If you’ve ever visited a concentration camp in Europe, then you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to visit the the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka the “Killing Fields”) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21). It’s one of those travel experiences that’s both draining and depressing – and one of the most important things you can do on a trip to Cambodia.
While the most famous site is located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, the “killing fields” actually refers to over 300 different sites across the country where the Khmer Rouge murdered and buried its own citizens. Estimates vary, but roughly 2 million people were directly killed or starved to death between 1975 and 1979. The population of Cambodia at this time was about 8 million. While professionals, intellectuals, and religious people were the first targets, Pol Pot’s regime became increasingly paranoid over time. By the end, the Khmer Rouge was turning on each other as well.
These statistics, while chilling, pale in comparison to seeing these sites with one’s own eyes. I hired a tuk tuk ($15) for the morning to take me to the Killing Fields, followed by the S-21.
The Killing Fields are located outside the city center, but I cannot recommend visiting them enough. Upon entering and paying the $6 admission fee, you’re given an audio guide in the language of your choice, and are led on a somber walk around the grounds. Each stop along the way includes historical information about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, as well as personal stories told by survivors of this dark period.
Certain areas are marked off and denoted as mass grave sites, listing the number of people who are buried there (ranging anywhere from 100-400). One of the most deeply disturbing ones was filled with mothers and their infant children, in which babies were killed before their mothers’ eyes. During the rainy season, bone fragments and shreds of clothing are often unearthed. There is not much else to do other than sit and reflect on the awful things human beings to do one another.
But there was something else that I found striking about this site: it’s quite beautiful, and teems with life. Butterflies, birds, chickens, lizards, insects – nature is alive and well. There’s a small lake filled with lily pads, and benches alongside it where one can sit and have a quiet moment. It was a strange juxtaposition, but also felt like a nice memorial to those who had been killed there.
Upon finishing the circuit of the grounds, you’re brought to the Memorial Stupa, built in memory of the victims. Inside are human skulls, each marked with a color-coded sticker indicating the person’s age, sex, and how they died. It was haunting, yet difficult to turn away from.
After the Killing Fields, I went to the S-21 ($6, includes audio guide). This prison, a former high school, was where victims were tortured, forced to make false confessions, and ultimately executed. Of 17,000 prisoners, only seven survived their time at Tuol Sleng. One of them, Chum Mey, sits outside of the prison every single day, selling his book and telling his story. Saying hello to him might just have been the most emotional moment of my day.
Much like witnessing the mass grave sites, seeing the cells where prisoners were held was quite an overwhelming experience. I reached a point where I was unable to absorb any more information from the audio guide. It was all I could do to simply walk through and take it all in.
You can find many photos on the Internet of both the Killing Fields and S-21, but I couldn’t bring myself to take any. I would have felt I was being disrespectful.
If you come to Cambodia, you absolutely must visit these important sites. They will literally make you feel sick to your stomach, but you’ll receive a firsthand education about one of the biggest stains on human history.