Why you should visit the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison

There is no way to see the real face of Cambodia overlooking its tortured past imposed by the 1975-1978 Khmer Rouge regime; even if there is, it is probably the wrong way. Tuol Sleng prison (S-21) and Phnom Penh’s killing fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center) stand as the eternal witnesses of a genocide that cost the lives of more than two million people.

Who the Khmer Rouge were and what they did

Khmer Rouge was the popular name of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. With the support of Vietnamese and Laotian communist forces, they overthrew in 1975 the government of Lon Nol, who had overthrown Prince Norodom Sihanook in 1970. They installed a repressive regime that led to the genocide of one fourth of Cambodia’s population.

A painting by Vann Nath - Killing fields
A painting by Vann Nath, one of the S-21 prison survivors.

I recommend the book “River of Time” by Jon Swain, a British journalist who witnessed the events first-hand and was awarded for his coverage the 1975 “Journalist of the Year”. Here’s an excerpt:

“It had forced them out into the countryside at gunpoint and made them settle and work in strange and sometimes distant places. It had severed their links with the past in all sorts of ways. In particular, it had done away with traditional musical instruments, abolished festivals, burned books and records and confiscated Buddhist manuscripts.

[…] What used to be an elaborate, joyful marriage ceremony steeped in Buddhist tradition had been replaced by a cold handshake. There were no schools for the children, and the character as well as the mood of the country was changing. New villages, built to accommodate the tens of thousands of people driven into the countryside and forced to fend for themselves, were of a tedious style. The wooden houses on stilts, with their Buddhist corner shrines and floors polished by years of bare feet, had been condemned as decadent and bourgeois and were fast vanishing. With them went the soul of the Cambodian village. In their place, the Khmer Rouge were said to be making the people build wooden shacks close to the ground, not where the peasant wanted – on winding paths to confuse the evil spirits – but laid out in tidy rows, like a housing estate.

It was a way of deepening the gulf between the present and the past and controlling the people employed in the new collectives. Meanwhile, in empty Phnom Penh the Khmer Rouge leadership was doing very nicely, living in the trim French villas around the embassies.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng

Originally a school, Tuol Sleng was converted to the prison where 12,000 – 20,000 were imprisoned as enemies of the state. There are only twelve survivors. The rest were tortured as enemies of the state before being transferred to the Killing Fields.

The prison is close to the city centre and the ticket is $8, including a much necessary audio guide. The self-paced tour starts with building A, progressively moving to building B, C, and D.

In the words of Jon Swain:

“I spent many bleak hours inside Tuol Sleng, now converted into a museum by the Vietnamese to justify their invasion and overthrow of Pol Pot. But the vision of evil lingers in my mind: classrooms divided into tiny brick cells where prisoners were held in solitary confinement; each interrogation room equipped with an iron bed, to which they were chained, naked, with iron shackles; a desk and a chair provided for the interrogator; gallows outside to suspend the prisoners by their feet; stone vats of water into which they were plunged head first. The prison was ringed by a double fence of barbed wire – a needless precaution; nobody escaped. In the cells, the invading Vietnamese had found the rotting remains of fourteen tortured prisoners. A year later, brown blotches of blood still stained the floor; decaying mounds of evil-smelling clothing stripped off the victims by the guards revealed the human agony of this dark place.”

The mass graves of Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields

mass graves covered with grass - Killing fields

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is only one, yet the major, of more than 300 sites where Khmer Rouge soldiers executed their victims. More than 20,000 mass graves are estimated to be scattered around the country, and Choeung Ek includes 129 of them.

Only 14km from Phnom Penh, it is easily accessible by taxi, tuk-tuk or remork. Outside, vendors and small restaurants sell overpriced water, drinks and delicacies. Inside, chicken roam free and butterflies fly around, all drawing a peaceful image, much different to what happened there during 1975-1978.

We paid the $6 ticket (including the audio guide) and we entered the site, captivated by the 62m high Memorial Stupa, full of human skulls. Its top features Hindu Garudas and Buddhist Nagas. They are important symbols in their respective religions, and natural enemies. When they are seen together they represent peace.

The stupa was built to house 5,000 of the skulls discovered in the 129 mass graves of the site. Even so many years later, after heavy rainfall the earth still reveals bones, clothing, and personal objects of the victims. I had read about it and found it difficult to believe it. Until we came across this half tooth on our path.

A broken tooth found at Killing fields

The self-paced tour takes you through signs and important locations. The buildings that once stood here were brought down after the regime’s fall. Among the many shocking and memorable moments were:

1) the killing tree against which soldiers beat children smashing their heads. They did not want to leave anyone behind that could take revenge for their murdered parents.

2) an audio clip similar to what was the last thing many of the victims heard before they were killed: revolutionary songs played on speakers to drown their screams, mixed with the sound of a diesel engine used to illuminate the execution spots.

Siem Reap’s Killing Fields

Although much smaller in scale, this site is worth visiting if you are nearby. It also has a memorial stupa filled with skulls and a tiny building labeled “Cambodian Historical Photo Museum”. Inside, you can find paintings and corresponding horrific stories. Some of them were about Sam Rithy, who was imprisoned and tortured at this site. We found him outside, selling his book. His presence made the whole Khmer Rouge stories much more palpable. It was difficult to imagine that these stories were real, yet there was this man, smiling at us.

Sam Rithy - Killing fields

Why is it important to visit both sites?

There is a notion that visiting such sites consists “dark tourism”. If you ask me, this is outrageous. Visiting sites like Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields are important for commemorating the people who died under a repressive regime. The Cambodian Genocide should be remembered. Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields narrate its story. Visiting only one of them is like hearing just a part of it.

Rules of Tuol Sleng - Killing fields
The 10 rules the S-21 prisoners had to abide by.