Phnom Penh – History, Sadness & Why It’s Important

We visited Phonm Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on our way to Angkor and although our time was short, the memories are burned into my mind.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh – History, Sadness & Why It’s Important

Although in may ways Phnom Penh is reminiscent of other south east Asian cities – adorned with temples and pagodas and filled with the smiling faces of local people, the remnants of a terrible past are there for all to see.

Most of you will have heard of Pol Pot, a staunch communist, and be aware that he killed over a million Cambodian people whilst he was at the head of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 -1979. It has been estimated that 1.5 million (out of 7-8 million) people died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork under his reign. That’s almost 20% of the population.

After taking power in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, sending 2.5 million people into the surrounding countryside. Doctors, civil servants, teachers – and any skilled worker, were stripped of their possessions and relegated to manual labor in the fields in what was the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to engineer a class-less society. They referred to this mass displacement as the ‘re-education process.’

Those who refused to comply – or complained about there roles were tortured and killed at infamous S21 Prison.

Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum

At only $2USD per person entry fee, it provided an insight into the atrocities committed under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Its tragedy emphasized only by the fact the buildings had once been a school – a place of education and safety – which were ultimately used to torture, maim and kill. Before before we go any further: the rules of incarceration, as displayed at the entry:

Phnom Penh

The complex itself comprises of 4 buildings and each one shows a different aspect of the prison. Building A was the the torture rooms where the bodies of the final 14 victims were found. Those 14 have been laid to rest directly in front of the building. Inside these rooms are the beds the victims were chained to, some of the implements used to torture them and black and white photographs of how they were found.

Phnom Penh

Building B showed picture after picture of the prisoners (each person was photographed when they entered the prison). Men, women and youngsters no more than children. None were spared. Upstairs there was an exhibit showing the fabricated confessions that inmates were forced to sign. Each one read in a similar manner, obviously written by the same people with only a few details changed for each person. How those in power could not have noticed (which some have claimed) is beyond me.

Phnom Penh

Building C showed the different cells used to hold the prisoners. The spaces which multiple people lived in we’re so small, the individual cells even smaller, the bloodstains on the floor a reminder of the horror.

Phnom Penh

Building D, displaying numerous human skulls, concentrated on the cases being brought against key members of the Khmer Rouge and the crimes they had been charged with. It shocked me that in one of the cases the defence given was not that they didn’t know what was happening or even that they hadn’t participated, but that they couldn’t be guilty because the Khmer rouge as a political party were illegal. It’s truly sad that despite all the years that have passed since the atrocities occurred there has only been one conviction (of the guy in charge of the prison) and the other key players seem further away from punishment than ever. Pol Pot himself died in 1998 without ever being brought to justice.

A visit the prison will provide you with a new understanding of the horror Cambodians have lived through and give you a renewed respect for their resilience. They are after all a nation stripped of its academics, it’s teachers and its doctors and a community forced to rebuild in the wake of such a horrific hisory – that isn’t really all that historical!

If you thought the prison was a sobering experience, but feel compelled to delve deeper into a dark part of Cambodia’s history, ensure you follow up your visit of S21 with the audio tour at Cheoung Ek Genocide Museum – also known as The Killing Fields. (We hired a tuk tuk for the afternoon and were charged $12 for the round trip from the hotel – S21 – Killing Fields – hotel.)

Cheoung Ek Genocide Museum

It took about 30 mins to reach the fields on some quite rough roads, there is a lot of dust and you really need something to cover your nose and mouth if traveling in a tuk tuk with the rain screens up.

The $10 entrance fee provides you with your own audio player and headphones (and large umbrella’s if you need them!).

Phnom Penh

The imposing stupa, filled with human skulls, greets you as you enter the site.

The audio guide directs you to numbered sites and explains what buildings used to stand there and their purpose. None of the original buildings remain today and the only structure is the stupa filled with human skulls, which constantly draws your attention and brings home the fact that everything that is being said on the guide is not some twisted fiction but is what actually happened.
The guide is concise and informative, with additional sections you can listen to on demand for more information about a certain point/area.

The killing tree was particularly horrific and it was explained that it was named so because the guards did not want to waste the few bullets they had and so they swung babies and small children by their legs against the tree to kill them.

The craters cover the landscape and are remnants of the mass, shallow graves that used to cover the site and they did not seem big enough to hold the number of people that had been buried there. The smell of decomposing flesh in and around the site must have been truly horrendous.

Phnom Penh

One point I didn’t particularly like was that on the audio guide it said that following the sites discovery, heavy rain would dislodge more bones from the ground but this had ceased in the past 10 years. Despite this there seemed to be ‘newly discovered’ bones and scraps of clothing sat on top of Perspex boxes throughout the site. I don’t believe they were all discovered that day or even that week/month and such remains should be treated with respect. As it were I felt they had been left out for tourists to increase the ‘gore’ factor. Something which is entirely unnecessary. Believe me, the site and what it stands speak to the horror all on their own.

The site closes at 6pm so give yourself a good couple of hours to give the tour the respect it deserves.

Why Visiting S21 & Cheoung Ek Is Important

I didn’t know much about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge before arriving in Cambodia but came away with an understanding that would have taken weeks to read about. I feel too often (some) people visit places and only write about the wonderful – and uplifting – experiences they have. But without making the effort to understand the history of a country, including the parts that are less than perfect, we do a dis-service to those people who have lived through it to tell the tale. It’s important to highlight the atrocities, even if only the pledge that we will never allow them to happen again.

