Why You Must Visit the Killing Fields and S21 Prison in Phnom Pehn
It is now over 40 years since the Khmer Rouge triumphed over the American-backed republican army. A victory that started what we know today as the Cambodian Genocide.
The day that I visited the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek and S21 Prison (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), my heart broke in a million pieces. They call visiting these sort of sites ‘dark tourism’. But ‘dark tourism’ isn’t about the morbid history of a place. I believe it is very important to learn about these dreadful events, so we don’t forget and make the same mistakes again. Besides, I don’t think it would be possible to understand Cambodia (or any other country) today without knowing about their recent history, no matter how harsh it is.
In the late 70s, during the Khmer Rouge brutal regime, almost 2 million people – over 25 per cent of the population – were killed and buried in so-called killing fields. The Khmer Rouge ordered the arrest and execution of all professionals and intellectuals, amongst other ‘suspects’. Pol Pot’s horrific regime wanted to wipe the country’s memory off and start afresh, ‘curing’ Cambodians from ‘memory sickness’ – any memories they might have of pre-revolutionary times. This starting-from-zero quest also involved destroying all existing infrastructure. Banks and hospitals were demolished, and schools were turned into prisons and execution centres.
The notorious Prison S21 was one of those centres. It is estimated that it held between 14,000 and 20,000 prisoners, of which only 7 survived.
There are only two survivors left, one of who is Chum Mey, an 87 year old mechanic. His life was only spared because he was good at repairing machines for Pol Pot’s soldiers. Nowadays, you can find him signing books at the former prison in Phnom Phen, always smiling and happy to take photos and have a chat with visitors.
Spending time in these two sites takes quite an emotional toll on you. It is not an easy day and what you learn is hard to digest. But you will leave with a better of understanding of Cambodia and its people, of their resilience and determination to survive despite all the horrors they have gone through.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is very accessible, as it is relatively central in Phnom Penh. However, to get to the Killing Fields, you will need to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. It will cost around $15 USD whether you use it to get to both places or just one, and the driver will wait for you while you visit. Admission to both sites will cost $12 USD per person.