We didn't spend long in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, just 1 day and 2 nights. Phnom Penh isn't a particularly attractive city, nor does it have the charm of other big cities in SE Asia, like Hanoi or Bangkok. But when considering the suffering the country has endured over the past century, so much of which is still in recent memory, it's fantastic to see that Phnom Penh is thriving. The ghosts of the past aren't forgotten, but they are in no way holding this city back.
During our one day in Phnom Penh we did the one thing that everyone who visits Cambodia should do, which is to visit the genocide museum at Tuol Sleng and the Ghoeung Ek Killing Fields. The genocide museum is located a few kilometers from the center of town and the killing fields are outside of the city. A trip to both will take around half a day and cost about $18 in a tuk tuk.
I'll apologise upfront, this isn't a particularly pleasant post.
A sobering history lesson
I was fairly ignorant to the torrid history of Cambodia before arriving in the capital. I was aware a genocide had taken place under the Khmer Rouge's rule in the 1970's, but I hadn't comprehended the scale of the brutality and devastation. One quarter of the population of Cambodia was wiped out!
The genocide museum at Tuol Sleng is a former high school, which was converted into a security prison (S-21) in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge imprisoned anyone who was a threat to Pol Pot's warped vision of a perfect society; mostly educated people including teachers, students, doctors, lawyers, even monks and musicians. Inmates were brutally tortured for information, and to prevent further suffering, many confessed to being spies for the CIA or KGB; even though most had never even heard of the organisations. Of the estimated 17,000 people who were held at Tuol Seng, only 7 are known to have survived. The inmates, after being tortured into confessing, were taken to killing fields outside the city.
On first entering Tuol Sleng, we were greeted by a sobering sign, the 10 prison rules, which included: "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." and "If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge."
Hayley and I spent around 30 mins walking around Tuol Sleng. We had turned down the option of an audio guide, which we later regretted as there wasn't a lot of written information. On leaving we spotted a frail old man selling books. He was in fact one of the 7 who had survived the horror at Tuol Sleng. He was able to fix the typewriters the guards used and so they kept him alive as a technician. A typewriter saved his life! This proved too much for Hayley and we left feeling pretty low.
School buildings covered in barbed wire
One of hundreds of portraits on display of the victims at Tuol Sleng
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Already deflated from our visit to Tuol Sleng, we headed apprehensively to The Killing Fields, which took a choked up 40 minutes in the city traffic. This time we got the audio guide, which was extremely well done and definitely worth the extra money. The guide was informative and harrowing. We spent an hour walking around the killing fields, now ironically a peaceful place. The grounds are relatively small considering the number of people who died here; nearly 9,000. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were brought here believing they were being moved to a different prison. The Khmer Rouge had little money for weapons, so victims were bludgeoned to death with whatever the guards could find, usually farmers tools. Music played out over loud speaker so that the other waiting prisoners and surrounding villagers couldn't hear the screams.
That is as far as I will go in describing the disgusting events that took place in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, unbelievably just 4 decades ago. Many more details are too sickening for this page.
Following our visit, our tuk tuk driver asked if we would like to go and shoot an AK-47 or Bazooka. We declined. I can't imagine he gets many takers.
Outside the monument at Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Bracelets left as a sign of respect
One thing that stood out to me whilst learning about the genocide in Cambodia was that the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were backed by the west, including the UK's Thatcher government. It's depressing to think that similar scenarios are still being played out around the world today, in conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where thousands of innocent people are being murdered by oppressive regimes or militia, with western governments intervening to pursue their own interests.
Despite the fact you will almost certainly leave wanting to curl up in the fetal position under a blanket in a dark room for a few hours, the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek Killing Fields are a must for anyone visiting Cambodia. I have huge respect for the Cambodian people's positivity and resolve.
A few more cheerful shots to end on
Obligatory tuk tuk selfie
Hugging a lion statue for no reason
Intricate temple buildings
Sipping a sweet mango shake, yum!