Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Emotional Visit to S21 & The Killing Fields

5 min read

Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.

Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Statue of former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, erected in 2013. Upon his death in 2012, his throne succeeded to his oldest son, Norodom Sihamoni.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”

Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.

It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Prison rules and regulations. Prisoners included teachers, doctors, civil servants, military, and anyone else thought to be a traitor or threat to the new regime. Of the over 14,000 people sent to the prison, known then as “S21”, only 7 survived the horrific experience.

Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.

Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

It is estimated that close to 2,000 children died at S21; these kids were the few survivors when the prison was discovered in 1979

Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.

Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

In the center of the park stands a Buddhist memorial stupa containing a collection of over 8,000 victims’ skulls.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

You can see the display case with the skulls just inside the door. I felt ill looking at them. It was a lot.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

In a particularly sick example of the depraved depths of humanity, sometimes the children of prisoners were killed to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents’ deaths. Nowadays, the tree is decorated with friendship bracelets left by visitors to Choeung Ek as a way to honor those murdered.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Bracelets left by visitors in remembrance of the 450 victims buried in this mass grave

We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of  bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Chum Mey is one of the handful of adult survivors from S21. The Khmer Rouge arrested him in 1978 without explanation – taking him to S21 and away from his wife and children. I bought a copy of his memoir and the purchase included a photo with him. I couldn’t find words sufficient enough to express my sympathy for all that he and his family suffered, or the immense amount of awe and respect I felt toward him for having the strength to not only survive, but go on to share his harrowing experiences with others. So, I just smiled and said “thank you.”

In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.

It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.

Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.

It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.

There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.

– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide

A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View

With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Just hanging out with the King of Cambodia (and glistening with sweat)

Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.

I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

This cool clock outside of Wat Phnom temple was a gift from China

Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia? 

Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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18 Comments
  • mytravelmonkey
    January 29, 2016

    I can’t even comprehend the horror of what they must have gone through. I’ve been to the Killing Fields myself and it really moved me – and served to remind us all that these terrible things shouldn’t be happening – unfortunately though they still are. Great post. Thanks for linking up with #MondayEscape ps. Please join in again, it’s great finding new blogs – but could you possibly add our badge next time. Thank you 🙂

  • Roberta
    January 26, 2016

    Genocide is horrible. It happened in my country aswell 22 years ago..It’s always sad to see that it happened all over the world and that in some countries it’s still happening today. No matter what it was a learning experience I’m sure.
    The nature and the buildings seem sooo nice! Hopefully you enjoyed Cambodia without constantly thinking of the past, because it does look really nice! 🙂 have a nice week xx

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 31, 2016

      I loved visiting Cambodia and learning about it’s history. They’ve been through so much and yet still they stand, resilient and rebuilding.

      Thanks for your comment, Roberta!

  • Dean
    January 22, 2016

    I had so many thoughts, but those thoughts kept turning into WHY, because I just cannot comprehend this type of hate. I was in tears reading this post, and the photos, and the word CHILDREN- breaks my heart.
    I did know about the genocide, not from my Texas education, but because I’m married to the {former elementary school local level} Geography Bee champion. He seems to know everything about history and geography, which means I’ve had to up my knowledge.
    It doesn’t make sense, it’s stupid, really it is, but again those in charge weren’t intelligent enough to understand what they were doing was asinine.
    XOXO

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 31, 2016

      I know, it takes a special brand of evil to brutalize and kill children. I don’t think I will ever understand that kind of lack of humanity. It’s unfathomable to me.

      Your husband was a geography be champ? How cool is that? And even cooler that you’ve learned from him.

  • Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld
    January 19, 2016

    A beautiful, reflective post. I went in 2013 and felt all the emotions of the place as well as learning so much about something I knew so very little about.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 20, 2016

      Other than the film “The Killing Fields”, I didn’t know much about any of these events. I don’t recall learning about it in school (though I did study plenty of other useless info, sigh). Thanks for your comment, Marcella!

  • cynthial1956
    January 17, 2016

    I have never been there. I enjoyed your article and enjoyed the beautiful photos. It is always so hard to think of a place that is so pretty having such horrible history. I was recently in Berlin and visited some sites that were hard to look at and yet important to know.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 20, 2016

      Places like these aren’t always the easiest to visit, but like you said, they are so important to know about. Thanks for your comment, Cynthia!

  • Quirky Little Planet
    January 17, 2016

    A powerful post. I’ve not been to Cambodia but one day I would like to visit. Thanks for sharing.

  • Clara
    January 17, 2016

    Yes I visited about 15 years ago. It was a pretty difficult place to go to but I’m glad I did. Tourism was still in its early days in Cambodia but the people more than made up for some of the lack of facilities and infrastructure. I’ve been interested in the country ever since watching the Killing Fields. I couldn’t believe something like this could have happened in my lifetime. At the time it was a real wake up call.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 18, 2016

      I’ve heard Cambodia’s changed significantly in the past 10 years alone, so I can only imagine how different it must have been.

  • Michelle
    January 16, 2016

    Wow. You did a great job of sharing the horror of what happened. Thank you for sharing this experience with everyone. Love you, and I hope to talk with you soon! Miss you, and we SO need to catch up!!

  • Jessica
    January 15, 2016

    Thank you for sharing this! Not easy but I think it’s essential to know this recent history.

  • Heidi
    January 15, 2016

    I too just visited S21 and the Killing fields. I have also been to Dachau, the 9/11 memorial and have sat in the library and looked at photos in San Salvador where Jesuit priests were murdered. At each site I wonder the same, how and why? Yet, it continues. I like to hope that by visiting these sites, by acknowledging the wrong and by sharing what we see one day we will find that hundredth monkey and it will all stop.
    http://www.wowzone.com/100th.htm

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