An Unexpectedly Eye-Opening Trip to Phnom Penh

It’s 10pm at night and Anna and I have just climbed off the bus coming from Saigon to Phnom Penh. We are being swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers trying to get our business. First thing we hear is “Hello, would you like to go to the killing fields?” Well that doesn’t sound creepy at all. Ummmm no, thanks, not at 10pm at night.

Before arriving in Phnom Penh, I really knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng, or the Killing Fields. I was expecting my visit to Phnom Penh to be fairly relaxed, filled with visiting some pretty buildings with pretty architecture, but our visit to Tuol Sleng prison quickly changed all of that, and Phnom Penh became one of the most eye opening stops on my SE Asia loop.

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I quickly learned lots about the Khmer Rouge. A radical communist party started by Cambodian, Pol Pot, the KRCP came to power in 1975 and only lasted until 1979. Their short term, however, did not stop them from killing up to 2 million Cambodians, which was a quarter of the country’s population at that time. Nearly every Cambodian was forced to leave their home and work (slave, really) in the countryside, receiving little sustenance in return. Unsurprisingly, thousands and thousands starved to death. Those who could not work were killed. In addition to those starved to death, thousands of others were murdered and buried in mass graves, such as the killing fields. Strangely, the Khmer Rouge did not use any metal weapons, since they believed it was too valuable of a resource, so the victims killed at the killing fields, were either bludgeoned to death, or had their throats cut with a blade made from pieces of a palm tree. It is strange to think that the Khmer Rouge were almost as efficient as the Nazis in killing but without using metal weaponry. When the Vietnamese finally raided Phnom Penh to liberate the country, they found the capital, a city that is usually a few million people, a ghost town. The entire population had been imprisoned or sent to labor in the countryside.

Unsurprisingly, this is a raw and emotional scar on Cambodia still, and we met some people that were survivors or were children of survivors.

To learn more about this event we first visited Tuol Sleng, not really knowing what to expect.  I read about the history in our guidebooks, but it doesn’t really prepare you for how creepy this place is.  Once a school, Tuol Sleng was turned into a prison after the Khmer Rouge took over.  You can wander the cells and the halls of the prison, and see the old torture devices that are still on the grounds.  The Khmer Rouge had an excellent documentation system, and took photos of each prisoner that passed through Tuol Sleng.  What that means today is that the walls are lined with photos of all the victims of Tuol Sleng.  Very few survived being held there.  What is most disturbing is the faces of babies among the victims. Pol Pot was known to be paranoid, which explains why he took so many political prisoners, and threw them in Tuol Sleng. He infamously killed entire famously of any prisoner, out of paranoia that a victims child would otherwise try to avenge the death later in life.

I didn’t take any photos in Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields myself but here are some photos that I thought were good illustration points:


This is Tuol Sleng / Photo Credit


This is one of the saddest photographs you will probably ever see / Photo Credit


A natural continuation from Tuol Sleng is heading to the Killing Fields.  Although a decent drive out of the city, the fields are worth visiting as they round out the story, beginning with Tuol Sleng, ending with the Killing Fields.  The Killing Fields are equally as disturbing as Tuol Sleng, if not more disturbing. Men, women, and babies were all killed here and left in mass graves.


The Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh / Photo Credit



After having my eyes opened to the horror of the Khmer Rouge, I was shocked that this was never taught in school.  We are always taught about the Holocaust and other genocides are discussed in society, but I had actually never heard of the Khmer Rouge.  Why is this not being taught in school, or talked about at all in the US? I think the sad thing is that many Americans just don’t know anything about it.

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