The Killing Fields – Cambodia’s Dark Past

One of our lasting memories of Cambodia will be the smiling faces of its people. Over the course of our month there, barely a day went by without one of us commenting on just how lovely our tuk tuk driver had been or how nice the staff at our hotel were. Of course it didn’t apply to everyone we met but overall, despite the hardships that they still face, Cambodians are overwhelmingly friendly and optimistic.

But there’s another set of faces that are etched into our memories. They all look straight ahead in black and white. Their expressions vary; some are scared, some are angry and defiant, while others amazingly appear to smile. These are some of the faces of the men and women tortured in the S21 prison by the Khmer Rouge regime and then sent to die in the nearby killing fields of Phnom Penh.

The Rise of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge was a primarily peasant led revolt that eventually grabbed power in Cambodia. It’s leadership was formed largely from members of the Khmer Students Association (KSA), a group of Khmer students who had studied in Paris and created their own unique ideology. This ideology claimed that industrialisation and urbanisation were not the only way forward for the Cambodian people.

Although it espoused communist ideals, the Khmer Rouge was also a highly nationalistic movement and a lot of the support that it gained came from people loyal to King Sihanouk, the deposed king who eventually threw his support behind the movement. Although the Khmer Rouge promoted communist style collectivism, most of the peasants who supported them had no real understanding of communism. In fact many who fought with the Khmer Rouge believed they were fighting to return King Sihanouk to power.

In 1974 the Khmer Rouge overpowered the ruling Lon Nol government and seized power after capturing Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge Madness

Pol Pot’s Vision

The Khmer Rouge wanted to return Cambodia to how it was prior to any Western contact. Although they were influenced by Marxist ideals, Pol Pot, their leader primarily wanted to return Cambodia to a “mystic state” where everyone was equal and free, living how Cambodians did in the past.

Pol Pot had a vision of Cambodia as an agrarian society where everyone toiled in the fields together (except of course the party elite). As soon as they took power, his Khmer Rouge forces cleared the cities, forcing Cambodians out into the countryside to work in the fields growing crops. In the process millions starved or were worked to death and plenty more were tortured and executed.

Anyone who was educated or had special social status could be marked for death, such as famous dancers and musicians, doctors and engineers. Even just wearing glasses could mark you for being killed. The absurdity of this was that the Khmer Rouge leaders were themselves primarily from middle class families and had been educated at French universities. Pol Pot himself even wore glasses.

The individual cells where prisoners at S21 were kept awaiting interrogation. This room was originally a classroom.

Ethnic Cleansing, Starvation and Disease

Many minorities such as ethnic Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Cham Muslims suffered the same fate, as did many party members who fell under suspicion of treason.

Most forms of technology were banned, many factories were closed and the banking and monetary systems were abolished. Many of the deaths during the reign of the Khmer Rouge were due to an unwillingness to import modern medicines, a return to the use of traditional ones and the fact that administering care was left in the hands of inexperienced Khmer Rouge cadres with little to no medical training.

Estimates of the number of deaths during the short reign of the Khmer Rouge vary but it’s likely to be in the range of 1.5 to 3 million people. About half of those were executed by the Khmer Rouge while the rest died from starvation and disease brought about by the regime’s actions.

S21 and The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Khmer Rouge setup over 150 prisons to hold their political prisoners. But over time their paranoia expanded and with it their definition of a political prisoner, so much so that they started to arrest and torture plenty of people with no obvious political motives. S21 was one of those prisons, setup to contain purged members of the Khmer Rouge and their families.

After torturing a prisoner and extracting and documenting their confession, they promptly blind folded the confessor, loaded him or her into the back of a truck and sent them to the killing fields. Once there, they were marched over to a freshly dug pit and beaten to death with whatever tool was handy, before being pushed into the ditch to die. Victims were rarely shot, because the Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets.

Barbed wire at S21 covers up parts of the former high school building.

A Former High School

What makes S21 even more horrific is that it is a former high school that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge once they had cleared everyone out of Phnom Penh into the countryside. They converted some classrooms into interrogation rooms and subdivided others into tiny individual cells where inmates were held prior to being tortured.

Nowadays the site is home to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I recommend visiting this museum prior to heading out to visit the Killing Fields Museum. Make sure you pickup the audio guide that provides an excellent introduction to the history of both S21 and the broader scope of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities.

As you wander slowly around this former school it’s hard to appreciate how a centre for the education of young children could be repurposed into such a brutal place.

Building A in Tuol Sleng contains the former classrooms turned into interrogation rooms, where the last victims were hastily executed as the Khmer Rouge prepared to flee from the Vietnamese. You can still see remnants of pools of their dried blood on the tiled floors.

The Documentation of Genocide

One of the most striking aspects of totalitarian regimes is that many of them thoroughly document their genocide, often by taking photographs of their victims after arrest. The Khmer Rouge was no exception. They even made a special machine to hold the victim’s body in the correct position while the photo was taken. Confessions extracted under torture were meticulously written down, even though they were normally not worth the paper they were printed on.

It seems strange that they would go to all of this trouble when the outcome was predetermined, but it shows the level of indoctrination that was present within the Khmer Rouge. They truly believed what they were doing. Jobs within S21 were also compartmentalised which meant that individual workers didn’t know the full scope of what was going on, or at least if they did, they could convince themselves that they weren’t guilty by just doing their little bit.

This list of rules for inmates facing interrogation at S21 shows just how indoctrinated the Khmer Rouge were and how hopeless the inmates’ situations were.

