This isn’t an ordinary blog post of mine. It’s more of a story. A time where travelling had took me to a place where gruesome history had slapped me in the face and brought me out of my wanderlusting dreams to the harsh realities of what happened in Cambodia as I visited Phnom Penh…
Cambodia. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know too much about this country except for the famous ancient ruins of Ankor Wat in Siem Reap. I heard whispers from my fellow travellers of the poverty and beauty there and, of course, the up and coming nightlife which is a favourable attraction for most backpackers on the South East trail. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what I had learnt and saw when I arrived in the capital city, Phnom Penh.
A drone shot of Phnom Penh.
We arrived late at night from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and almost immediately I could sense a different atmosphere here in Phnom Penh than what I had felt in Vietnam. Even though it’s a big city, it didn’t seem as busy and vibrant and there was something that was making me feel uneasy. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. We preliminary booked a ‘party hostel’ for our first night out of habit from our travels around Vietnam and to socialise with people from around the world. We arrived and as always in a party hostel, it was full of people, drink and music. But for some reason, I couldn’t conjure up a party mood. So instead, I went to bed and decided to figure out why I was feeling like this in the morning.
Firstly, we changed hostels in the morning to somewhere a bit quieter and located amongst the local shops and markets where we spent our morning wandering around the local markets and noting all the little differences in comparison to Thailand and Vietnam such as a decrease in food stalls and foreigners being less of a target. Some of the market vendors couldn’t communicate in English at all and preferred not to serve us or we had to wait until they had called the youngest member of the family to communicate with us. My past experience of being a teacher in Thailand made me notice the low proficiency of English language amongst the older generation and we were told that the schools were actually buildings that could’ve been mistaken for apartments or business offices. I asked my friend if he knew why this was as he’d been here before, “Oh yeah, some political party knocked them all down when they were killing all the intelligent Cambodians.”
He went on to give me vague details of this political party killing millions of their own people to in an attempt to cleanse the country of ‘intellectuals’. He told me there was a ‘museum’ that used to be a school in the city that you can visit to learn about the regime before the party had taken it over and used the building to torture prisoners to death. It’s called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museumor its former name: S21 Prison. Also, he added that there was a sight called ‘The Killing Fields’ where thousands of people were taken to be slaughtered which is accessible and open to the public.
Being a self-confessed history buff, I booked my ticket that same day to visit both sites.
The next day, we rode to S21 Prison by taxi with two other people from the hotel. The journey to the site was chirpy as we exchanged pleasantries and engaged in cheery small talk with our new friends. We got to the prison and were greeted with intimidating barbed wire wrapped around the poles on top of the walls like serpents smothering its prey. We were quickly ushered inside by the security guards as if lingering tourists would draw too much attention to the fact that this museum actually exists. Inside, we pay our entrance fee and equipped with our audio recorder and headphones, we start our ‘tour’ around the ‘museum’.
The outside of the S21 Prison
This is where I left my companions to learn and feel out this place for myself. My friend was right. It was clearly an old school with the structure of the building being very similar to the school I taught at in Thailand. Three separate buildings engulfing the playground where students would play, socialise and relax. With open, airy corridors lined with benches for the children and teachers to get some fresh air and take a break from the hot, stuffy classrooms.
As I stepped into the first classroom, a school desk and chair along with a small rusty bed structure greeted me. It looked worn and bent, as if it survived a vicious hurricane. On top of the bed were metal tools, a small box and rusty metal shackles hanging from each bedpost. I looked up to the left side of the wall. There hanging like a regular old picture above a fireplace was an original photograph of what Vietnamese soldiers found when they invaded this torture centre in 1979 – a decomposing victim of the S21 regime, fresh from torture and interrogation with pools of wet blood underneath. Chills ran down my spine as I realised I was looking at a picture of a room I was currently standing in, taken only 40 years ago. I tried to quieten the visions in my head of what happened in this room that I was in until I saw the bloodstains on the floor, making them become much louder and more real. I was welcomed with the same sight and visions as I stepped through 8 classrooms over two floors. I was only at the beginning of this ‘tour’ and I already had bile bubbling in my stomach at what went on here.
The eerie sight that welcomed me straight away as I began my tour.
