Part of traveling in a new place is discovering its history, what events happened and made the country we know today. In Cambodia’s recent history (only 40 years ago!), really horrible things occurred. The Khmers Rouges regime controlled the state from 1975 and 1979, perpetrating one of worst genocides mankind has known…
Some places are tough to visit, morally, but I always feel it’s important to witness. It’s a duty not to forget such dreadful things. In Phnom Penh are the two main memorials of the Khmer Rouge tragedy : the Security Prison S-21 and Choeung Ek, the former main Killing field.
The S-21 (or Tuol Sleng Genocide museum) is located within the city and is pretty easily reachable by tuktuk.
When they took the Capital city in 1975, the Khmers Rouges turned this former high school into a prison and an interrogation center, renaming it “Security Prison 21“. Buildings were enclosed by electrified barbed wires, and classrooms used as cells or torture chambers. An estimate total of 17,000 were imprisoned here in 4 years. They were first photographed, stripped down, detained, and regularly tortured into naming their relatives, who then suffered the same fate. Today, countless photos of the victims are displayed within the memorial, and the rooms were kept as is. It’s hard to even imagine how much pain have experienced the prisoners of Khmer Rouge prisons and killing fields.
Choeung Ek‘s site is a bit further outside Phnom Penh, it takes a 45 minutes tuktuk ride to get there from the city center
I’d encourage you to do the Killing Field’s visit with an audio guide. Not a lot is left from the Khmers Rouges’ time, and it’s hard to get a real sense of this place without the explanations and testimonies. The tracks are recorded by Cambodian people who all have experienced this cruelty, it’s very moving to hear their stories.
In the middle of the site was built a Buddhist Stupa as memorial. 5000 human skulls are displayed inside of it behind glass, but it only represents a small fraction of all the people who were slaughtered in this place.
In their Killing fields all around Cambodia, the Khmer Rouges executed over 1 Million people in 4 years, and this only represents the half of all the lost human lives during the regime. In total, between 1.4 and 2.2 million died, that is to say a fifth of the population ! What is left from this bloodbath today are the holes is the ground. Mass graves from which human bone still surface every year.
Don’t forget this happened only 40 years ago, but justice still needs to be done : for instance Kang Kek Iew, who was the head of S21, was only judged in 2010 for his crimes against humanity, torture and murder. Today some trials of Khmer Rouge members are still in progress, some people still haven’t been condemned for a tragedy that have impacted every single Cambodian person.