1YoT: Phnom Penh, S21, and the Killing Fields

Our first stop in Cambodia was the spectacular Angkor ruins, and our second stop was the serene Coconut Beach. Our third stop, however, was completely different, for we visited Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia and home to one of the most recent and horrifying genocides in existence.

I am talking about the Cambodian genocide, carried out by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge killed about two million Cambodians during this time, 25% of the country’s entire population. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s goal was to establish an agrarian socialist society, by any means necessary. This meant killing all who opposed it: political opponents, intellectuals, anyone who didn’t like the plan, etc. These killings were orchestrated until Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, but that didn’t happen until after the end of the Vietnam War.

As for Pol Pot’s idealized agrarian socialist society, that plan failed miserably, resulting in starvation, torture, death, and not much else.

Before getting to the genocide sites, lets have a look around Phnom Penh itself. Located on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh was founded in 1434, around the time of the fall of Angkor. In fact, after the fall of Angkor, the capital moved to Phnom Penh, but it moved again shortly thereafter. The capital bounced around for the next 400 years, until it landed here again in 1866. At this point the French arrived, colonizing Cambodia and making Phnom Penh its permanent capital.

Phnom Penh is not the most beautiful city, although it was at one point, once being called the “Pearl of Asia” and one of the most beautiful cities in French Indochina. Unfortunately, the city was mostly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge also forcibly evacuated the entire city, transporting its citizens death march style to farmlands around the country.

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Almost all of Phnom Penh was destroyed during the siege and evacuation, but the Royal Palace was not. Today it is one of the few beautiful places in the city, at least one of the few beautiful places that we found.

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace reminded us of Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace, except it wasn’t nearly as ornate. Even so, the Royal Palace was very impressive and beautiful, completely fitting for the capital of a nation.

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A big plus about the Royal Palace was that it was more spread out than Bangkok’s Grand Palace, making it much easier to photograph. That being said, because the buildings weren’t as ornate, there wasn’t nearly as much to take photographs of.

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Moving on from the Royal Palace, this building, named the White Building, is much more representative of Phnom Penh post-genocide. Basically, this building, built as an apartment complex in the 1960s, was supposed to be a symbol of modern Cambodia. Instead, it was virtually destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. But despite the being condemned, the building was re-occupied after the genocide, at one point housing 2500+ people. Several proposals have been put forward to knock this building down, but others are trying to preserve the site as a historic landmark.

As of today, the White Building is mostly empty, except for some squatters who still live here. Thankfully, most of Phnom Penh is not this bad, as the city (and the entire country for that matter) has improved dramatically the last ten or so years. Things aren’t great however; this city still has a long way to go.

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During the Khmer Rouge reign, dissidents were dealt with at prison/concentration/execution camps, of which there were at least 150 throughout Cambodia. This one, the best preserved and most infamous of the lot, was a former high school and is now named S21.

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Visiting S21 was extremely difficult, even more so than the concentration/death camps we’ve visited in Europe. This is because European concentration/death camps are often presented in an un-emotional and matter-of-fact manner, while S21 was presented in a very emotional fashion.

As an example, one of the seven survivors of this camp (out of 17,000 total inmates) was a painter named Vann Nath, and several paintings depicting the torture he witnessed and endured are on display here. Amongst all the terrible imagery please note painting in the right portion of the upper-left photograph, which shows a prisoner being waterboarded. This is not a political statement so feel free to make your own conclusions; I am simply it pointing out.

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Here is one more S21 painting, this one showing what everyday life was like at the camp.

Finally, here are two paintings of the killing fields. We’ll get to that location next.

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The other aspect that made S21 difficult to visit was how recent this genocide was. Unlike Europe, in Cambodia the genocide still permeates the country. To illustrate this, above is our tour guide. She survived the genocide as a child, but her father and several siblings did not. She now works as a tour guide because she believes education is important to prevent something like this from happening again.

Here are the grounds of S21, including prison buildings, a memorial, and the rack that was used to torture and hang people.

And here are some pictures from inside the buildings, where classrooms were turned into prison cells.

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Here is one of S21’s torture rooms. The picture in the upper-left of this photograph depicts how the room was found when the camp was liberated by the Vietnamese. 

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Blood stained ground in the torture room pictured above.

Victims. Not even close to all of them.

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Photos from the killing fields, which we will head to now.

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From S21 we went to Choeung Ek, the best known killing field in Cambodia. The killing fields were the sites of mass graves and executions, this particular site containing ~9000 bodies, most of which came from S21.

The central stupa at Choeung Ek contains more than 5000 human skulls, each one labeled according to how the victim was killed. Some of the labels include: by iron tool, by hoc, by axe, by hook knife, neck cutting, ear cutting, and so on.

Here are three of the many mass graves at this site. Clockwise from upper left: 100+, 186, and 450 bodies were found in each site.

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More mass gravesites. These were unmarked, but they can clearly be seen from the trenches that remain after they were dug up.

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All these mass graves were located next to this beautiful lake. This created a very eerie and surreal dichotomy, and also, after the rainy season, this causes individual bones and pieces of clothing to unearth from the graves. 

Here are two signs you don’t see every day…

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This was, in my opinion, the most horrific location at this site. What happened here was: the genociders would hold baby and infant kids by the ankles, then swing them face first into this tree until they were dead. If you are wondering what kind of person would do something like this, the answer was brainwashed teenagers. It took Pol Pot twenty years to conquer Cambodia (twenty years that were filled with rebellion, in-fighting, and corruption), plenty of time for him and his followers to indoctrinate an entire generation of children. Add on the fact that anyone who refused something like this risked having it done to them, and it becomes surprisingly easy to get a group of humans to do inhumane things.

With that, we come to the end of our Cambodian genocide visit. Visiting here was not a fun experience, but even so, it was moving and powerful and we are glad we went.

Phnom Penh also marks our last stop in Cambodia, which means its time to go back to Thailand. Up first, we’ll head north, to more Southeast Asian ruins.

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