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The Killing Fields

Indochina Day Two

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We had gone to bed very tired so I fell asleep quickly despite the time difference. And I slept pretty well but awoke quite early, around six - fairly normal for me. The bed seemed firm but thankfully nowhere near as hard as the ones I had endured last year in North Korea. Incidentally my chiropractor told me after that trip that Asian bodies genetically have straighter spines than our Western ones, so a hard bed suits them better.

Breakfast was included in our room rate and we ate it out on the shady terrace. There was a menu with nine 'breakfast sets' from which to choose - I went for the pancakes which came with fresh fruit and honey, while Chris had the croissant with jam and the same selection of fruit. Coffee (or tea) and juice completed the sets.

We had brought our cameras and other stuff down with us, to save the long climb back to our room on the third floor, so were still sitting there relaxing when Van came to pick us up a little before nine.

Sign at Choeung Ek

This morning we had a tour to Phnom Penh's best known but most harrowing sights, the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This is not comfortable tourism and we had been offered an alternative sightseeing tour by Selective Asia should we have wanted to avoid it, but it is part of the recent history of Cambodia, still vivid in the memories of its older generation, and if they can't run away from that past then nor should we, in my view.

I started the day thinking that it might feel inappropriate to take photos at these sites, but as we started to explore Choeung Ek I realised that I felt strongly that it was important not only to take but to share them. I understand however if you would prefer not to see them, in which case you are welcome to stop reading this entry at this point.

Van suggested that although it might seem like the wrong order we might find it better to visit the Killing Fields before the Genocide Museum, as the former are more in the open air and the day was to be a hot one. We agreed, and it proved better in another regard too, as with most people doing their tour in the opposite order, we found both sites relatively uncrowded (two large coach parties were just arriving at Choeung Ek as we left).

Some history

The Khmer Rouge started as a military organisation, acting as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which was the name the party used for Cambodia. Operating primarily in remote jungle and mountain areas in the northeast of the country, near its border with Vietnam during the war there, the Khmer Rouge didn’t initially have much support in the cities. But when they joined forces with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been deposed as leader of the country in a military coup, their support began to grow. As Van told us, people initially saw them as potential liberators from the hated right-wing military regime, and many joined to fight with them in the civil war that ensued. After five years of fighting the Khmer Rouge coalition had gained control of increasing amounts of territory and held the advantage. In 1975, Khmer Rouge fighters invaded Phnom Penh and took over the capital, thus bringing the civil war to an end.

The Khmer Rouge now ruled the country, but instead of reinstating Norodom Sihanouk they handed power to their own leader, Pol Pot, while Prince Norodom was forced to live in exile. Pol Pot had studied in Paris where he had been strongly influenced by the French Communist Party. And he greatly admired the rural tribes he had encountered during the civil war, who were self-sufficient and lived on the goods they produced through subsistence farming. He saw them as communes in that they worked together, shared in the spoils of their labour and were untainted by what he saw as the evils of money, wealth and religion.

Pol Pot declared 1975 to be ‘Year Zero’ for the new nation of Kampuchea and isolated the country from the global community. He tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages and create an agrarian utopia, forcing millions of people from the cities to resettle on communal farms in the countryside. He also outlawed the ownership of private property and the practice of religion. But the workers on these farm collectives began suffering from the effects of overwork and lack of food. Thousands died from disease, starvation, over-work or abuse from the ruthless Khmer Rouge guards overseeing the camps.

The regime also executed thousands of people it considered to be enemies of the state, including intellectuals those who might create a revolutionary movement. It is said that some were executed for merely appearing to be intellectuals, e.g. by wearing glasses or being able to speak a foreign language.

During this time hundreds of thousands of the educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed in special centres established in the cities. The most infamous of these was Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh where nearly 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned during the regime. In total an estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s time in power.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. It was only in the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, that the full horrors of the regime became apparent. It may seem weird that today they are the focus of some tourist activity, but if you want to understand present day Cambodia you have to know something of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. We were both very glad that we had chosen to visit these sights and to have the opportunity to engage more deeply with the horrors that our hosts had lived through. It also felt like an important gesture in a way, as I believe the Cambodian people want us to see and understand their recent history – certainly Van did.

