Silence. Hundreds of people. Western Tourists. Asian Tourists. The sort of folks who normally can’t help themselves from jabbering away. All silent. Here in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This is our guide to visiting the specific sites of Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, and the history related to that period of recent history.
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This is our guide to visiting the specific sites of Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, if you’re looking for the best things to do in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, then our guide is here.
That silence that I mentioned. It’s unique for a “tourist attraction”. And I hesitate to call this a tourist attraction because it’s actually a grave. These are the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
These locations are also a remembrance site for the more than two million Cambodians who were slaughtered in the country during Pol Pot’s time. The regime that Pol Pot headed, the Khmer Rouge was in control of Cambodia from 1975 until 1979 and during that time almost a quarter of the population was starved, executed or died of disease. There are killing fields throughout the country, and more than 20,000 mass graves. The largest of the Cambodia Killing Fields was at Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh.
What the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia
Pol Pot and his regime, the Khmer Rouge, came into power in 1975. They abolished currency, religion, and private property and evacuated cities – moving people out of the cities to live off the land.
Dissidents were eliminated. One of the Khmer mantras was ‘To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you no loss,’. Intellectuals and the educated were killed early in the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge was in power until 1979 when neighboring Vietnam invaded and the Khmer Rouge hid in exile. Pot was never tried for his crimes, although other high-level members of the Khmer Rouge were – 35 years after the fact – in 2014. The Washington Post’s write-up is sobering and reminds us why we should never forget Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Phnom Penh
Here, this place that we’re at, is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Just 15 kilometers from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. We’ve taken a tuk-tuk (US$15 for four of us) that will wait for us until we’re done, then take us to the Tuol Sleng prison before dropping us back in the city. Some folks take a final tour of the Russian Market, but I don’t think we’ll be able to stomach anything else after this.
This is a hugely emotional place to visit, if you prefer to go with a guide, then this option will also take you to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the S21 Prison in Phnom Penh.
Our tickets to enter cost us US$3 each. We pay in dollars because here in Cambodia there’s a dual currency. ATMs dispense dollars, you pay mainly in dollars but small change is given in Cambodian rials. ATMs also cost huge fees. Some of them are a whopping US$5. The cheapest ATM we found in Cambodia was Canadia bank, which charged US$3 a transaction. You can reduce international fees with debit cards like Wise (more on that here).
This place, Choeung Ek is an immensely emotional place to visit and you won’t feel comfortable visiting. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children died here. No, that’s wrong, they were slaughtered here. There was no easy slipping away. They were murdered. And their bones still lie here.
There’s one way to visit and that’s silently. There are no loud, noisy tour guides here, there are simple-to-use audio guides with headsets. The narration is harrowing. The first-person survivor accounts will stun you to silence.
Partly as a result of the headset and audio guides, this place is horrifically peaceful. Guided through the various areas by the audio tour, as the birds sing and the wind sweeps through the trees, it’s as if the screaming in my head grows louder the further I walk into the site.
The stupa containing the bones and skulls of victims doesn’t seem real.
It’s the voices on the audio that make it real. The signage gives details of the locations as we walk slowly around.
This is the Killing Tree, where to save bullets, small children, and babies were swung by their legs and cracked against the tree to kill them. The Khmer mantra to justify this?
“To dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots”
Two million people? How can this be just a page in a history book? How can my consciousness have not known more about this? I feel myself searching for excuses as to why I didn’t know.
I find none that silence the screaming.
This is the sound of the wind, blowing through the trees as we walk around the lake. It seems fitting that this, the sound of silence is my rebounding memory of visiting.
And we leave Choeung Ek in silence – and take the tuk-tuk back towards the Tuol Sleng, or the S21 prison.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is approximately 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the center of Phnom Penh. To get there, take Monireth Blvd south-west out of town from the Dang Kor Market bus terminal, you can take a Tuk Tuk there. Address of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: Choeung Ek Street, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Opening Hours of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are open daily, from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm.
- Entry Fees for Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre entry fee is $6 per person, which includes headphones and a multilingual audio guide.