The audio tour informed me that these classrooms were purposely left as they were when they were discovered in respect for these poor prisoners who endured days of torture, interrogation and punishment so they can educate visitors around the world about what went on here. The Khmer soldiers had accused their own people of being spies for the Vietnamese, traitors of the Khmer regime or just for being a ‘city resident’ or ‘smart’. Even if you wore glasses or had white skin as they were traits of ‘wealthy city people’. The Khmer soldiers were under strict instructions to only take their victim to the brink of their death without actually killing them. If they ‘accidently’ killed the prisoner without first receiving a ‘letter of confession’, which ultimately ordered their death – they too were killed.
I felt overwhelmed very quickly and confused as to what all this was leading to. Resisting the temptation to fast forward my audio tour cassette to the section where they would explain to me what really happened to Cambodia during this brutal time, I persevered with the tour, allowing it to take me on its journey.
Next, it took me away from Block A (the integration block) onto the grass courtyard where there were trees, flowers, grass lawns and what looked like the outer structure of playground swings from the days when the building used to be a school. The audio clip informed me that the soldiers turned an innocent metal swing structure into a torture instrument. They would hang prisoners by their feet and lower them into buckets of water, torturing them to the edge of drowning before reviving them with beatings. All the while, hanging upside down causing prisoners to suffer with asphyxiation, brain haemorrhages and death.
Block B was next on the agenda. Inside this section, the building has been converted to display the torture tools and shackles used on the prisoners throughout the time. From stretchers to whips to clippers used to remove teeth and toenails, all tools originally used by the Khmer soldiers on their victims. Buckets used for collecting blood. Tanks used for water torture. This room contained every form of tool possible used on innocent people to force confessions. I walked on through to what looked like an ‘art gallery’. The audio told me that these were paintings created by survivors, journalists and family members of victims to tell their stories to the public. Most of the pictures showed victims being tortured and killed. On the last floor of this particular building, the walls had been knocked through to house thousands of photographs of S-21 victims. At first, it started with mug shots of every person who had passed through this building, ultimately being lead to their deaths. Typical prison photos of ‘suspects’ holding their intake prison number. Only, a quarter of these photographs were of children. I’ll never forget looking at a photograph of a young boy with a heavy pad-locked chain hanging around his neck. His arms being held to his sides by a Khmer soldier, his bruised face looking straight into the camera. He was terrified. Another photograph was of a mother cradling her new-born baby in her arms with a look of defeat and indignant resignation. Another board presented letters of ‘confessions’ that were forcefully signed by tortured and defeated prisoners before they were transported to their deaths. Photographs of decaying, starving bodies and prisoners being tortured gloomed over me as I walked through the last section of the building. These photographs and written confessions were collected to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders have been successfully carried out.
Photographs like this are displayed all around the museum as gruesome reminders
More than halfway through my tour, I reached Block C. The walls had been knocked through by the Khmer Rouge and throughout all four floors of this building were ‘prison cells’. One floor of cells were made of metal, another made of bricks, another made of wood. The windows were barricaded to reduce the amount of oxygen and wind circulating the cells and doors were locked to isolate prisoners from one another. Every prisoner was shackled to the floor and given a potty, which never got cleaned. As the prison’s population grew, some of these tiny cells housed over 4-5 malnourished prisoners. As I walked through the cells, I sat down in one and envisioned what it must’ve been like for these people. Just waiting for their time to be brutally tortured and killed. It was unimaginable.
The prison cells
At this point, the urgency to know about this regime had grown and consumed my every thought. The audio clip invites me to sit down on a bench facing the prison that was once a high school.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime, which was a communist force led by Pol Pot – one of the world’s most infamous dictators, had successfully overruled the Khmer Republic Government and took control of Cambodia. A few days after they gained power, they forced over 2 million people, including those in hospitals and other public institutions, to leave the cities into the countryside to undertake agricultural work. Thousands died during these evacuations. The Khmer Rouge party wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which everyone had the same stature, status and position. To accomplish this, they abolished material goods, money, schooling, private property and religion. Education establishments, religious buildings and government offices were either destroyed or turned into prisons and work camps. Monks, priests and nuns were forced to abandon their positions or be put to death. People had to turn in all possessions, wear black clothing and cut their hair to a standard length. All for the purpose of equality. Family relations were also forbidden. The slightest show of affection to one another was punished. In fact, citizens were pretty much punished and killed for everything. For being intelligent, for being city dwellers, for wearing glasses and even for having soft hands. For this represented wealth and success, factors that the Khmer Rouge wanted to abolish.
