A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is a right of passage for tourists to Phnom Penh. Cambodia is a country with a deep history spanning more than one thousand years. The ancient Khmer civilizations built Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in amazing feats of engineering and beauty. Of course, Cambodia is also scarred with a more traumatic recent past: the genocide of the communist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot in the 1970s. We sought to see and understand this senseless reign of terror when we started our extended visit to Southeast Asia with a trip to Phnom Penh. Setting foot in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek was a decidedly emotional way to begin our trip.
The Lost Executioner of S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh
What did we know about the Khmer Rouge and this dark period of Cambodian history before we embarked on our journey? Years ago, I picked up a book, The Lost Executioner, at a bookstore in Singapore. Written by Irish investigative journalist, Nic Dunlop, The Lost Executioner uncovers the story of Comrade Duch. He ran the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh and was responsible for the cruel torture and deaths of thousands of Cambodians.
When Pol Pot's regime fell in 1979, Duch disappeared for 20 years until Dunlop tracked him down in a remote village and published the interview that ultimately brought him to justice more than 30 years later.
The Lost Executioner is simultaneously a fascinating and horrifying read. The dreaded S-21 prison is now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. At the time, S-21prison was far from the center of Phnom Penh. Today, the Cambodian capital has filled in the space all around and the Tuol Sleng museum is in the heart of the city.
We felt that it was important to visit and pay our respects to the people who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian genocide so we booked a tour that included a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Meet Our Tour Guide, Mrs. Chivy
At Tuol Sleng museum, it's possible to arrange a private guide ($6 USD at the time of writing) who can give some personal insights into the Cambodian genocide. We met Mrs. Chivy at the entrance to the former school where tragedy took place. We quickly learned that Mrs. Chivy escaped to Vietnam when she was nine years told. She lost her father and all her siblings to the Khmer Rouge. She's been leading tours of the former S-21 prison for many years now. She told us that she can talk about the painful history now without crying but when she first started giving tours at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, she broke down nearly every day. I get the sense that she wants to tell people about Cambodia's past to ensure that we're not destined to repeat it.
Walking in the Footsteps of The Victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng MuseumTuol Sleng Genocide Museum confronts the Cambodian genocide with brutal honesty. Make sure you prepare yourself emotionally before visiting but don't let yourself shy away.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Make sure to budget time to see alternative things to do in Phnom Penh.
Portraits of the Dead at Tuol Sleng Museum
Other classrooms at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum featured thousands of photographs. Each prisoner was made to sit in a torturous looking 'photo chair' for a mug shot upon arrival at S-21 prison. Who were these men and women? Many were intellectuals that the Khmer Rouge were trying to eradicate to achieve Pol Pot's communist vision of an agrarian utopia. Later, widespread paranoia mounted and many prisoners came from within the higher ranks of the Khmer Rouge itself. Looking at the portraits, I saw haunted eyes. Many were defiant. Some looked resigned. Only a few seemed openly scared. I wondered what each one was thinking when the picture was taken. Did they realize that they would never leave this place?
Survivors Onsite at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Over 17,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 prison and there are only seven known survivors. In 2017 when we visited, there were only three left. Two of them had set-up tables on site at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You could stop and talk with the survivors or buy the books that they'd written. I had mixed feelings about seeing the survivors. In some ways, it felt like they were openly capitalizing on what happened here and the thousands of people who didn't survive by catering and selling to the tourist trade now passing through Phnom Penh. On the other hand, why shouldn't this place that brought so much death also contribute to the livelihood of the survivors? It's a tough question for me even today.
Confronting a Brutal Past at Choeung Ek Killing Fields
To really understand the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge, I recommend watching The Killing Fields. Slowly at first and then with increased frequency as the number of political prisoners mounted, bus loads of people were taken from S-21 prison and brought to Choeung Ek. Prisoners were killed (mostly with blunt objects to save on expensive bullets) and tossed into mass graves. Nearly 10,000 bodies were buried at Choeung Ek. Killing fields like this one can be found in various locations around Cambodia.
After we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, we moved on to Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital to see the Killing Fields with our own eyes. We followed the marked path past graves ringed with friendship bracelets. We looked with horror at the tree where Khmer Rouge soldiers smashed and killed babies.
In the center of the former orchard, there is a memorial stupa containing over 5000 human skulls. Visitors are welcome to take off their shoes and silently go inside to pay their respects. I was left thinking: why does humanity do this sort of thing again and again throughout history. So much senseless killing.
Signs of Life and Hope in the Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Yet among the scene of so much killing at Choeung Ek, life (and hope) has returned. We saw signs of nature and beauty during our visit. A beautiful hoopoe kept darting into and out of a tree, perhaps watching over the memory of those that met their end in this place just outside of Phnom Penh. Similarly, stunning butterflies flitted about the site. Somehow life and nature finds a way to carry on after the darkest of times.
How to Get to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields
There are a few ways to get to Tuol Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields when you're staying in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is close to the city center and from some hotels you could even walk. Taking a tuk tuk is the most common way to arrange a visit. We opted for a half-day tour from Phnom Penh Hop-On Hop-Off Tours. We visited in April and it was extremely hot and humid in Phnom Penh. For 15 USD per person, we rode in air-conditioned comfort. Some reviews suggested that the half-day tour could feel rushed, but for us, the timing was just about right. We also had a little more time than usual since we visited Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields during the Khmer New Year when traffic was light.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Understand the pros and cons of visiting Cambodia during the Khmer New Year.