, various rooms show exhibits including hundreds of photos of victims who were kept in the jail. Each prisoner was measured and photographed before being locked away. The extent of the cruelty is unbelievable. A man was imprisoned as an intellectual for being a railway engineer. But given the Khmer Rouge’s belief that you had to kill the source of the problem at its root, the man's entire family including his children were also imprisoned. One building in the complex had its exterior covered in razor wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping from the walkways.

We were lucky enough to speak to a survivor who gave a talk about his personal experience at S21. He was just a child at the time but still has vivid memories of his experience. In the late 2000s he spoke at the tribunal in charge of bringing the architects of the genocide to justice. Until speaking at that tribunal he had never spoken of the horrific situation he endured as a child.

He was imprisoned with his mother and younger brother. His mother was separated from them in the prison and he never saw her again. Luckily, the boys' imprisonment took place only a week or so before Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese. When artillery was heard in the hills surrounding the city, the guards rushed to collect all of the prisoners for execution. The survivor hid himself, his younger brother, and three other children inside a large pile of clothes. They waited hidden for a day and emerged after the departure of the guards. An infant he had hidden with him under the pile of clothing had suffocated in the night, but the remaining four children survived. It’s always amazing to me when people are able to forgive and compartmentalize to a degree that allows them to speak publicly about such atrocities.

I really can’t imagine the pain some of these people went through. We read the story of a man, his wife and his child being escorted by Khmer Rouge guards on a march. Upon reaching a forested area, the man was forced to watch his wife shot and killed. While the soldiers reloaded their weapons, the man fled. He escaped his own death. But he left his little boy behind. He never saw him again, but he feels certain that his son is alive to this day.

Now on to something lighter.

How about our first evening in the city, where a tuk-tuk driver cheerily asked us if we’d like him to take us to the killing fields? I never thought I’d see the day when somebody would say something like that with a big smile on their face. He probably needs to work on his pitch a bit.

Next up: the One Up Banana Hotel. What a great place! They gave us each pink scarves when we left as a gift for staying with them! You couldn’t walk past the front desk without the staff greeting you with a hearty hello. Friendly folks who are super focused on making sure you have a great experience in their city.

We were also nearby an incredible restaurant by the name of Domrei. We went there twice. And both times we made sure to go during happy hour. Half price beers! Draught Angkor mugs for 80 cents US! The food presentation and quality were impeccable. Sandra adored the pomelo salad, but everything was quite tasty. And we’d walk out of there stuffed to the brim and only paid about 12 US dollars. Just crazy.

We’re now in Bangkok awaiting our flight to Myanmar tomorrow. The next adventure begins! We may be off the grid a bit as I’ve heard the Internet isn’t widespread/fanstatic in that country. But we’ll do our best. The greatest news of all is that our eVisa for the country arrived today! On the first business day of processing! This means no panicked phone calls, cancelled flights, or early morning trips to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. What an absolute relief. I think it’s the only country remaining on our itinerary that requires any kind of extended or complex visa process, so we’re happy to have it all figured out.

See you in Yangon!

Tag: Cambodia


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