Cambodia: The terrible history of Phnom Penh and its resilient people

It still shocks me that I had no knowledge of the massive crime against humanity that was the Khmer Rouge regime that came at the “end” of the civil war in Cambodia. It is what led to what is known today as the Cambodian Genocide. A small part of this is also known as “the Killing Fields” which labels the location many innocent Cambodian people were taken to and slaughtered all in the name of power hungry men. This post will give you some information on what occurred here and if you wish to learn for yourself I will tell you how we went about our day trips to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum aka S21 and The Killing Fields. This post is dedicated to the estimated 2 million innocent men, women, children and infants whose lives were ended in the Cambodian Genocide. Over a quarter of the population at the time wiped out for the twisted purpose of ethnic cleansing.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The faces of the prisoners held in S-21. This was once a High School.

“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

Such cruel words. These were the words heard by the Cambodian people who were singled out as “traitors” to the Khmer Rouge regime. These innocent people did not fit the profile that Pol Pot, the leader of the regime, wanted for Cambodia. He wanted farmers and labourers; people who could sow their own lands so they did not need other countries aid. He only wanted to keep around the people he did not see as a threat to his bloody rule. He and his followers, the Khmer Rouges, coerced those who were seen as “smart” into confessing to crimes they did not commit through means of torture. These people were teachers, lawyers, doctors, anyone who could speak another language, even anyone who wore glasses!! If this was not enough, these people’s children were also brutally murdered so they did not grow up to seek their revenge or were brainwashed to fight in the Khmer rouge army. It is still so hard to comprehend that all of this occurred in 1975-1979, only 40 years ago.

If you wish to read a memoir from a survivor find one here Children of Cambodia.

We paid our tuk-tuk driver USD$14 to take us to Tuol Sleng and then onto the Killing Fields for our tour into the history of Phnom Penh.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Open from 8am-5pm

  • Entrance fee w/out headset: USD$3
  • Entrance fee with headset: USD$6
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The old High School which became known as S-21: You can see in the background some exercise bars made for students.

Our first day trip was to the Genocide Museum called Tuol Sleng and formerly known as S-21 to the Khmer Rouge. Before 1975 these grounds were a High School and you can recognize the classrooms in the buildings and even exercise equipment on the grounds. These classrooms turned to cells and torture chambers. The exercise equipment turned to a hangman noose and torture equipment. Utterly, utterly chilling. I think that being a teacher myself and coming to this place just added to the informative yet horrifying experience I had here.

We chose to pay the extra $3 and get the audio head-set guide. This was a valuable part of the experience and I honestly don’t see how you could be as informed without one. It was well worth it. Not only does it give you in depth details at each stop but you also hear survivors own stories as you walk through the cells they were kept in. Its unimaginable what they went through and the least we can do is hear their stories of survival.

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One of the first sites on your tour and one of the most confronting. A torture bed left exactly as it was found when the regime fell. The picture on the wall is the body of the person who was found on that bed.
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The barbed wire that was put up along the balconies to stop prisoners attempts at suicide by throwing themselves over.
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The tiny make-shift cells that were made in the old classrooms. Also note the hole in the wall for the door so guards could see down the rows upon rows of classrooms and cells.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Open times 7.30am-5.30pm

  • Entrance fee w/out headset: USD$3
  • Entrance fee with headset: USD$6
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The Buddhist Stupa containing the remains found in the killing fields mass grave sites. There are still bone fragments found often here as you walk among the grounds.

This was our second part of our day tour in Phnom Penh. I strongly recommend visiting the S-21, Tuol Sleng Genocide museum first before your visit to the Killing Fields. This was the route that the many victims took when they were imprisoned and killed. The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek was a former Chinese cemetery and orchard.The area itself is beautiful and very peaceful…

It was then used from 1975-1979 as the execution site for over a million people during the Khmer Rouges reign of terror. 8,895 peoples remains were found buried in mass graves. Bones upon bones tossed together like their lives meant absolutely nothing. It is just so hard to take it all in as you walk through the grounds just how peaceful it is, to then realize what horrors unfolded here.

It is suggested you stay on the pathways clearly laid out among the grounds as it is common to come across bone fragments still to this day. A reminder that this all occurred not so long ago. If you do happen to find bones there is a box designated for visitors to place the bones on top of. Volunteers still look for them especially during the rainy season when they are more likely to be washed up.

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Found bones placed on top of the box. More and more found with every heavy rainfall.

The entirety of the tour is moving but the most moving part of this visit for most visitors (myself included) is pictured below. Known as “the killing tree”. It is so named as the Khmer Rouge beasts would physically hold infants and small children by the ankles and swing their tiny heads and bodies violently against the tree until they died. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime this tree was found with blood, hair and brain matter plastered over it.

The grave site nearby holds the remains of these innocent little babies and children. My tears flowed as I regarded the tree and now as I type this post. The many bracelets that adorn the tree are a tribute from visitors to those lives lost in these evil acts. I left behind my dragonfly charm bracelet in the hopes they themselves grew their own wings and have found their peace from the horrible world that they knew back then. However short their time here on Earth was. I hope you all rest peacefully now sweet ones.

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I still can’t comprehend it fully but here it is. The structure on the right side out of picture is the sheltered grave site I spoke of above.

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Another of the fenced off mass graves.
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Sign reads: Magic Tree…The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid moan of victims while they were being executed.

If you wish to read more about the Cambodian Genocide I implore you to do so.

The Killing Fields movie is based on the experiences of 2 journalists; Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanburg.

 

As I sit here and contemplate the massive loss that was endured by the Cambodian people and the major setbacks it took on their society it is hard for me to finish this post. We should never forget what occurred here as a way to, in the future, ensure they never happen again.

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Memorial stupa to the victims reads: “Never will we forget the crimes that were committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”

* Note: I do not own any of the photos used. It felt wrong of me to take photos and so I did not out of respect to the memory of the victims.

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