Choeung Ek

Entrance to Choeung Ek

During the Khmer Rouge regime more than 17,000 civilians were killed and buried in mass graves in this former orchard a few miles from Phnom Penh, most of them transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. The site, and others like it elsewhere in the country, became known as the Killing Fields. The prisoners were made to wait here for up to 24 hours before they were killed by a blow to the head after which their throats were slit. Babies were killed by bashing their heads against a tree. There were separate graves for men, for women and for children.

After the collapse of the regime the full horrors of what happened here became apparent and in 1980 the remains of 8,985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed from 85 mass graves, while 43 of the 129 discovered were left untouched.

Here, and again later at the Genocide Museum, Van gave us a thorough description of the site first before leaving us to look around on our own. It was clear that she still found it very unsettling to visit these places even while at the same time feeling it was important that visitors are shown them and are taught about the country's recent past.

After her talk we went to pay our respects at the memorial stupa, where we bought flowers and incense to place as an offering for those who were so brutally killed here.

The stupa

The memorial holds the bones of the bodies excavated from the mass graves, carefully preserved and displayed according to gender, age and method of execution. According to Buddhist teaching it is important that the dead are acknowledged in some way, and these excavations were the Cambodian way of showing that these people were all individuals even though they were buried en masse.

Skulls of exhumed victims

Jaw bones and skulls

Flower offerings

From the stupa we went to the small museum where Van had told us a short film would be shown at 10.10. This covered much of what she had already told us but also included some moving interviews with a couple of men who had lost family members here and one who had been involved in the first discovery, soon after liberation, of the atrocities committed here.

We then followed a walking route around the site. Van had already described all the main points on this tour, and there were information signs at each (we could also, had we wanted, have rented an audio tour). We saw the spots where previously the detention building stood, and the one that housed the executioners. Many of these were just young children who had been easily brainwashed by the regime into believing that these people were enemies, spies etc., and had to be killed.

The path led between the excavated mass graves, now just grassy hollows. One particularly horrifying spot was signposted as the grave where the bodies of naked women and children were found (the other graves all had scraps of clothing, which have been saved along with the bones of those buried there). A nearby tree, now festooned with friendship bracelets and ribbons, and at least one rosary, was found on liberation to be smeared with blood, and worse - here babies were killed by having their heads bashed against it before being tossed into the grave with their mothers.

The mass graves, and the sign by the killing tree

Memorials for the dead children

Perhaps making these scenes all the more horrific to recall is the fact that this feels such tranquil spot, with a small pool dotted with lotus blooms and many shady old trees. It was formerly a Chinese cemetery and although the Khmer Rouge destroyed that when they took over the site for their mass executions, a few old gravestones remain.

The pool at Choeung Ek

Lotus blooms

Chinese gravestone, pre 1975

When we re-joined Van at the entrance there was time for a cold drink (a welcome can of iced coffee) and some further conversation about the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and the impacts that are still felt today, especially by the older generation. She told us that on the days she brings tourists here she doesn't tell her mother where she has been, as it would be too upsetting for her. But for herself she feels it is an important part of her job to tell people about these things in the hope that they may not be repeated in the future.

As she talked about the fact that all school classes (secondary school age) are brought here to be shown these sights for themselves in the same hope, I remembered our visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima a few years ago where we met many groups of school children who were taken there for just the same reason. Cambodia and Japan seem to think alike in their commitment to telling the story of the past in order to avoid its repetition in the future.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

From Choeung Ek we drove back into the city along roads lined with similar small enterprises to those I had spotted on yesterday's drive from the airport. There seemed to be few if any rules of the road here - it is every car/truck/scooter/tuk-tuk for itself! While at home when turning into a main road we wait for a break in the traffic, here they create that break by nosing forwards until other vehicles are forced to stop or (more often) swerve.

Entrance to Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng was originally a high school before being commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in March/April 1976 to serve as a prison and interrogation centre, Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short. Between 1976 to 1979 an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned here; at any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. These prisoners were repeatedly tortured, and intimidated into naming family members and associates before being executed, while those named were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. At first most of the victims were those seen as enemies of the regime including soldiers who had fought against them during the civil war and former government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. But later, the party leadership turned on its own ranks and purges thousands of party activists and their families were brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered, including some of the highest-ranking communist politicians. The official reason given for their arrest was espionage, but it seems likely that these men were seen as a threat by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and potential leaders of a coup against him. The prison was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979 but not before the guards had killed all but a handful of prisoners to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated here.

