Visiting The Killing Fields and S21 Prison were the two things I knew I had to do when I visited Cambodia.
Situated in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields (or the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, to give them their proper name) and S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) are most people’s first port of call when they arrive in the Kingdom, and I knew that they had to be mine as well.
Between the years of 1975 and 1979, more than 1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Communist regime, the Khmer Rouge. They persecuted the educated – doctors, lawyers, and current or former military and police. Christian, Buddhist and Muslim citizens were also specifically targeted.
The Cambodian Genocide, this systematic persecution and killing of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot is not something that many people in the West are familiar with, and this is precisely why I’m glad that The Killing Fields and S21 Prison are both open for visitors.
Dark Tourism Cambodia: Visiting The Killing Fields & S21 Prison
‘Dark Tourism’ sometimes gets a bad name: travel writers muse whether or not it is morally right to visit scenes of mass death and destruction, insinuating that it is exploitative to visit such places.
While I do understand their argument, I don’t agree.
I feel as though every visitor to Cambodia owes it to the country to educate themselves about the horrors that took place there not so long ago, and textbooks can only take you so far: sometimes you have to visit a place for yourself in order to fully comprehend what went on there.
Over the years, I have visited several scenes of mass suffering – Auschwitz and Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, the Tunnel of Hope in Sarajevo (Bosnia), and many more. Each time I visit somewhere like this, I come out of the experience a slightly different person to the one I walked into it with.
The experiences educate me in a way that school never could, and my visits to The Killing Fields and S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng) were the first places of this type that I ever visited.
The experiences have never left me.
Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields, Cambodia
My foray into dark tourism began with a visit to Choeung Ek, the largest of the Cambodian The Killing Fields.
After paying the $6 entry fee, my friend and I donned our headphones and allowed our audio tour of The Killing Fields to commence. As expected, our exchanges dwindled and we fell silent as we made our way around the fields, our moods becoming increasingly sombre as we learned about the babies whose heads were smashed against the infamous ‘killing tree’ before being tossed into a mass grave (brain matter was later found on the tree), the people who were brutally murdered just because they had soft hands or wore glasses, the bones and items of clothing that still litter the floors on which you walk and the music that was blasted to drown out the screams of those being tortured and killed.
We walked past loose teeth and fragments of clothing, constantly being drawn to the surface of the soil by rainfall, listened to former members of the regime confess to having the blood of thousands on their hands, and cast our eyes upon thousands of skulls that have been collected and preserved out of respect to the dead.
S21 Prison, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
After we had listened to the audio tour at The Killing Fields and taken some time to compose ourselves, we hailed a tuk-tuk and headed to the S21 Prison, also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
S21 Prison was a former school that was converted into a prison when the Khmer Rouge came into power. Of 20,000 people who passed through the prison, only 12 survived because they possessed skills deemed useful by the prison guards, such as the ability to repair broken machinery.
The rest were starved, tortured and forced to sign false confessions before they were brutally murdered by the prison guards. Photographs of their ordeals are on display in what used to be the cells and their blood stains remain on the floors and walls.
Visitors are free to wander through the classrooms-cum-cells and see the beds with chains on, mugshots of the inmates and lengthy false confessions that prisoners were made to sign. The faces of the young boys and girls that passed through the S21 prison will haunt me forever.
Visiting The Killing Fields and S21 Prison, Cambodia | Final Thoughts
Visiting the S21 Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields were truly sobering experiences that will stay with me forever and I cannot emphasise enough how important I think it is for EVERYBODY who visits Cambodia to see these places for themselves.
What struck me the most when I visited these places was that the worst of the horrors occurred less than 50 years ago.
Every single Khmer person over the age of 50 lived through this and has the memories of it. The annoying tuk-tuk driver? He remembers. The friendly massage lady? She remembers. The middle-aged woman serving you street food? She remembers.
One in four Khmer people were killed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
One in four.
That’s 25% of the entire population.
Almost every single Cambodian family was affected.
Cambodia, once miles more developed than its neighbouring countries, now falls far behind and struggles to provide even basic healthcare and the saddest thing? Nobody knows.
Here in the west we are all too familiar with the atrocities that the Nazis committed. We know a great deal about Stalin’s crimes against humanity. We wear poppies and vow ‘Never Again’ to let these things happen, blissfully unaware of the fact that we did let it happen again.
Our governments turned a blind eye to the mass slaughter of people as gentle as the Khmers. We told traumatised refugees that they were lying.
Our ignorance silenced a nation.
That is why you – yes, you – have a DUTY to visit these places. A duty to see the bones of children and elderly people that suffered because your government was too pig-headed to intervene.
You do not have a choice.
You have a duty.
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