ActivitiesDay TripsPhnom Penh

Visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh

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After a good night’s rest in yet another bed and a nice breakfast in our current guesthouse, we were ready for a day of learning about the horrible history of Cambodia.  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 $18 price for a tuk tuk roundtrip to S-21 and the Killing Fields was fixed.

Our Ride for the Day

We left around 9h00 at the guesthouse and arrived 20 minutes later at S‑21, short for Security Prison 21, also known as the Tuol Sleng Museum. Mr. Rattana called the shots apparently and said we had to be back in 1 hour. We paid a $3 entrance fee (per person) and found ourselves on the playground from this former high school. In 1976 the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center called S-21. A map of the grounds indicates the suggested order for making your way through the buildings surrounding the courtyard.

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 barely have any pictures of this day, as there were quite a few signs forbidding you to do so at S-21. 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 were about 1 hour and 15 minutes in the museum. If you really want to read through all the survivor stories and information you’ll need closer to 2 hours.

S-21 or Tuol Sleng Museum

We arrived at the Killing Fields, also known as Choeung Ek, at 11h10 and agreed to be back at the tuk tuk an hour and 15 minutes later. We paid a $6 entrance fee which included an audio guide. They should be available in many different languages, but they just handed us an English one, which was what we wanted anyway. You can pick up a brochure that lists the different “chapters” recorded on your audio guide, and has a map connecting these chapters to certain spots on the grounds of the Killing Fields, the site of several mass graves. 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, 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. Chapters about the actions of the Khmer Rouge and the way the Killing Fields worked as well. Even 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. 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 on 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.

Entrance to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh
The Choeung Ek Memorial Monument

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. At the end of the tour, there’s a monument in memory of the victims, filled with some of their skulls. 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?”.

When you visit Cambodia, you must visit S-21 and the Killing Fields. However horrible and gruesome, it’s a recent part of their history that you have to understand. Visiting both will take about 5 to maybe 6 hours, almost half of that time on the road.

It’s probably best to make a deal with a tuk tuk driver on the side of the road to take you to S-21 and the Killing Fields, keeping in mind 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”. Lesson learnt: always make sure you can pay a tuk tuk or taxi driver the correct amount. Chances are he can’t (or doesn’t want to) give you change.