Signs at Tuol Sleng, including rules for interrogations

Our visit to Tuol Sleng followed the same pattern as at Choeung Ek, with Van giving us a detailed explanation before leaving us to look around. She described how the different buildings of this former high school were used by the Khmer Rouge. The cells of one were used for their brutal interrogations and torture while others were used to hold people imprisoned during their period of questioning and until they were sent to the Killing Fields. She told us about some of the worst atrocities, including hanging people by their ankles until they became unconscious, then dunking their heads in the slops from the toilet boxes to revive them, only to be left again to fall unconscious if they couldn't give an acceptable answer to the questions. And nobody could, partly because they didn't understand what crime they had committed and what was expected of them, and partly because the young brainwashed interrogators were told that the Khmer Rouge never arrested the wrong people - everyone arrested was guilty of something and was an enemy of the regime, regardless of what they said. The interrogations were simply a means of torturing people ahead of their inevitable death.


At Tuol Sleng

We looked around the four main blocks. Some are left empty apart from the objects found there when the prison was liberated (a metal bed, shackles, toilet box) and a photo of the inhabitant killed and left there by the fleeing Khmer troops. In others there are harrowing photos of the former prisoners, hands tied behind their backs and with a haunted expression, and of their young interrogators, most with blank expressionless stares.


Interrogation cells

I have in the past visited other buildings where the very stones seem to hold the ghosts of past events - Alcatraz, Ellis Island (before it was done-up as a tourist sight), the Ark in Bukhara ... But perhaps none more so than here. The almost-empty cells, the bleak corridors, the strands of barbed wire - all seem haunted by the part they played in the terrors suffered by those who were held and tortured within these walls.

Sign about the gallows

Block B and gallows (front left)

Barbed wire, Block B

We met up again with Van towards the end of the tour. She had told us that just a handful of prisoners had escaped being killed when Tuol Sleng was liberated, among them a mechanic who had proved his use to the Khmer Rouge by helping to repair the typewriters used to note details of the interrogations (he had the sense to carry out his repairs very slowly in order to prolong his life) and artists whose skills were used to create accurate paintings of Pol Pot and the high-ranking officers from photographs. Two of these men are still alive today, the mechanic and one of the artists, and after many years in which they felt unable to revisit the prison they are now regularly here to tell their stories to visitors either in person or through the books that each has been assisted to write. We bought one of these books, from the mechanic Chum Mey, and he was pleased to be asked to pose for a photo which we were urged to share, along with his story.

Chum Mey, Tuol Sleng survivor, and his testimony


The final stop on our tour was a more pleasurable one but equally important for some of the less fortunate of Phnom Penh's inhabitants. Friends is an NGO-run restaurant where street children are trained in the hospitality sector in order to give them the opportunity to take the first step on the road to a more secure future. Many of these children owe their misfortune to the Khmer Rouge period, when their families were persecuted and many killed, with the descendants not able to pick up the pieces after the war without this sort of help.

Friends Restaurant

Hummus on crispy wontons

Window detail

But as well as being a good cause, this is a lovely restaurant with a pleasant terrace (and interior too) and a great menu of what they call 'creative tapas'. Most dishes are Asian or have an Asian influence. We shared three - a fusion dish of red pepper hummus served on crispy wontons, fishcakes with a spicy peppery sauce, and stir-fried chicken with mango and cashew nuts - all delicious.

At Friends Restaurant

A quiet afternoon and evening

This was the end of our morning tour. Van offered to drop us somewhere in the city if we wanted to continue our explorations, but we decided instead to go back to the hotel to cool off (it was a very warm 32 degrees C), digest what we had seen, and then have a walk in the streets nearby. We had our eye on the cool-looking branch of the local coffee shop chain, Brown, that was just down the road, and we had a pleasant time unwinding on its terrace with a view of all the activity on the street and a delicious iced mocha. The laid-back atmosphere of this neighbourhood was just the antidote we needed after the haunting images of our morning.

