A visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the S21 Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh is tough, but it’s important to visit to learn about Cambodia’s recent dark history.
I am not normally one for dark tourism at all, however I felt it was important to learn about the mass killings that occurred here in the late 1970s by the communist Pol Pot and his brutal Khmer Rouge as I wasn’t very familiar with it.
Visiting Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the S21 prison was an eye-opening and moving experience, with the story behind both places completely tragic and horrific, but I really advise anyone who is visiting Phnom Penh – even for one day only, to experience them both.
The Killing Fields and S21 prison are must-visit places in Phnom Penh if you want to understand the recent history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge regime.
They are sobering, sad and disturbing places, but very informative and many tourists from around the world come here.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Choeung Ek was once a former orchard and from the outside it looks beautiful and peaceful even. But as its name suggests, here many people were sadly killed.
Infact the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are the site of mass graves for over 20,000 innocent civilian victims. They were brought here by Pol Pot’s regime the Khmer Rouge and brutally executed and buried here between 1975 and 1979.
Pol Pot wanted a classless, agrarian society, and he feared mass rebellion from the population, so he gathered up all educated and professional people – even those who simply wore glasses or could speak another language, as he considered them to be dangerous.
These people were taken to prisons, tortured and forced to admit to crimes they hadn’t committed. They were then taken to killing fields, where hundreds of thousands of these people were beaten to death and thrown into mass graves.
There were many killing fields across Cambodia, but Choeung Ek is the biggest, most well-known and most-visited.
Execution At Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Victims were brought here in the evening, around 8 or 9pm by the truck load so none of the locals in the nearby village of Choeung Ek would suspect anything. The victims were kept here in the dark with their hands tied behind their backs.
When it was their turn to be executed they were told to kneel down at the edge of the pit – the mass grave that had been dug out, then they would suffer a blow to the head with a wooden club before being stabbed or having their throats slit and then thrown into the mass grave.
Chemicals were then thrown over the mass graves to not only kill anyone that had been buried alive, but also to kill the stench of the smell of the dead bodies so none of the local residents would grow suspicious.
Music was also blasted out to disguise the screams. If you didn’t know the story, you would have no idea that such a bloodied history would ever occur here.
An estimated 90% of intellectuals, teachers and artists were killed this way, and by the time Pol Pot fell from power, around a quarter of the population of Cambodia – around two million innocent Cambodians, had been murdered or died from disease or starvation as a result of Pol Pot’s regime.
After four years, Vietnam captured Phnom Penh and the terror ended. I found it hard to comprehend that all this happened so recently – any Khmer people above 45 years of age will still be incredibly traumatised, and the pain will still be so raw.
There is an evident air of sadness surrounding Choeung Ek as you walk around.
The site is almost unnervingly quiet, but to preserve this silence visitors are given an audio guide to listen to whilst they walk around the grounds.
Whilst normally I am not a fan of audio guides, I was mesmerised by this one as it explained everything so well and gave you many real-life accounts of survivors. The audio guide is truly excellent.
It’s incredibly emotional and heart wrenching at times, giving chilling accounts from both perpetrators as well as survivors.
While it may seem that taking photos here would seem incredibly insensitive, the staff and signs actually encourage you to take them, to show other people and spread the message.
Pits, Killing Trees and Memorials
In one corner of the site there is a big pit surrounded by wooden poles covered in thousands of coloured friendship bracelets.
The pit is where the bodies of thousands of innocent people were thrown. This is just one of the many pits here at Choeung Ek.
You’ll also see the giant memorial stupa in the middle of Choeung Ek which houses over 8,000 skulls in a giant glass cabinet, sorted by gender and age.
These skulls were exhumed from some of the mass graves, but still many of the mass graves remain untouched. This outdoor memorial pays tribute to the lives tragically lost here.
Along some of the dirt paths you can still see some remains of human bones and bits of cloth from clothes (many of them are labelled and in boxes).
Even after heavy rain, new teeth or bones come to the earth’s surface in the mud pits. You’ll also see raised earth where the mass graves have become so swollen.
Then there is the killing tree. This is the part that most people find the most disturbing. This giant tree is where babies were smashed to death by banging their heads against this tree.
How To Get To Choeung Ek Killing Fields
– The Killing Fields are located around 15km south of Phnom Penh but can easily be accessed by tuk-tuk in about 20 minutes after you’ve visited The Royal Palace.
Entrance Fee & Opening Times For Choeung Ek Killing Fields
– Choeung Ek is open daily from 8am to 5pm and entrance is 6 USD including the audio guide.
– Most people will find 1 – 1.5 hours sufficient at Choeung Ek.
– It is not really advised to bring children here as they might find it too upsetting. If you do decide to bring them please inform them beforehand what to expect.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre
Located within central Phnom Penh is the S-21 prison, one of the Khmer Rouge’s detention centers. It now serves as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where you can learn more about the horrific actions of Pol Pot’s Communist Khmer Rouge regime.
Tuol Sleng also tells a deeply sad and disturbing story. Tuol Sleng was originally a primary school but the notorious Khmer Rouge took over it and turned it into the secret prison S-21.
The S21 was one of 200 secret prisons where men, women and children were detained and tortured between 1975-1978 and forced to make false confessions. They would then be sent in trucks to their death at the Choeung Ek killing fields for their ‘crimes’.
20,000 people were tortured at S-21 and only 12 survived. Two of the survivors return back to S-21 every day to share their stories of survival and to sell their books describing their time here at Tuol Sleng.
It is incredibly surreal, uncomfortable and harrowing to visit. Tuol Sleng remains almost unchanged since the days of the regime. As you walk amongst the old classrooms you’ll find harrowing torture instruments and blood spots on the walls and floors.
You can go inside the tiny prison cells and see all the photographs on the walls of all the victims as they entered Tuol Sleng.
Entrance to Tuol Sleng is from 7am – 5.30pm and the entrance fee is 3 USD (and an extra 3 USD for an audio guide or extra 6 USD for a regular guide). Like Choeung Ek, you may find this place sad and disturbing.
But I believe it is important to visit these places to learn about the brutal history this country has been subjected to.
Catrina is a Travel Writer, SEO Specialist and ex-Flight Attendant based in Sydney, Australia. She has visited 85 countries and lived in several – including Italy, Australia, United Arab Emirates and England. Her work has been featured in a variety of popular travel publications including Fodors, Escape, Australian Traveller and Bear Grylls, as well as several international aviation and travel companies. The majority of her work however features on her own website – 24hourslayover.com where she has written over 500 travel articles!