Please use caution when reading the following post, as it contains very graphic details. The following details are, to my best knowledge, accurate representations of the tragic history of Cambodia.
A Guide to Cambodia’s Genocide Museums: Tuol Sleng (S-21) and the Killing Fields
Visiting Toul Sleng (S-21) and The Cheung Ek Killing Fields makes for an emotionally charged day filled with eye-opening experiences about Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge. There are many sites considered to be “Killing Fields” all across Cambodia, however, just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh lies Cheung Ek, one of the a largest sites and remains protected and available for visitors.
An entire day should be dedicated to this experience.
I suggest visiting the Cheung Ek Killing Fields in the morning, then have lunch in Phnom Penh before visiting Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison in the afternoon.
All-day tours are available which provide tickets and transportation to an from both locations, or alternatively, a tuk tuk (local taxi) can be prearranged for the entire day starting at about $15 (they will pick you up and drop you off and wait for you between locations), just don’t forget to get their name and phone number before departing!
Tickets can be bought at the entrance to each location upon arrival.
There is no need to purchase in advance. Both locations offer audio guided tours in several different languages, but Tuol Sleng also offers guided tours in English and French (which are usually lead by survivors of the regime, and many offer their own insights and experiences).
If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to meet Chum Mey.
Chum Mey one of the only remaining seven survivors of the S-21 prison. He typically sits outside in the courtyard everyday selling and signing his personal memoir (which last I checked goes for about $15/book and is absolutely worth every penny).
If you are unfamiliar with the nature of the Khmer Rouge, I encourage you to read the following article before you continue, as it provides a short summary of the genocide: Brief History of the Khmer Rouge. For more on the Khmer Rouge, please refer to my other blog post Living Through the Khmer Rouge at 23 as my host mother recounts her experiences.
The Cheung Ek “Killing Fields”
The Killing Fields are located just outside of Phnom Pehn, and many like them still remain as historical sites, however this is one of the larger burial locations. Many people, including children, were killed here by head traumas from the impact of sharp objects – and some were even slit at the throat.
Please do be cautious when walking.
Wearing away on the ground has lead to the uncovering of bones and other sharp objects, so be mindful of where you step.
If you’d like to leave a memorial for those who lost their lives, leaving a bracelet at one of the several burial sites along the tour is entirely acceptable, and small donation bins can also be found along the paths.
Surprisingly, there are many Cambodians that do not believe the Khmer Rouge existed at all. Some believe it is a ghost story used to scare people. This belief is common amongst the younger generations who were born after the Khmer Rouge lost power.
This history of Cambodia is not always taught in schools.
Many young Cambodian’s cannot comprehend that fellow Khmer would intentionally kill other Khmer. Even those who went through this experience aren’t always believed by their kids or grandchildren either.
This is a challenging part of Cambodian history, one some Cambodians struggle with still each day, 40 years later.
A genocide such as this one, where natives target other natives, can happen in any country anywhere in the world. Some Cambodians even fear it may happen again in the future.
Security Prison #21 “Tuol Sleng” (S-21)
This site, formerly known as Tuol Svay Pray High School, is now permanently used as a historic museum located in central Phnom Penh. This site was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge to hold and torture victims.
Each classroom was split into sections using brick walls, these were the spaces where the prisoners were kept.
Each prisoner cell was approximately 6ft. by 3ft. with absolutely nothing in it but brick walls, shackles for the hands and feet, and the cement floor.
The Khmer Rouge used a variety of torture techniques on the prisoners such as electrical shocks, whipping, chaining, nail pulling, nipple cutting, and many others. Starvation was common and many only received a shower every few months.
Prisoners were promised by the Khmer Rouge that they would be moved to a different location for work; however, they were tricked only into getting in a truck headed to The Killing Fields where they would soon meet their tragic fate.
I am no expert about the Khmer Rouge, but if anyone has questions, please feel free to message me or leave a comment.