My tour had ended. I handed my cassette tape back to the staff and left this school of horrors to finish my day strolling around ‘The Killing Fields’. In the taxi, I was reunited with my travel companions. The cheery small talk we exchanged was no more. We sat in silence processing what we had just experienced as we took the same road as hundreds of trucks transporting thousands of people to their death had done 40 years ago. As we pulled up to the site, before we could get our ticket stamped, a glass shrine lured over the entrance. Inside were 8,000 human skulls. As we walked around the grounds of the Killing Fields, your first impressions could be led to thinking that it was a peaceful garden with plenty of forestry, plantation and a beautiful view. As you get closer, the horrifying site of mass graves welcomed your presence. 1.7 million people were executed at the killing fields. Bodies were dumped into these graves and left to rot. To this day, you can still see bones and pieces of cloth where heavy rain has unearthed them. There were multiple boxes en route around the field inviting guests to place any bones or teeth they had found while visiting the site. The most chilling part was when I reached a special mass grave designated only for women and children. Beside the grave was a gigantic tree, it was decorated with string, bracelets and flowers. As I listened to my audio tape, it was fittingly named as the ‘Killing Tree’ used to smash babies and children to death in front of their screaming mothers who were accused of committing crimes against the Khmer regime.
The mass graves
Despite the best efforts to clear everything, rain reveals cloth, bones, etc that is yet to be discovered
Looking closely at the tree, it was still marked with bloodstains and dents. Enough was enough. I quickly ended my tour at the glass shrine, where you can get up close and personal to inspect the different impacts made to the skulls by using all kinds of killing tools such as batons, spades and metal bars. Bullets were never used as it was deemed too expensive to be used on such unworthy victims.
Up close and personal with the victims’ skulls
These citizens were diagnosed as being ‘unpure’ and a traitor to the communist regime. Over the period of three years, Cambodians who didn’t fit within the image of what is expected by the Khmer Rouge were detained, interrogated, tortured and executed at sites such as S21 Prison and the Killing Fields. At S21 Prison, 14,000 people have been known to enter this ‘hell on earth’. Only seven survived. In total, over 3 million people died as a result of this genocide. A quarter of the Cambodia’s population. For me, that’s the whole population of my country, Wales. Wiped out. Talking to Cambodians after my visit, it’s known that everyone from this country has suffered a loss. From one family member to a whole generation. Even some family bloodlines are no longer existing due to whole families being wiped out. Millions of mines were laid out by Khmer soldiers all over Cambodia during their fight with the Vietnamese which left thousands of survivors with disabilities. In some parts of the countryside, there are still bombs that are active. People are risking their lives every day trying to discover and disable these bombs.
Cambodia is still suffering from this historical genocide on its own people. It’s doing it’s best to recover. However, poverty is a real problem and mental health issues have plagued a large portion of Cambodians due to loss of loved ones and damaged spirits. A lack of support and government services in Cambodia mean that citizens will continue to struggle to survive and heal from this wound. The economy in Cambodia is growing and it is thanks to its gory, fascinating history that these sites are fast becoming tourist attractions displayed on ‘Lonely Planet’ right next to Angkor Wat as ‘must see’s’ in Cambodia.
As I arrived back to my hotel in a state of deep sadness, I researched more about this horrendous time that only happened 40 years ago. Sadness quickly turned to frustration as I realised that before I came to Cambodia, I didn’t know anything about this genocide. I was unaware of it throughout school and University (despite studying Sociology) and only discover the story as I arrived in Cambodia. Even though the country is doing its best to educate and raise global awareness about this genocide, the sad truth of the matter is that genocide is still happening in the world today. Lessons have not being learnt. When will this senseless killing of innocent people come to an end?
If you want to know more about this genocide from a Cambodian’s perspective, check out the bestselling book “First They Killed My Father” which is also now a movie that can be found on Netflix.