Street scene

Locals relaxing

This walk also stimulated what was to become a shared interest in photographing the many and varied bike helmets in many of the places we visited on this trip. Here is the start of my collection (more to follow in later entries, no doubt!)




Motorbike helmets


Another helmet, and typical cable arrangement

In the evening we went to a restaurant a few blocks away which I had seen well reviewed, Mok Mony. It lived up to expectations – unpretentious, with an interesting menu and very reasonable prices. I had a tasty dish of stir fried duck with basil leaves, peanuts and a generous amount of chilli (somewhat hotter than I had expected after replying to the waitress's query of 'how hot, between zero to ten?' with 'three or four please'); Chris's chicken redang curry was actually less hot than my dish! But with a couple of bottles of Angkor beer to wash it down my duck was very enjoyable, and a large enough portion that I could share some of it with Chris.

Snow globe collection, Mok Mony

Mok Mony at night

Stir fried duck with basil leaves

We both fancied a dessert but there was little on the menu here, so we strolled back to the hotel to enjoy ice creams on the terrace before retiring for the night, after an excellent and fascinating first full day in Cambodia.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:50 Archived in Cambodia Tagged people food history cambodia phnom_penh restaurants killing_fields khmer_rouge tuol_sleng choeung_ek street_photography war_and_peace

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A harrowing day Sarah but described in your inimitable way. When you wrote that, "Cambodia and Japan seem to think alike in their commitment to telling the story of the past in order to avoid its repetition in the future", I could not help but wish that all countries would do likewise and relise that war (civil or world) only proves that one side has the resources to continue longer than the other - no proof at all that one side was right and one wrong.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Yes, I think it is important to visit places like this. Thanks for the insightful write-up.

by Nemorino

We did our visit a bit differently to yours. We had two full days in Phnom Penh and we hired a car with driver. We didn't have a guide. I had researched some places to see and we just told our driver where we wanted to go. Tuol Sleng was the first place we went to. Still, to this day, I would say it is the most disturbing place I have ever been to in my life. It's hard to explain as there isn't even all that much there. It's more to do with the atmosphere of the place. I found it so disturbing I only took one photo which was of the rules and regulations sign. I remember the rooms shown in your photos with their instruments of torture, just lying there and stains on the floor and walls. Those horrible corridors. There was a room where the walls were covered with photos of the victims of the genocide. They were all photographed before they were killed. Some looked terrified, others smiled at the camera as they did not know what was happening to them. There were pictures of babies and little children, too. There was also a room with a map of Cambodia made out of human skulls. At the end of the visit, I sat in the courtyard area and could not stop crying. We had intended to go to the Killing Fields the next day, but I changed our plans as I could not face it. People told me later the fields were nowhere near as disturbing as that school/prison. Just looking at your photos makes me shudder. Though having said all that, I also agree sometimes it's necessary to see the horrors people are capable of inflicting on each other.

by irenevt

A sickening story to read.

Thank you for showing it to me. It isn't a place I would have ever gone on my own.

On a lighter note, I wonder how much protection some of those helmets actually give.

by greatgrandmaR

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Irene, your description of Tuol Sleng echoes my own experience almost completely. I couldn't bring myself to photograph the photos of the victims. My understanding was that the ones who were smiling were the teenage guards and interrogators, which in a way makes their smiles even more unsettling - but we must remember that they were mostly too young to realise they were being brainwashed. I didn't see the map made from the skulls, although I did see some in cabinets, similar to the stupa at Cheoung Ek. You were maybe right not to go there too given how you were feeling. While it's true that it doesn't have the same almost creepy atmosphere as Tuol Sleng and is in some ways quite a peaceful place, it nevertheless feels haunted and the video film was especially disturbing.

Having said all that, I know the Cambodian people want visitors to go to these places and understand what they went through. Van told us a bit about the memories that still haunt the older members of her family and for me the conversations the visits sparked with her were as important as seeing the places.

