The Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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We started this morning by visiting Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields). These were created and used from 1975-1979 when the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, controlled Cambodia. He evacuated the cities, forcing people to work farms, and the old, sick or educated were all executed. Over 3 million people were executed, starved or died of sickness during this time. The killing Fields contain the mass graves of an estimated 17 000 people, although only 9000 remains have been dug up (although some mass graves have not yet been disinterred, and every heavy rains more skulls are exposed – we saw many bones and skulls half exposed in the path from yesterday’s rain). And this is only one of 343 killing fields across Cambodia.

The skulls have been placed in a monument to remember the people, with sixteen levels of skulls divided into age and sex (they have no other identification). The killings were brutal beyond belief – babies were held by the feet and slammed head first into ‘killing trees’ (of which we saw several) or thrown into the sky and speared with bayonets. Adults were bound hand and foot and then strapped and their skulls were caved in with axes, bamboo canes, hoes or any other implement. One mass grave of 160 people was headless, as these people were bound and then had their heads sawn off with Sago Palm stalks (which have sharp thorns) and then thrown into the neighbouring lake. The soldiers all treated these gruesome deaths as a game, and even killed each other. Our local guide for this trip had give brothers and his father killed by Pol Pot. Even worse, most of the people were first imprisoned and tortured at the S-21 prison and interrogation facility.


Next we visited S-21, or as it is called now Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Toul Sleng used to be a primary school before it was turned into a concentration camp. 17000 prisoners were interrogated there (they took photos of all of them which were on display), where they were kept in cramped quarters and questioned three times a day – usually asking ‘are you a doctor / engineer / etc?’ If they said yes they are their families were taken to the killings fields, if they said no they were tortured to death.

Prisoners were beaten and raped and tortured, being drowned, forced to live in their own faeces, having their fingernails pulled out, having their nipples clamped and scorpions put on them, being hung by their ankles above faeces, and so on. Most famous are the 21 prisoners that were being held when the Khmer Rouge was defeated. Seven survived by hiding, the only people to ever escape S-21. Of these only one is still alive, an artist called Vann Nath who paints pictures from his imprisonment, which were on display. The other 14 prisoners were tortured to death before the guards left. Once they were dead, the guards took photos of their bodies and left them with the body. The photos are now displayed in the rooms where the prisoners died and the bodies are buried outside. One of the photos showed a man who was cuffed onto the bed, severely beaten, then had his arms and legs cut off with a shovel. The guards then cut his face and peeled off his skin before he died.
Another photo showed a man who was disembowelled while still alive, and the guards removed his liver and ate it in front of him (it is thought to make you stronger). The photos were sickening and on the whole it was rather depressing that people could be made to act like that. It is almost like anyone can be turned into a psychopath with a little nudge in the right direction.


After the depressing morning we went to the Russian Market for some shopping. I bought a water-colour painting of rice paddies from an amputee who was selling them (I preferred giving money to those who were selling stuff rather than just begging – there are lots of both with 1 in 250 people in Cambodia being landmine amputees), some silver boxes, a traditional sword, and a small statue of Ganesh.

Ganesh is the son of Shiva, who was born after he left for ten years. When he returned he found Ganesh guarding the house, and was enraged that his wife had found a younger man, so he beheaded Ganash. His wife came out wailing, telling Shiva Ganash was his son, so Shiva fixed it by adding a head from the next animal that came along, which happened to be an elephant. Ganesh is the God of Wisdom and Knowledge and is known as the Protector. It is very good luck to have a statue of him at the entrance to your house. He is also the only Hindu god to have a pot belly.


After lunch we went to the grand palace where the king lives. We had a walk around, visited the silver pagoda (which is full of Budda images) and saw the miniature of Angkor Wat of display. Some of it was very nice, but a lot was also just tacky.


Next we just sat around at a café on the river front, watching the festivities as people came out for the nightly street party, and saying no to newspapers and shoe shines from little kids. The highlight was when the elephant from Wat Phnom came walking down the street and came into the café and up to our table – the waitress gave us bread rolls to feed her which was great. For dinner we went to a little restaurant with Claire and Leanne that was tucked away behind the National Museum. It was a really nice place where we sat on cushions to eat. I had more Angkor beer and pizza (actually the only vegetarian dish on the menu), while Jodie had a Phnom Phen cocktail and fish. Also on the menu (as at most other Cambodian pizza restaurants) were Happy Pizza and Happy Brownies, made with ‘Cambodian Herb’.

Devika1985 says:
Posted on: Dec 06, 2007
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Phnom Penh Sights & Attractions review
Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum should be a mandatory visit for any traveller going to Cambodia. It is a gut-w… read entire review
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