It still blows my mind to think that this genocide occurred less than 50 years ago (and 30 years after Hitler!) – and so occurred in my parent’s lifetime. Transferring that to Cambodia, the people you walk by on the street, their parents may have been victims of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a sobering thought.

What is sadder still is that the Khmer Rouge trials were (and are!) a complete failure. Hearings which have cost over $200 Million US dollars have resulted in only 8 indictments and 3 convictions in what was the worst Genocide witnessed in the 20th Century. The trials continue, but have been called a sham by many observers.

Together, S21 and Cheoung Ek provide thought provoking museums showing the cruel nature of humanity – and hopefully by understanding this, we can move forward as a world united against allowing anything like this happening again.

Have you visited Phnom Penh? Did you go to S21 & Cheoung Ek? What did you think?

Interested in traveling to Cambodia? Check out these Tips for Travel in Cambodia

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Phnom Penh

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25 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – History, Sadness & Why It’s Important

  1. Cathy (MummyTravels) says:

    I completely agree – it’s so important these terrible things aren’t forgotten and it’s an important part of travel, learning about the country’s past. It’s almost unbelievable that these events are so recent too. I haven’t been to Cambodia (yet) but this would definitely be part if my trip in the same way I’ve visited Auschwitz. #theweeklypostcard

  2. Keri says:

    We will be visiting next month, and its something I know will be difficult but important to understand and appreciate. I’ll be packing my tissues that day for sure.

  3. Kevin Wagar says:

    I travel mostly with my young children and my wife and I have discussed at what point we can include places like this in our travels. So far we’ve avoided the countries where the history is too important to overlook in an attempt to bring them at a time when they will be able to process it and learn about humanity and those who have a lack therof.

  4. Carol Colborn says:

    Haven’t been to the Nazi genocide camps and I didn’t know Pnom Penh had such emotion-filled memorials, too. Would love to visit both.

  5. Elaine J. Masters says:

    I agree that too many write about the pretty and easy aspects of a place or country. I’m at fault too often but do try to mix in the good and the wise, to remember the past with a hope that we may not repeat it. Thanks for this.

  6. Sue Reddel says:

    I haven’t been to Cambodia but Phnom Penh is certainly a place that is worth the somber visit. It’s important to visit these places when traveling it may be difficult but we need to remember and do what we can to ensure they don’t happen again.

  7. Anda says:

    I was born and raised in a communist country and I experienced first hand how bad Communism can be. However, what Cambodians experienced under Pol Pot exceeds any imagination. Unfortunately Phonm Penh remains a sad reminder of the atrocities committed there during those years.

  8. Brianna says:

    I went to college with a Cambodian woman who lived through the horrors of the Khmer regime. Hearing her stories and similar ones from your post are a sobering wake up call to the reality these people lived through.

  9. Lyn - A Hole in my Shoe says:

    Thank you for linking this story up with #TheWeeklyPostcard. It is extremely important that events like are not forgotten. I was in Phonm Penh in 2014 but did not get to the Killing Fields. Atrocities aside it is a very humble and eye opening experience to visit a Kkmer village.

  10. Sumti Bhadani says:

    Never heard of this place before. But your post was very nice and after reading it I would like to know more about this place. I always love to know about the history of the place and it gives you a lot of knowledge.

  11. mark says:

    Its amazing that thing slike this ould ever happen in our world. I goes to show what one madman to do. We would love to visit Cambodia and the killing fields its import that people experience first hand these things as a reminded of not what to allow to happen ain in the future

  12. Shobha says:

    Geez! how horrific. The rules are so biased – there is an assumption that if you are there you are a traitor. so there’s not even the pretext that you may be innocent or maybe your nasty neighbour turned you in for something petty. I’m not sure I’ll forget the line ‘don’t cry when you are getting electric shocks’ anytime soon.

  13. Charles McCool says:

    It is shocking that these events occurred and yet so recently. Visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC was very eye-opening and sobering. I imagine S21, Cheoung Ek, and the Killing Fields is an entirely different level.

  14. Mags says:

    What a haunting place to visit. I am glad that places like this exist to connect us with the darker parts of history and remind us that we should never repeat them.

  15. Kate says:

    I still remember vividly my visits to S21 and the Killing Fields. I saw teeth and pieces of clothing in the paths. It was horrific. So recent in terms of social history too. I read a book called ‘First They Killed my Father’ when I travelled through Cambodia and the personal story was heartbreaking. I’m so glad you’ve written about this, we should never forget. Thanks for sharing

  16. Hung Thai says:

    Vicki, this is a beautiful piece! I learned about the Khmer Rouge back in high school and never understood how there wasn’t as much outraged about this travesty as other “genocides.” You’re right, we often write about all the wonderful things we see and bury the ugly past under the rug. I think it’s absolutely important that we understand both to appreciate the people and the culture.

    • Vicki says:

      Thank you Hung, visiting these sites really had an affect on me that I wanted to share for those that haven’t had the opportunity to visit or learn about these atrocities.

  17. Ursula (myVideoMedia) says:

    Even if it is a sad part in history, I think it is worthwhile to visit both places. People need to be aware what happened, perhaps this creates awareness that this cruelties should never happen again.
    We visited both places, feel free to have a look at our impressions if you like
    S-21 Phnom Penh – The Gate to Hell
    Killing Fields – Hell on Earth in Phnom Penh

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