When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 through to 1979, the civilians of Cambodia were forced into long hours of hard works at factories and farms. While food was sparse, disease ran rampant. Anyone who questioned the regime was brutally murdered along with the rest of their family. Many were to fearful to say anything, but almost anyone with an education was a target and underwent torture - men, women and children alike. Prison S21 (a converted high school) is where some of this hard-to-believe atrocity occurred and The Killings Fields (as well as a significant amount of other sites across the country) is where people were taken to be killed in their thousands. Now, the sites are used to educate everyone on the genocide and distressing history.
Harmony and I, like many other tourists that want to experience a bit of dark tourism, had to spend the day exploring both sites. Our day started with a tuk tuk picking us up from the hostel at 8am. 8am happened to be a bit of a rush hour, so it was already turning out to be an experience. The driver kept turning around, trying to find the best route with the least amount of traffic, but there was a lot of traffic everywhere we went. The many crossroads in the city only have a few road signs and no way to moderate the flow of traffic. So, weaving through the bikes and tuk tuks is an exciting event in itself.
The Killing Fields (otherwise known as The Genocidal Center) was 40 minutes out of city center. I tried to sleep through most of the journey, until we made it to a sketchy bridge and some bumpy roads. The entrance fee was $6 and included an audio guide that gives a lot of information about the many points of interest around the site. It also tells survival stories from the Khmer Rouge Regime and some speeches from the survivors themselves. In this blog post, I think I’ll spare a lot of the gory and graphic details of what happened at the site and what the regime inflicted upon the country.
Many of the buildings were torn down after the regime ended, so not a lot still stands. However, a few mass graves are somewhat protected and sheltered, and are main points of interest. The first and last thing you see at the site is a 39m high memorial, which holds bones and skulls. This isn’t something Harmony and I particularly wanted to see, so we gave it a miss. I imagine it makes things really hit home.
We completed the walk around the site within 2 hours and finished it with a short documentary. The site also has a museum, where what is shown is really moving. Overall, The Killing Fields felt like a touching tribute and an education experience. Whereas, it seemed like the people of Phnom Penh just use it to make money from tours.
When we finished looking around, we met our tuk tuk driver who was waiting outside for us. After a 30-minute drive, we arrived at Prison S21 (otherwise known as the Genocide Museum). Here, we had a similar sort of audio guide that ran us through the ins and outs of the buildings. It took about an hour and a half for us to make our way round, but I could only handle half of it.
The first three-floored, concrete building introduced us to the living conditions of the prisoners and the atrocities they had to endure. By the time we made it to the top floor of the second building, I couldn’t take anymore. The dark and smelly cells with crude, wooden walls or less than impressive brickwork made me feel queasy.
An important exhibit in the first building told the stories of women who were forced into marriages and pregnancy. A poster read, "In sharing these stories of sorrow and struggle, the exhibit aims to provide a space for women's voices to reach a broader public on the little known aspect of the Khmer Rouge atrocity and it's unique impact on women". In the second building, photographs of the prison staff were shown. The faces of the prisoners were also shown and seemingly endless. According to the brochure, more distressing photographs of the devastation the regime caused where shown in the other buildings, as well as some tools used for torture. It's safe to say that I will remember this day and all of the devastation for a long time.