IndoChina - Cambodia; S-21 & the Killing Fields

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols."

Aldous Huxley

Normally I'd try to this all of one place’s notes on one blog but today was different and warrants its own entry.

We started the day by visiting Tuol Sleng, a former school in the heart of Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It was known as Security Office 21 (S-21). The visit was a harrowing and deeply moving one. Some 14,000 people or victims of this mad, mad regime were interrogated at S-21. Just seven (7) survived. Most were intellectuals or the 'educated’ middle classes, although wearing glasses was also enough to be suspected but many were communist party loyalists, sent as part of a paranoid self-cleansing act.

We were shown the interrogation rooms in Building ‘A’. Above the beds were photos of half-dead, or dead and decomposing bodies taken by the liberating Vietnamese army of what they found in Building ‘A’. A sobering start.  

In Building ‘B’ display after display of head and shoulder B&W photos of those interrogated was shown. All alive at the time, some looked defiantly down the lens most looked fearful. The pre-1978 photos were of people who perhaps didn’t know what their fate was going to be. The 1978 photos, of Khmer Rouge loyalists the regime had turned against knew what was coming and it was fear, anger and confusion that showed in their faces.  The Khmer Rouge photo’d and documented everyone that went thru’ S-21. 

Building ‘C’ was where victims were held. By this point two of the group had, understandably, left to sit outside and to gather their composure and gather their thoughts. The cells, with no beds or running water, were little more than that the width of a single bed. 

Building ‘D’, the last building we were to see, had the instruments of, and the paintings of, the torture inflicted upon the victims of S-21. I won’t describe them here, I don’t want to but if curiosity gets you I guess go to Wikipedia. The building also had more photos and finally a large glass cabinet full of skulls. Beside the cabinet were six smaller glass cabinets each containing a single skull with a description of where in the head the person was shot dead.

The bus ride away from S-21 was unsurprisingly muted. We drove along dusty, rural road until we reached Choeung Ek, originally a Chinese cemetery, For the Khmer Rouge it was used as the site for mass graves where bodies were dumped after being shot, bludgeoned or tortured to death. It's better known as one of the main Killing Fields.

Just beyond its entrance is a 50ft high wood and glass memorial housed in an open limestone stupa. The memorial holds shelf upon shelf on victims skulls, nearly 9,000 of them. Bones are still deep in the grounds and many rise to the surface when it rains in the wet season. Children were killed along with and in front of their parents, their skulls smashed against tree trunks with nails embedded in them. It was numbing, there's nothing you can say that adequately sums up your horror and sadness.

I asked a couple of the older (60's) guys in the group if they could remember any of this from the 70's.  They couldn't, the outside world knew little if nothing about what was happening until the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot's regime. This was an age before email, SMS and 24hr rolling news and in the mid 70's the west's focus was on the Middle-East, oil supplies and inflation.

The current generation of children in Cambodia aren't taught about this period of history. There are still too many Khmer Rouge alive and, unbelievably, in positions of authority. Buddhism, reintroduced after the downfall of Pol Pot's regime, forbids the taking of another life and the authorities want to want until all the Khmer Rouge are dead and cremated before this period is taught lest people seek revenge for the past.

Back in Phnom Pehn for lunch we had a rather subdued meal at a place called Friends. I only mention this because, like Koto in Hanoi, it's a place that takes street kids and gives them an education and training in the catering industry. The fact that the food is truly excellent is a bonus.

After lunch to brighten our mood we visited the Royal Palace. A stunning complex of buildings and a match for the grand palace in Bangkok. That said I for one was still somewhat haunted by what I'd seen in the morning and the spectacle of all the gold and finery displayed at the Palace (the Palace wasn't touched by the Khmer Rouge as you might have expected by order from the Chinese) sat rather uneasily considering what had happened on the other side of the city.

There's not much more to say in the blog.  Siem Reap was our next destination. One might think this would be a world away from Pol Pot and the tragic period of Cambodia's history but there are links, there are always linkages if you look heard enough. One of the reasons the Ankor Wat complex stands today is because Ankor Thom was a base for the Khmer Rouge.

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Andy Howell on

Very interesting blog, one of those places you bare witness to rather than visit, I went to Auschwitz a couple of years ago and that was a very humbling and harrowing experience. Makes you appreciate being born in the West in the 70s.

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