Visiting the Killing Fields and S21 Museum in Cambodia

mass graves at the killing fields cambodia

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre – otherwise known as the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh – is the most awful place, I have every visited. Granted, I have never visited Auschwitz or the genocide memorials in Rwanda, but it has left a lasting impression on me and I think that it is a place everyone ought to see in their life.

It’s hard to talk about such morbid ‘attractions’ without sounding like you actually enjoyed them so you will have to excuse me when I say that visiting the Killing Fields and S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is by far one of the ‘best’ things I have done on my travels so far. It was the number one thing I wanted to do in Cambodia whilst I was there.

The Killing Fields are located 15km from Phnom Penh and are easily reached by tuk tuk. We decided to visit both sites in one day as we thought it would probably be better to do one very heavy-going day instead of two. We went to the Killing Fields first as we thought it might be better to do it earlier on in the day before it gets really hot, as we thought we would be out in the sun with no shade. The S21 Museum closes at 5pm though so you need to make sure that you allow enough time to do both in one day.

The Khmer Rouge

Cambodia endured a bloody regime under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1779. The regime lasted only four years under the leadership of Pol Pot, but managed to exterminate two million out of its eight million population. Through a programme of social cleansing, the Khmer Rouge aimed to take Cambodia back to “Year Zero” and to create an agrarian utopia by abolishing money, private property and religion. Any intellectuals were deemed a threat to this vision, and therefore anyone who wore glasses, spoke a foreign language, was highly educated or middle class were arrested and tortured in prisons such as Tuol Sleng (S-21) and then taken to extermination camps such as Choeung Ek (AKA The Killing Fields).

Visiting S-21

Tuol Sleng S21 Museum Cambodia

S-21 was once Tuol Svay Pray High School in Phnom Penh, which was seized by the Khmer Rouge and turned into a torture, interrogation and execution centre. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at S-21, and there are only 12 confirmed survivors.

tuol sleng s21 museum classroom
One of the classrooms which was turned into a torture chamber

Walking around the museum, you really feel as if you are walking around a deserted and derelict school. There are four large classroom blocks, which were turned into mass detention rooms, cells and torture and interrogation rooms. In each dirty room that I pass, there is a bare metal bed frame in the centre of the room. On the walls are photos of the body that was found in the bed when Vietnamese troops marched on Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge fled. There is something deeply sickening about looking at a photo of a real dead body, naked, hand cuffed to a bed frame for the purpose of torture, probably in that very bed that is behind you. Each room tells the same depressing story of the thousands of people that passed through those rooms.

s-21 genocide museum cambodia
Tuol sleng s21 museum cambodia
The old classroom blocks
tuol sleng s21 museum
What was once the children’s exercise area was repurposed into a torture device

Outside the buildings, the children’s exercise area was repurposed into a torture device. A prisoners’ hands would be tied behind their back and they would be hoisted into the air, this would cause them to lose consciousness and they would be dipped into a large pot containing filthy water and excrement, and then the torture would continue.

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge

Innocent people were arrested and tortured and forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit. One story which illustrated how you will say anything to make pain inflicted on you stop was that of a captured New Zealander, Kerry Hamill, who was taken to S-21 after his yacht was blown off course in a storm and ended up in the Gulf of Thailand. Kerry told his interrogators that he worked for the CIA and that Colonel Sanders (the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken) was one of his superiors. This was a small comic respite in an otherwise harrowing audio tour.

Opening Hours: Every day from 8am – 5pm
Entrance Fee:
Non Cambodian Adults: $5
Non Cambodian between 10-18: $3
Audio guide: $3

Visiting Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields

stupa at the killing fields cambodia phnom penh

Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia.

Arriving at the Killing Fields you are greeted by a magnificent tall and slim Buddhist-style stupa and you wonder what is in it, but more about this later.

The truck stop

The first stop on the audio tour was ‘the truck stop’ which is where the trucks which had transported those who had been held and tortured at Tuol Sleng prison stopped to unload their passengers to their final destination.

In the beginning trucks would arrive two or three times a month or every three weeks, but soon they were arriving multiple times a day. Each truck carried between 20-30 terrified, blindfolded and silent prisoners. They had been told when they left Tuol Sleng prison that they were being transported to another prison and they were not allowed to speak to each other. When they arrived, they were led straight out to the ditches to be executed. What I found particularly abhorrent about this is the fact that they were deprived of sight and sound, they did not know where they were going, they were not allowed to share any words of encouragement with their fellow prisoners and they were not allowed to see their murderers and executioners.

The dark and gloomy detention

With trucks now arriving every day, the quota of people that the guards were required to execute rose to over 300 per day which was a number which this factory of death could not keep up with. So prisoners were detained in this building until the next day when they would be executed. The building was built to keep it dark inside to prevent the prisoners from seeing each other.

