Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’m not gonna lie a big part of me did want to go here, because the main reasoning for visiting this location was to see the Killing Fields. You can tell by the name is not exactly an enjoyable experience. We were told by a friend and other backpackers that it was a must see as it was such a major impact on Cambodia’s history.

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Our Tuk Tuk ride around Phnom Pehn

We arrived at the famous chain of hostels called Mad Monkey bright and early from our night bus at 6 a.m. Of course our room wasn’t ready so we fell asleep on the cushions by the pool. Once we awoke we went to get breakfast. We were pleasantly surprised to see they have Krispy Kreme donuts! So of course being the binge eating Americans we are we got a box of 3 to share 🙂 I knew it was going to be a long day and straight up sugar wasn’t going to get me through it so we also were able to get a breakfast burrito at a coffee shop similar to Starbucks. After we were able to check into our room we grabbed a Tuk Tuk  for $16 to take us to the killing fields 45 minutes away round trip. Our driver seemed very happy to have our business. When he first started driving a cartoon like song came on about shapes. He told us that he listens to this to learn English! He soon switched to American hip hop music 🙂 It was an enjoyable ride seeing what was a bigger city than I thought it would be. Of course there were motorbikes everywhere. Little kids would waive to us as we drove by. It was sad to see a lot of garbage here once we got off the highway and onto dirt roads.

Rob had done some research before hand so we could have an idea of what we were walking into. I was shocked to hear that just a mere 40 years ago the Cambodians were under suppression from the new communist government that had come into power. The communist party had overthrown the current government and wasted little time in moving forward with there plans for the country. This included evacuating all cities and moving the entire population of the country to rural areas. This great movement has come to be known as the “Death March” as thousands of Cambodians died from the pace that they were forced to move at. Also during this time hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were executed for various reasons (if you can really call them reasons). Anyone associated with the previous government was tortured for information and executed, all Buddhist monks or anyone that professed their faith for any religion were executed, any one with an education or that had, in the Khmer Rouge’s opinion, any western or international influence throughout their life were killed. Even some Cambodians were killed simply because their hands were too soft or they wore glasses. Many of these were quick killings but some as we will get talk more about later were tortured for weeks or months being forced to write contrived confessions until they would finally be put to death. The Khmer Rouge wanted to return Cambodia to a fully self sufficient society that did not rely on any other influence. They did this by having all citizens be forced to work in the fields producing rice whether they had any farming or agricultural experience at all. Imagine being forced to leave your home and you have to march for many days or weeks without stopping and with very little food and water. While you are marching people are being put to death around you or dying on the side of the road from starvation or disease. Then once you finally get there you are handed farming tools and told to produce rice without any training or guidance. I don’t know about you but I would be lost. Cambodians were forced to work for 12 to 20 hours per day with barely any food and water. Families were separated across the country and there was no communication so you had no idea if your spouse, mother, father, or children were even alive. This lasted for four years where one quarter of the Cambodian population was killed, around 3 million people.

The Killing Fields cost $6 with audio tour. We put on the headset and started walking towards an Asian looking monument. I didn’t realize how daunting this tour would be until it was over. There are around 20 stops on this tour, plus additional first hand accounts of survivors, individuals effected by the events, and even those who followed the horrendous orders of the Khmer Rouge to fulfillment.

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The tour was filled with graves, and remnants of bones of innocent lives lost. It wasn’t until we arrived at this tree, that I burst into tears. It was the tree they used to kill babies in front of their mothers. They would smash the babies against the tree as the mothers screamed. I can’t even imagine. The next tree was where they would kill people, and in our audio they played the music that they would play during their murder to cover the screams. I couldn’t stop crying. Soon we arrived back to the monument we first saw upon arrival. We walked inside where there were shelves in tall glass cases covered in skulls from floor to ceiling. These were a small fraction of the thousands of people killed at this place. It was so eerie. Knowing that there were hundreds of these Killing Field sites all over the country was truly heartbreaking. I was relieved it was over, but it really wasn’t over. We decided to go to the Museum of Torture next. Well, we debated. It wasn’t something we really wanted to do, especially after the killing fields. But once again it was the reason we came to this destination.

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Classrooms turned to jail cells at S21 Prison

Our Tuk Tuk driver took us back into the city where the S21 torture prison museum was located where it was also a $6 entrance fee. It had been a high school before the Khmer Rouge took power and evacuated everyone from the city of Phnom Penh. You walk first into a large grassy courtyard with many fruit and palm trees. I imagined that going to school here would have been a lovely place, but knowing what it was used for after that still is tough to think about. The Khmer Rouge used this place as one of their main facilities for torture and information extraction from its own citizens.  Once the city was evacuated the Khmer Rouge renovated this high school into many prison cells and rooms of instruments of torture. This prison was where many high profile suspects were brought to get confessions of alliance to the past government or foreign governments. During the tour we walked through the four buildings of the facility and saw the cells and torture chambers devices that were used. During the tour it became clear that most of the prisoners confessed to crimes that they did not actually commit to finally be put to their death in the Killing Fields. Most were willing to say and sign anything to end the torture and starvation. This was a very difficult tour to take; many of the pictures that were shown in the rooms we could not look at or had to avoid completely due to the graphic nature of what we were seeing. The fact that this political group was doing this mainly to its own citizens was horrifying.

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Courtyard of the S21 Prison Museum

Thankfully the Khmer Rouge government was removed after four years, but the years of this rule effected the country for many years. The Khmer Rouge still survived in the jungles of Cambodia until the mid 1990’s. Some of the main leaders of the Khmer Rouge were not even punished for their crimes against humanity until 2014 many of them now serving life in prison sentences.. The main thing that we took away from this experience  was that the sacrifices that these people made should not be in vane. We must all remember the atrocities that took place in the fields of Cambodia to ensure that this never happens again to any group or culture of people on this planet again. We must value human life above all else and learn to put aside any differences and work together to ensure a good life for everyone.

All in all Phnom Penh was a very interesting and educational city. We met some lovely people both local and other travelers. I would highly recommend this emotional but enlightening stop on your trip through Cambodia.