Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, a country with a horrible history that’s shockingly recent. The Khmer Rouge regime, in power from 1975 to 1979, murdered everyone they suspected of being a political enemy. Depending on the source, the death toll varies, but it’s said that up to 2 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
In Phnom Penh there are 2 commemorative sites, open to visitors who want to learn about the brutal history of Cambodia. Keep reading to find out how to visit and what to expect.
Visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields in short
- What? 2 commemorative sites of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot
- When? Best visit in the morning, as it will get very hot!
- How long? Allow for about 5 to 6 hours
- How much? About $25 per person, including entrance fees and a tuk tuk return trip
- Bring? water
- Dress code? Appropriate clothes, covering shoulders and knees
S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Entrance fee: $5 (~ €4.50) per person
Audio guide: $3 (~ €2.70) per person, available in many different languages
In-house guide: donation
Opening hours: 8:00 – 17:00, daily
Dress code: shoulders and knees should be covered
S‑21 is short for Security Prison 21. What used to be a primary and high school was turned into a secret interrogation, torture and detention facility by the Khmer Rouge in 1976.
Barely any of the thousands of inmates of S-21 survived this prison of no escape. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime finally fell, and by the end of the year, the torture centre was turned into a museum. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is now a memorial site for the prisoners of S-21. It aims to serve as a place of reflection and education.
After paying a $5 (~ €4.50) entrance fee at the ticket booth at the entrance of the museum, you’ll find yourself on the playground of this former school. A map of the grounds indicates the suggested route for making your way through the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
Back in 2015 the entrance fee was $3.
In the first building the interrogation rooms are left the way they’ve been found: a desk faced to a single bed with shackles. On the wall above the bed hangs a gruesome picture of a bloody victim strapped to the bed.
Another building houses the tiny cells where prisoners were held. There are numerous pictures of prisoners portrayed, all taken by the Khmer Rouge, who meticulously documented everything. Torturing techniques are spelled out and torturing equipment is on display. Even the pull-up bars at the school’s playground where used for torturing.
Stories of survivors, kept alive because of their skills, grab you by the throat and pictures and paintings of tortured prisoners make you look away. There’s even a room with remains (skulls and bones) from executed victims.
We hardly have any pictures of our visit, as there were quite a few signs at S-21 forbidding you to do so. Moreover, it just doesn’t feel right to stand there taking photos like a heartless tourist, in a place where only 40 years ago so many people were tortured and killed.
It all seems too real and close, you get sucked into that horrible world and it really got to us, even now when we think back. It’s hard to believe someone can do such gruesome things to (mostly) fellow Cambodians, but it was often torture or being tortured.
We spent about 1 hour and 15 minutes in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. But if you want to read through all the survivor stories and information you’ll need closer to 2 hours.
The Killing Fields
Entrance fee: $6 (~ €5.50) per person, includes audio guide
Opening hours: 7:30 – 17:30, daily
Dress code: shoulders and knees should be covered
Choeung Ek, known now as the Killing Fields, was an execution camp during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over a 100 mass graves were found in this former orchard. Many of them are exhumed, but some of them are left untouched.
At the entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, you’ll be asked to pay a $6 (~ €5.50) admission fee, which seems to be unchanged since we visited in 2015. This includes an audio guide, available in many different languages.
The accompanying brochure lists the different “chapters” on the audio guide, and has a map connecting these chapters to certain spots on the grounds of the Killing Fields. It’s a great way to let you feel and think about what happened 40 years ago at the very place you’re standing at the moment. It’s surreal.
The recordings are a mix of general information about the Killing Fields and Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and stories told by survivors of the genocide. There are chapters about the functionality of the buildings that once stood there, but were teared down for the materials afterwards. Other chapters tell about the actions of the Khmer Rouge and the way the Killing Fields worked. The audio guide even has chapters about people telling about how they discovered the mass graves.
The part that hit us hardest was the part about the Killing Tree, where babies were killed by smashing their heads against the tree before throwing them in a mass grave. To save bullets. Now you can see mostly grass and trees, and hear birds chirping, which make the place feel peaceful. At the same time the audio guide in your ears is making your stomach turn, listening to the horrible events that took place where you’re standing now.
Thousands of people were slaughtered (for convenience) at the edge of the mass graves that would become their resting place. People were killed on a daily basis and with every truck of prisoners that arrived was a list with names so no one would escape their horrible fate. Again, everything was meticulously documented.
During the tour, you can sometimes see clothing and bones partly surfacing from the ground. There are glass boxes filled with recovered (pieces of) clothes, bones and teeth. Thousands of bracelets hang from the Killing Tree and the fences surrounding mass graves. No one speaks, everyone is listening to the audio guides with wry faces.
The tour ends at the Memorial Stupa, a monument in memory of the victims. Over 8,000 skulls that were recovered from the mass graves are now on display there. Horrible. I couldn’t stand being in there. All this horror made us sit in silence on the way back to the guesthouse, except for the occasional “How was this possible? How can people do this?”.
Taking a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields and S-21
The guesthouse we stayed at in Phnom Penh, Eighty8 Guesthouse, offers a lot of tours with a number of tuk tuk drivers they’re working together with. The girl at the reception introduced us to Mr. Rattana, our driver for the day. The fixed price, so no negotiating, for a tuk tuk roundtrip to S-21 and the Killing Fields was set at $18 (~ €16) back in 2015.
You could inquire about a tuk tuk tour to the Killing Fields and S-21 at the reception of your accommodation as well, or make a deal with a tuk tuk driver on the side of the road. Just keep in mind that the price should be between $15 and $20.
We ended up paying our driver $22 for the round trip. When he pulled over to refuel, he asked us if he could borrow $2. After the tour, when it was time to pay, the smallest bank note in our wallet was $20. We reminded him about also paying for the gas, but he played dumb, smiled, shook Brecht’s hand and thanked us for our “generosity”.
Other ways of getting to the Killing Fields and S-21
Rent a motorbike
For a more independent (half) day trip to the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields, you can opt to rent a motorbike.
We don’t have any experience driving a motorbike in Cambodia, but you can ask for advice at your accommodation or find a rental shop that looks trustworthy on your own.
Book air-conditioned transportation
If you prefer a little more comfort during this trip, you can book a hop-on hop-off joint tour to the Phnom Penh Killing Fields and S-21. Entrance fees to both museums are not included.
Note that this isn’t a guided tour. You’ll be picked up (and dropped off) at your hotel in an air-conditioned bus. An english speaking bus attendant will give some commentary on the way to the Tuol Sleng Museum and a documentary on the Khmer Rouge regime is shown on the way to the Killing Fields.
In both museums you’ll have an hour and 15 minutes to go explore on your own, but you’re expected back at the bus in time to continue the trip.
Book a guided tour
Another option is booking a guided tour to the Killing Fields and S-21. We don’t have any experience with this either, but you can check out these options:
How much time will you need for this trip?
We arrived at the Killing Fields at 11h10 and agreed to be back at the tuk tuk 1 hour and 15 minutes later.
All in all our trip to S-21 and the Killing Fields took us about 5 hours, almost half of which time was spent on the road. The streets Phnom Penh can be pretty busy, and the whereas the Tuol Sleng Museum is near the centre, the Killing Fields are about a 30 minute drive from the centre.
When you visit Cambodia, you’re probably mainly coming for the iconic temples of Angkor. But shouldn’t you also recognize the horrible and gruesome part of their recent history? If you ask us, S-21 and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh are a must visit.
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