The majestic Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is not the only crowd-puller in Cambodia. I must say Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields site is now at par with the Angkor Wat. (Related post: How to Explore Siem Reap Alone)
While Cambodia’s genocide history is not a stimulating matter to muse over, its two main genocide sites continue to pique tourist curiosity.
The “killing fields” of Choeung Ek is just one of the hundreds of sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide in the late 1970s.
Choeung Ek is 15 kilometers outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
Choeung Ek is not a happy place to visit. It is a place where thousands of tortured civilians – men, women, and children – were killed and buried in mass graves.
Everything you see inside the Choeung Ek is a distressing reminder of the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The marks of cruelty left around Choeung Ek are unspeakable.
So why visit?
As a tourist, I wanted to witness it myself…off of history books and travel guide pages.
It is a grim remembrance, yes…but it is a reminder to me that the world I live in was never a Disneyland, to begin with.
Tour of the Genocide Sites
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)
Audio guides in 15 languages are available at the entrance of the Choeung Ek complex. This is a self-guided tour but tour guide service is offered at extra cost.
In the center of the area is a glass stupa which houses 8,000 skulls pulled from the mass graves.
Skulls with bullet holes are separated from those hacked with pickaxes and knives; adults’ isolated from those of children’s.
Pickaxes and knives are said to be common as tools of murder, as the Khmer Rouge would rather save bullets.
Some of the trees around the area were silent witnesses to the past atrocities.
The audio guides explain that Khmer Rouge murderers battered children against these trees; other trees were used for hangings.
One tree was marked as used for hanging children.
I couldn’t even bring myself to pause for a prayer as it was too horrifying to imagine.
Loudspeakers hung from the trees to conceal the screams and moans of those being executed.
As you walk around, it is likely that you will come across human bones and teeth scattered on the ground.
Mass graves cannot be missed as they are slightly sunken.
Markers are also visible.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Prison S-21)
It’s another self-guided tour with an audio guide that is available in 8 languages.
The Tuol Sleng genocide museum (also known as S-21) is a 40-minute ride from the Killing Fields.
The Tuol Sleng was a high school until it became a prison, torture camp, and execution center.
It was only one of nearly 200 prisons ran by the Khmer Rouge.
Through extreme torture, the prisoners were made to confess to whatever crimes they were charged.
Examples of the methods used by the Khmer Rouge to torture prisoners can be seen at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum.
In each room, one will discover the weapons of torture, and graphic images of thousands of people that were executed.
Blood stains are still visible on the walls and floor.
Some 17,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng before they were taken to sites such as Choeung Ek where most were executed and buried in mass graves.
Only seven are documented to have survived. Seven out of 17,000.
The grass lawns and the serene atmosphere outside the Tuol Sleng buildings can barely hide Cambodia’s harrowing past as you see the gravestones of the seven prisoners.
Other sites that were noted to have remains and/or graves of victims of the Khmer Rouge are the Kampong Trach Cave, Rung Tik (Water Cave), Kiry Seila Hills and Rung Khmao (Dead Cave).
These sites, however, are farther outside the center of Phnom Penh.
Every Cambodia tourist should visit Choeng Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum.
As a reminder though, one doesn’t need to collect pieces of bones from the Choeung Ek graveyard or prance around skulls to make the most of his visit.
The genocide happened in the 1970s but it has affected every living Cambodian family.
A visit to these sites is meant to understand Cambodia’s tragic past, its people, and its nation, in general.
Sheila, a.k.a. The Solo Tripper. Former news desk editor, full-time traveler, freelance writer.