The chemical substances storage room

Next, we came to the chemical substances storage room where chemicals such as D.D.T were kept. D.D.T was scattered on the bodies of those executed to neutralise the stench from the mass graves, which might alert nearby workers to what was going on there, and also to kill off any victims that were buried alive. The deliberation over this particular aspect really disturbed me, they really wanted to do the job well and thoroughly, leaving nothing down to chance.

The killing tools storage room

This was where tools such as shackles, leg irons, hatchets, knives, hoes, digging hoe and shovels were stored. They did not kill people quickly with a gunshot to the head because bullets were too expensive, and this method was too loud and would have made people living near the Killing Fields suspicious about what was going on there. Instead, they used wooden sticks, crowbars, iron tools, knives, axes and clubs to bludgeon people to death. I thought this was particularly abhorrent because it would not be a quick and painless death, and this is a lot of a more personal way to kill someone than with a gun. For me this really reflected how evil this regime was and the kind of people that were working as executioners at the Killing Fields.

The lake

visiting the Killing fields cambodia
It is believed that people are still buried in the lake

While we were walking around the lake, we listened to survivor stories. The lake is now a tranquil and peaceful place and you wouldn’t think that this could have been the scene of such horrors. They believe that there are people still buried in this lake, but they do not wish to disturb the bodies and so let them rest there. At this point my friend and I had to take a break from listening to the audio guide. We walked around the lake for a bit and just didn’t know what to say to each other, we were totally lost for words.

The ‘killing tree

the killing fields cambodia
Today, the ‘killing tree’ stands tall, green and full of life with hundreds of colourful bracelets hanging from the trunk where visitors have left a memento

One of the most appalling stops on the tour was a tree which the guards would use to kill babies, by holding their legs and swinging their bodies against the bow of the tree. We listened to the account of a man who discovered this tree after the Khmer Rouge had fled, he was looking to dig up potatoes by the tree when he saw that there was blood, brain matter and hair in the tree. Today, the tree stands tall, green and full of life with hundreds of colourful bracelets hanging from the trunk where visitors have left a memento of their own as a sign of acknowledgement. I found this deeply moving to see that so many other people had felt the same, it gave me hope that there is more good in the world than evil.

visiting the killing fields cambodia
Hundreds of bracelets hang in the tree used to kill babies

“To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss”

Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge
mass graves at the killing fields cambodia

The mass graves

the killing fields cambodia
Bits of clothing half buried in the ground emerge every day

Walking around the mass graves, you notice odd bits of cloth sticking out of the ground which, grimly, is the clothing from the people buried there. When it rains, more remains become unearthed and they are constantly finding new bones as they emerge from the soil. There is a box nearby which acts as a collection point for recently discovered items. I walk over to have a look and there is a jawbone sitting on top of the case. There is another box with clothing discovered from the graves, inside I see a pair of shorts who would have fitted a boy of no more than three years old.

The ‘magic tree’

the killing fields cambodia
The ‘magic tree’ where the Khmer Rouge would hang loudspeakers blaring music to drown out the sound of people being murdered

Ironically named the ‘magic tree’, this tree was used to hang a loudspeaker which would play loud music so that the field’s neighbouring villagers could not hear the cries of the victims. The audio guide also tells me that they used to play the sound of an engine or generator running. The audio guide gives me a sample of what I would have heard, had I been there myself. The high-pitched sound of a woman singing in Khmer rings out, mixed together with a loud whirring sound which is unbearable to listen to and chills me to the bone. The industrious sound, like I am in a factory, is deeply disturbing and horrifying and I think of those poor people sitting in the dark and gloomy detention shed, in the dark, waiting to know their fate and all the time hearing the sound of Khmer propaganda music blasting from the distance with the factory sound – the death factory.

The stupa

the stupa at the killing fields cambodia
killing fields cambodia stupa skulls

My last stop arrives at the beautiful stupa I spotted on the way in. As I approach it, I realise what is actually inside it as 8,000 skulls peak out over the shelves at me, their lifeless eye sockets unable to convey the horrors that they have witnessed. Many of the skulls have holes – a clue as to how they were murdered and colour coding sorts them into categories: ‘killing by cleaning rod’, ‘killing by bayonet’, ‘evidence of bullet’, ‘killing by iron tool’, ‘killing by wooden stick’, the list goes on. The scale of death is stupefying. To give you a rough idea, each shelf holds rows of around 20 skulls, three stacks high. The shelves go from the floor up to the ceiling, there are 17 storeys and it is four-sided. Visitors inside the stupa are stunned into silence.

skulls of killing field victims

This is a truly horrifying place, but one which I absolutely recommend that you visit if you are in Phnom Penh. And as the soil in the Killing Fields bears more of its secrets, awareness of this terrible time is spread to the people that visit the Killing Fields.

Opening Hours: Every day 7:30 am – 5:30 pm

Practical tips

  • Consider ordering a grab via the app to and from each place as it is cheaper normally than doing a tour if you are on your own
  • Cover your shoulders and knees as both places have a dress code
  • Bring lots of water! There is not a lot of shade at the Killing Fields
  • It was absolutely worth it to get an audio guide in both museums
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