Why ‘The Killing Fields’ & ‘S-21’ are a Must Do in Phnom Penh

Although not the lightest and brightest of conversation topics, the darker history of the Cambodian culture is extremely important. As a responsible traveller, it is crucial for you to understand the places and the cultures that you visit for what they were in the past and how that’s impacted what they are like today.

There is often a lot of history that goes untold in some of the places travellers visit. A whole genocide can go completely unheard of or ignored for its lack of immediate effect on our lives. However, when you travel Cambodia, that hidden history becomes a part of your existence. You are immersed among people who have lost family members, had to rebuild from the ground up or aren’t necessarily living in the places where they grew up. Once you learn this history, you will find yourself looking at the Cambodian people in a different way.

A Brief History

In 1975, Pol Pot headed the Khmer Rouge army and relocated Cambodian residents from urban to rural areas to farm the land, with the intention of stopping aid from abroad entering the nation as he perceived this to be a corrupting influence. Splitting up families and communities, the Khmer Rouge enforced an inhumane work regime to keep people in line and killed anyone who didn’t agree with Pol Pot’s ideologies.

With the belief that anyone intelligent was a threat and disrupted his idea of equality, Pol Pot executed all the educated people of Cambodia. There were mass executions, and many people died of starvation, malnutrition, disease, exhaustion, and dehydration.

This lasted four years and killed between one and a half and three million Cambodian people. In 1979, a Vietnamese invasion saw the end of this dreadful genocide.

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims, Cambodia

The Killing Fields

There is a dark but airy feeling within the vicinity of the Killing Fields. It is not for the faint hearted, but regardless of how courageous and stern you may be, this place will undoubtedly tug at your heart strings.

The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Killing Fields is the site where executions took place during the genocide. There are mass graves, the infamous and disturbing ‘killing tree’ that babies were smashed against to avoid any potential future revenge attempts, and the bone remains of just some of the thousands of victims that have been dug up in the years since. The site also features a museum where you can watch an informative documentary and see paintings of what people imagined these horrific acts to look like.

The infamous tree at the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Using the audio guide is well worth it to hear an extensive and accurate history, as well as firsthand accounts from some of the very few survivors. It also provides facts about the aftermath and explains each stop along the route in great detail.

S-21 Prison

Formally Chao Ponhea Yat High School, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum houses S-21, the building that saw innocent people imprisoned, tortured, and interrogated. Covered in iron bars and surrounded by barbed wire, there was no escape for inmates.

The infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

S-21 was designed to force Cambodian citizens to name family members and associates who were against Pol Pot’s beliefs. These confessions were coerced and saw more innocent people tortured and killed.

These five buildings house empty classrooms used for torture, including the tools and equipment, tiny cells where the inmates were held, photographs of the inmates that were taken upon arrival, statements from surviving soldiers and family members, and an array of information surrounding the politics and those responsible for these horrific acts.

Inside S-21 prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Why go?

All of this may not necessarily have you looking forward to visiting these places, but you simply cannot visit Phnom Penh and miss the Killing Fields and S-21. Hopefully this information will make you wish to learn more about Cambodia’s recent history and help you to better appreciate the culture during your stay. Expect to be moved, humbled, and challenged. It is an upsetting but enlightening, perspective changing experience that I would strongly encourage anyone visiting Phnom Penh to partake in.

Guest writer Clare Caddick from the UK spent a couple months travelling solo around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on Stray Asia’s Lot Pass. She loves nature and believes there is no such thing as fear in adventure!

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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