Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng
We arrived in Phnom Penh after a long and very bumpy bus ride from Siem Reap. After miles of barren countryside, rice fields, tiny ramshackle villages and some hairy overtaking manoeuvres we rolled into the Capital around 5pm (8 hours after we’d set out).
Phnom Penh is a bustling city, in many ways like a mini, slower-paced Bangkok. The roads are lined with tuk tuk’s and there’s no shortage of street vendors selling food, drinks, clothes and souvenirs. The Mekong flows through the centre and provides some lovely views as the sun sets behind it from the many bars and restaurants that line the banks.
We stayed at the Velkommmen Guesthouse which was conveniently located just a few minutes walk from the Giant Ibis bus station where we arrived. It was small but clean and centrally located to explore the city.
Cheoung Ek (The Killing Fields)
Cheoung Ek was the main reason for our stop over in Phnom Penh, located just outside of the city “The Killing Fields” as the site is better known was the scene of terrible atrocities during the Khmer Rouge regime and exists now as a stark reminder of what the Cambodian people went through during this time.
We took a tuk tuk to Cheoung Ek which cost $14 for the return trip (it’s quite a way out of town and takes around half an hour each way). The trip will take you through most of Phnom Penh so it’s a good way to see the city too! The roads are VERY dusty so a pair of sunglasses is recommended to help keep some of the dust out of your eyes.
On arrival at Cheoung Ek you are greeted with a simple entrance gate and a ticket counter. Entrance is $6 for non-Cambodians and included with this fee is the audio tour. This audio tour is easily the best I have ever heard, narrated by a survivor it explains in detail exactly what took place here and what the people brought here saw, heard and experienced. It’s impossible to not feel very humbled by the whole experience. Although there is very little to actually “see” as you walk around (most of the buildings here were ripped down following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge) the pictures painted through the audio tour, the stories and first-hand accounts from survivors and the atmosphere of the place are very vivid and will stay with me for a long time.
Once you have completed the tour (it’s only a short distance but listening to everything on the tour will take almost 2 hours) you are able to access the stupa in the centre of the fields. This houses the skulls and bones from almost 9,000 victims of the executions here, organised by age and sex and how they died. It’s surreal walking through here and trying to imagine what these people went through. There is no sugar-coating to the suffering at Cheoung Ek, everything is laid out bare and it’s almost unbelievable that such things took place almost within my own lifetime.
Finally as you leave the stupa there is a small museum housing a few artefacts from the Khmer Rouge regime such as uniforms, tools and weapons as well as some information on the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. You can also view a short film about the killing fields which is rather dated now but still worth a watch for some additional information and some rare footage from the time.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
We decided against doing both The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng in one day, we needed a bit of a break from the bleakness of the past here in-between and since we knew we would have a spare day returning to Phnom Penh for our flight to Kuala Lumpur we decided to save this visit for our return visit.
Staying at Velkommen again we decided to walk to Tuol Sleng to see a bit more of the city, the walk was just over half an hour but fairly straight-forward, it’s not the most picturesque of journeys though so I’d probably recommend getting a tuk tuk and saving a bit of time.
Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21) is an unassuming place from a distance, the former school was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a detention centre to question, torture and ultimately send inmates to the Killing Fields to be executed. It’s only when we got close to the walls and saw the rusted razor wire topping each one that we realised we’d found it.
Entrance here was $3 but doesn’t include an audio tour, there is a leaflet for an addditional $3 but we were happy to explore and read all of the information for ourselves as we went around.
Tuol Sleng has been preserved very much as it would have been during the Khmer Rouge years. Classrooms had been repurposed as either tiny individual cells for inmates, interrogation rooms or mass cells. The first rooms to the left as you enter have been kept as they were found, rusted metal bed frames with shackles and various weapons are the only furniture, a graphic image of how the inmates were discovered is displayed on the wall of each of these rooms. In front of this building is a list of the “rules” of Tuol Sleng:
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
The next block of buildings contains photos of the victims, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their cataloguing of every inmate and each one is photographed, given a number and even has a biography and “confession” written down. There are men and women, boys and girls of all ages photographed here, all tortured into confessing to so called “crimes” (some of these are as petty as stealing a banana and many confess to being undercover CIA operatives and other clearly false admittances of guilt). Again it’s very difficult to fully comprehend what took place here and moving through wall after wall of faces, some defiant, some angry, some frightened, others seemingly calm or accepting is very emotional. I left with an odd mixture of sadness and anger at what people are capable of doing to others.
I’m sure this rather bleak blog post hasn’t really put anyone in the mood to visit either Choueng Ek or Tuol Sleng but I would certainly recommend them. They serve as a very moving and humbling reminder of what the Cambodian people have been through and the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. At the very least I hope you can take a minute to realise how good we have it back home in the UK!