Rosalie, I'm not sure they offer a lot of protection, and they are worn mainly because the police can fine you if you don't have one on. Van pointed out that on the Sunday we arrived, relatively few people bothered to wear their helmets because most police had the day off and they could take the risk of not being caught!

by ToonSarah

Hi Sarah, we were there at Chinese New Year 2002. The map made of human skulls was taken away later the same year.


by irenevt

Thanks Irene, that would explain why I didn't see it. But they haven't built that stupa mentioned in the article, from what I saw - the remains are still in glass cabinets. Perhaps they don't have the funding

by ToonSarah

I totally agree, the killing fields and the museum should be must do's for all tourists to get a full scense of the countries history, very well reported Sarah.

by Steve

Thank you Steve, your visit and comment are much appreciated :)

by ToonSarah

It's disturbing to think how cruel people can be to each other.

I second Rosalie, this is not a place I will likely to be visiting but I understand cambodians why they encourage people to visit and remember!

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks Henna, you are right - very disturbing and to me inexplicable

by ToonSarah

To be clear - I do think that people that visit this country should experience the full range of the culture and history. But neither Cambodia nor North Korea are anyplace I ever wish to visit. I think that Sarah's photos and narratives are sufficient for me (I started to say glad that I got to travel with her without the need to go myself, but "glad" didn't seem like the right word).

by greatgrandmaR

All understood Rosalie. But there is much more to Cambodia than the Killing Fields as I hope you'll see in my next few entries :)

by ToonSarah

The bright side was the Stir fried duck with basil leaves. It sounds like a relaxing evening after a stressful day.

by Beausoleil

Another great entry here about a very difficult subject matter. It is very hard to a) visit S-21 and Cheoung Ek and b) to write about it afterwards. It is over 25 years since I first visited and I can tell you that the memory of those places will never leave you.

The second time I visited I was with a Khmer lady who had lost most of her family to the KR but insisted on taking me as she was insistent I must "return to my country and tell everyone what I had seen" (her words). I have been doing that ever since.

I do like those NGO places all over SE Asia that give street kids a marketable skill, it is so much better than just giving them handouts. It appears they know how to cook a bit of duck as well, that looks gorgeous and I can see the chilli!

Looking forward to the next instalments.


by Fergy.

Thanks for visiting, Sally and Fergy.

Fergy, your experiences match ours - I saw that there's a real keenness that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period are not forgotten within the country or by the rest of the world.

We visited three restaurants run on these lines during our trip (two NGO, one a private enterprise in Saigon) and all were very good :) But a small point Fergy - the duck was at Mok Mony where we went in the evening, not in Friends ;)

by ToonSarah

I too found this to be harrowing but worthwhile during our visit in 1997. Excellent photography to accompany equally excellent narrative Sarah.

by Grete Howard

Thank you Grete - the compliment on the photography means a lot, coming from you

by ToonSarah

The Killings Fields could not have been easy to see but I also agree it's an important piece of history to keep alive through your excellent photos and written blog. It's incredibly sad to think (but makes me angry as well) that the power-hungry Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot could commit such atrocities on their own people. But isn't it always the same with this type around the world -- Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao, the Kim Dynasty, Hoxha and so many others. They all claim to be "for the people" but are in reality only for themselves. Sometimes it is necessary for others to put an end to blood thirsty tyrants. It doesn't always come down to who has the most money, but who has the most courage and is most willing to risk their own lives to put an end to monsters like the Khmer Rouge.

by starship VT

Thank you for your thoughtful comment Sylvia xx

by ToonSarah

Great photo's and commentary Sarah! I also visited these places and always remember the blood stains on the tiles. I also remember thinking that there were not many elderly people in Phenom Penh.

by katieshevlin62

Thanks Katie, and ye, you are right, there are fewer older people than you would normally expect, and all those that survived have a story to tell about family members or friends who did not :(

by ToonSarah

yep, it sure is something when you see it with your own eyes, I still can't believe something like that happened.

When walking through the school, I said to my friend ... can you imagine that more than 40 years ago someone also walked these stairs waiting for his / her death ... that's hard to comprehend ... that's just insane when you think about it. Even writing this, makes me relive it.

I wish I had known about Friends, seems like a cool thing to do! :)

by Ils1976

You're right Ils, it is hard to comprehend what went on there, how people could ever do what they did to other people. I understand to some extent killing in the heat of battle (understand, not find easy to accept) but this cold-hearted torture and killing is beyond my comprehension.

by ToonSarah

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