Tuol Sleng, aka the S21 Prison, Phnom Penh
This former secondary school still looks like a high school. It was converted into a prison in 1976 and given the name the S-21 prison. There are estimates that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here. Only 12 are known to have left here alive.
Prisoners were tortured here and confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, then they were transported to the Killing Fields and executed. You’ll see photos of some of those who were held here, and some of their guards too. Many were very young. On both sides.We either recommend taking the audio tour while exploring the grounds, in addition to stories from survivors describing their horrifying experiences, it contains information on the museum and its exhibits. Alternatively, you can take a guide.
We take a guide when we enter the prison (the entrance to the prison is US$2, the guide is free, but a tip is expected). Our guide lost most of her family during the Pot regime, she still speaks of them with emotion and difficulty.
This prison was an old school, prior to Pot’s need for more prisons and education of a different type.
There are still blood stains on the concrete and tiled floors of some of the rooms that we visit.
I feel ghoulish looking at them, more so taking photos. What is this that the main attraction of a city is where ordinary people were tortured to death. It’s hard to speak, as I don’t know what to say. Words fail me.
There’s little by way of maintenance here. Curling signage, and old materials. It’s like we’re forgetting Cambodia’s tragic history, as we missed it happening in real time.
It’s a place where prisoners were given numbers.
And when there weren’t enough numbers they were shared. This more than anything makes me cry. To not even be a number seems so unimaginable.
There were westerners here too.
Australians, Americans, and a man, no more than a boy really, from Newcastle, England who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. John Dewhirst’s story is here:
How did I not know more of this? How did the world not know more of this? The borders were mainly closed. We didn’t have the Internet. TV wasn’t invasive in our lives.
And yet what has changed? How do I not know more of what is happening right now in Syria for instance? History, it seems, doesn’t provide answers, just more questions and soul searching.
You can combine visiting Tuol Sleng with a trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center – this half-day tour also provides transport between the two sites as well as an English-speaking guide. You can check availability here.
- Address of Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison: Phnom Penh, Khan Chamkar Mon, Cambodia
- Opening Hours of Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison: The S-21 Prison is open daily, from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- Entry Fees for Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison: The s-21 prison entry fee is $5 without an audio guide and $8 with an audio guide.
If you’re heading on to Siem Reap, then the War Museum there covers more of the history of the Khmer Rouge and the civil conflict here in Cambodia. You can read more about it here.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
There are heaps of places to stay in Phnom Penh – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Phnom Penh, mid-range places to stay in Phnom Penh, and budget accommodation in Phnom Penh.
The Golden Noura Villa-Pub & Restaurant offers comfortable lodging, an en suite bathroom, and free WiFi within 100 meters of the National Museum and the Royal Palace. All of the rooms at Golden Noura include air conditioning, a flat-screen cable TV, a fridge, and a writing desk. Every room at this great Phnom Penh hotel has great views of the city!. You can check rates here.
The Pavilion is an adult-only hotel in the heart of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh’s Pavilion Hotel has a separate main restaurant as well as two poolside restaurants. It has an indoor spa as well as an outdoor shaded pool for chilling out. When you’re ready to explore, This super Phnom Penh hotel provides free bicycle rental. Check Rates at the Pavilion in Phnom Penh and book a room here.
The Plantation Urban Resort & Spa, in the heart of Phnom Penh, is located in a fabulous spot behind the Royal Palace. The Plantation has two outdoor swimming pools, a restaurant on-site, and a bar. There is free WiFi access throughout. Non-smoking rooms with air conditioning also have a desk and minibar, and there’s also a flat-screen TV in the lounge area of the room. This is a fabulous luxury option in Phnom Penh. This wonderful property fills up quickly, so reserve early!
Travel Tips for Exploring Cambodia
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Final Words on Visiting the Killing Fields Phnom Penh
Visiting the Cheoung Ek and Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh are harrowing experiences that seem all the more pertinent to remember in today’s world. If you know little of the history here, as we did when we visited, then the audio guides and local guides will explain more.
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