There is no escaping that the history of Cambodia is deeply harrowing. The Khmer Rouge lasted from 1975-1979 and was lead by Communist leader Pol Pot. His policy focused on working towards a purely agrarian society and a nation that was classless.
Dark tourism is the term given to this kind of thing. Places that cover concentration camps, war and death zones and places of torture. Awful to visit but are so incredibly important that you do to understand the country today.
Horrible but interesting. Wat Thmei is a memorial / resting ground for some of the remains of people that were victims in the Khmer Rouge. Some of the mass graves have been excavated and bones brought to one place so that families and loved ones can pay their respects. The temple is filled with bones and skulls.
A few minutes walk away is a really interesting exhibition of artwork telling the story of a monk’s life through the Khmer Rouge. This is free to go in with a box ask for a small donation to go towards the monk school next door.
THE KILLING CAVES OF PHNOM SAMPEAU
The caves are set deep in the heart of the Phnom Sampeau mountain. People were pushed down into the cave and left there to rot. There were 3 caves, one for men, one for women and children and one for the elderly. Inside the cave are two big dusty cages full of bones and skulls of the victims which have been arranged on top of each other in a neat pile.
Phnom Penh is where to go if you want to learn the most about the county’s history, but you need to prepare yourself beforehand.
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM, OR S-21
S-21 is an old high school in the centre of Phnom Penh that, like many other schools, was turned into a secret prison / torture centre by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners were brought here before they were taken to be killed – I think the statistics are that 1 in 4 people in Cambodia were killed during the regime. The idea was that the prisoners would be tortured until they confessed to a crime that they hadn’t committed. Then, if they hadn’t died during torture they would be taken away to be executed.
The school’s classrooms were used as torture/interrogation rooms. When the regime was overthrown, soldiers found the last 14 victims dead in the torture rooms. In the exhibition, photos of these victims are displayed on the wall of the room they were found in, along with the bed and the torture instruments used.
On the third and fourth floor of the building, the walls of the classrooms had been knocked through to create one long room and the guards had built small cubicles either of bricks or of wood. These cubicles were arranged in a way so that the prisoners couldn’t see each other and remained completely isolated. There is still blood left in some of the cubicles. The outside of the building had been completely covered in barbed wire so that the prisoners couldn’t escape or commit suicide.
The guards liked to photograph each prisoner before and after they were killed, and these photos are displayed in some of the other classrooms. There are also skulls in glass cabinets explaining the cause of the marks/holes in them and ultimately the cause of death.
The top floor classrooms are filled with stories of specific families and their terrible journeys. There are also photos of some of the guards next to photos of them now 40 years later, explaining their stories too. A lot of them were forced into it and hated what they were doing. Overall a very interesting exhibition and really would recommend going.
THE KILLING FIELDS
After being imprisoned at S-21, prisoners that hadn’t already been killed were taken here to be executed. The majority were taken to a mass grave and were beaten to death before being buried. Today it is a memorial and educational centre.
Along with S21, The Killing Fields is extremely informative, and if you want to learn about the history in detail then I would really recommend going here. You are given a cassette, headphones and map and listen to the information on each post as you follow the path.
You learn that babies and children were killed against a tree, women were found in a grave nestled up to their babies and that the guards played loud music combined with a chainsaw noise to hide the screams.
The pathway snakes around maybe a dozen, if not more mass graves. Clothes, teeth and bones can still be seen emerging out of the ground. At the end of the tour, there is a huge building housing thousands of skulls labelled with stickers according to the way in which they were killed.
The history of Cambodia should not be forgotten. Although distressing, these are trips that every visitor to Cambodia must take in order to understand the country that Cambodia is today.
Any Cambodian that you meet that is over the age of 40 survived this horror and has memories of it. The fact that they can continue with every day life is a testament to their powerful spirit.
THINGS TO NOTE
- Children will ask you to pay them to take you down to the Killing Caves. You don’t need to do this you can go of your own accord.
- Hire a tuk-tuk to take you to both S21 & The Killing Fields. He will wait outside for you and they don’t cost much.
- Take plenty of water as S-21 has no fans inside the classrooms.