A Haunting Photographic Record

For me, the photographs of the Khmer Rouge victims on display in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum were the most haunting part of the exhibition. In part I think it’s because the people in the photos were very relatable. They looked very similar to the Cambodian youth we’d come across so far on our trip, especially since they were often wearing the same kind of t-shirts and jeans as we do today.

Once you reach the end of your tour you will often come across a couple of survivors from S21. They are some of the handful that survived from the estimated 20000 Cambodians that passed through its doors. You can stop and chat with them and they have memoirs for sale if you are interested in reading more about their personal accounts.

Haunting photos of some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge jailed at S21

The Choeng Ek Genocidal Centre – The Killing Fields

The Choeng Ek Genocide Museum is only a short tuk tuk ride away from Tuol Sleng. The museum is built on one of the Khmer Rouge’s execution sites. This former orchard contains mass graves with around 9000 bodies buried in them. These bodies are largely of political prisoners from S21 but also contain a mass grave of 166 Khmer Rouge soldiers who were beheaded for treason.

At the height of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, up to 300 people were being killed at Choeng Ek each day. In their haste to complete the executions, some of the victims were buried alive. To ensure that they died and to keep the site secret by hiding the stench of decomposing bodies, the executioners poured DDT over the pits prior to covering them.

The Killing Fields Memorial

The museum has a memorial that consists of a Buddhist stupa. The stupa interns the bones and skulls of more than 5000 victims. On most of the skulls there are visible signs of violence. Colour coded dots on the skulls indicate the type of crude weapon that was used to murder them.

The centre has a very good audio guide which is well worth listening to. Listen to it as you walk around the grounds, past the still visible pits of the mass graves. There is also a short documentary that runs every twenty minutes or so in one of the museum’s buildings. It provides some extra context about the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

The memorial Buddhist stupa at the Choeng Ek Genocide Museum
The skulls of some of the victims recovered from the mass graves, on display inside the Killing Fields memorial stupa

The Killing Tree and the Magic Tree

Although all aspects of the Killing Fields are horrifying, the most disturbing for us was the Killing Tree. This tree is next to one of the mass graves that contains the bodies of women and young children, including babies. The babies and children were killed by holding them by their legs and swinging them to smash their skulls against the tree.

The magic tree is a tree from which a loud speaker was hung. The speaker played propaganda music at high volume to drown out the screams and moans of dying victims. This was done to keep the executions secret from the famers in the surrounding areas. The audio guide has an example of the music and it’s horrible to imagine how the victims must have felt being marched to their deaths with this music blasting around them.

The Victims Remains

Many years after the site was discovered, workers at Choeng Ek still find bone fragments from victims or rags from their clothing that have risen to the surface. Some of those items of clothing are on display in a glass box at the centre. Many are from children.

Although many bodies have been recovered from the mass graves, there are still more mass graves that have not been opened. By agreement they will be left where they are so that the victims can rest in peace.

What Lesson Can We Learn?

The most obvious takeaway from visiting both of these museums is just how lucky we are to have been born in relatively stable countries. It’s something that we often take for granted.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway is how easily we all can be manipulated to believe in totalitarian ideologies and to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility in such actions. While some of the Khmer Rouge members were undoubtedly psychopaths, most had simply been indoctrinated to believe in the cause or were too scared to rebel against it once they realised what it had become.

We all like to believe that in the same situation we would have resisted but the reality is that most of us wouldn’t. Because we all have the capacity within us as human beings to be complicit in such acts of evil, we should be thankful that we have managed to escape them so far and vigilant against them happening in our own countries.

As unsettling as they are, if you have a chance to visit Cambodia, you really should experience these two museums.

A memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

How to get to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The easiest way to get to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is by tuk tuk. A tuk tuk will cost you around $US10 depending on where you’re staying. We suggest using the Grab app for tuk tuk rides in Phom Penh. It’s quick, easy and reliable.

The museum’s opening hours are between 8am and 5pm. We recommend getting there when it opens, to avoid the tour groups. Some of the rooms are quite small and can get crowded when a large tour group comes through.

Plan to spend at least a couple of hours at the museum. Expect to be pretty bummed out when you leave. We wouldn’t recommend visiting both museums on the same day, unless you are short on time. We found it better to do them on separate days. That way you have time to properly reflect on them individually. Plus they were both pretty darn depressing.

There are also organised guided tours of the museum.

How much does the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Cost?

Tickets for foreigners cost $US5 plus an extra 3 dollars if you want to listen to the audio guide. We highly recommend using the audio guide.

How to get to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields Museum

The Choeng Ek Killing Fields museum is 17km outside of Phnom Penh. Allow about 40 minutes to get there by tuk tuk. We recommend using the Grab app to find a tuk tuk. It’s quick and reasonably cheap and you won’t need to bargain.

The museum’s opening hours are 8am to 5.30pm daily. It probably doesn’t matter what time you arrive as the grounds are pretty large.

If you prefer, you can book an organised tour which will provide a guide. Either way, plan to spend around an hour or two there.

How much does the Choeng Ek Killing Fields Museum Cost?

Tickets to Choeng Ek cost $3 per person for foreigners or six dollars if you want the audio guide. We highly recommend using the audio guide.

Is there a dress code for the Tuol Sleng Genocide or Choeng Ek Killing Fields Museums?

There is no enforced dress code at either museum, however it’s best to dress respectfully. Cover your shoulders and knees and dont’ wear anything too revealing. Apply the same discretion you would when visiting a place of worship in Cambodia.

Also note that at Tuol Sleng you are not permitted to take photographs in some parts of the museum. The signage indicating this is not particularly obvious (we missed it initially).

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