I’ve not written this blog as Rob insisted he wrote this one as a special guest blogger! We spent a few days in Phnom Penh, doing the usual touristy stuff; the Palace & the Silver Pagoda, National Museum of Cambodia and the markets. But the main reason people visit Phnom Penh isn’t for the great food or the even crazier atmosphere (when compared to Siem Reap) but for S-21 & the Killing Fields.
You politely decline the offer of “tuk-tuk sir?”. A young child enthusiastically waves your way and as if with one last breath screams… “hellooooo”. The sound of crickets throughout the day routinely sounded out by a storm of biblical proportions. The inability of two adults unable to cross the scooter filled roads without the help of a Phnom Penh local…You’ve finally arrived.
Welcome to Cambodia!
Or to steal a slogan from the tshirts on every street corner
I 💗 Cambodia.
In a city full of smiles, warm welcomes and genuine gratitude it is hard to imagine the atrocities that ripped through this city and country only a few decades ago. For any visitors to S-21 & The Killing Fields you’d fully understand a sense of bitterness, built up anger and remorse for humankind, but not for the Khmer people. The rebuilding of Cambodia started in January 1979 and 37 years later it’s been a privilege to visit.
Upon entering S-21 your innocence and naivety start to unravel before your eyes with each step you take; the barbed wire surrounding anything above 6 feet, the wooden structure with hooks high above for a rope fixing, the clean circular holes in the brickwork and the faded red stained cell floors. How can such evil have been thought of, never mind undertaken by one communist loving individual and his not so merry men. The tour of the torture camp is chilling and thought provoking through the personal stories shared in the audio sets. As you walk through each of the four buildings, you’re able to hear the accounts of different prisoners captured throughout the regimes. The captured consisting of mostly academics and professionals; teachers, doctors and nurses and anyone who the Khmer Rouge deemed useful; mechanics, engineers and artists. These professions saving them, for a while longer, from their inevitable fate. The stories speak of forced confessions leading to unthinkable torture. This in an attempt to cleanse the population for the ultimate goal of a self-sufficient and utopia country. S-21 manages to find the perfect blend of educating visitors to the atrocity whilst also acting a place of homage for anyone directly affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Throughout the tour you hear the accounts of two men captured, their cells are now lit by a single dim bulb from above, you hear harrowing tales of their lost children and wives. Towards the ends of the tour you pass a large monument containing tens of thousands of names having endured a similar fate to the personal stories heard. You take shelter under a tree from the burning sun to reflect on terror experienced here and gaze upon the many butterflies with a sense of hope. Then, just by the exit you spot two elderly gentlemen, hunched over with crowds around them. Your emotions peak with hope. You realise the captured men referenced within the tour lived to tell their tale to this day. In the very four walls where they lived their nightmare to thousands of tourists with a new found love of Cambodia in their heart.
After learning of the terror inflicted in S-21 you then undertake part 2 of the day in the chilling area of The Killing Fields. During a thirty minute tuk-tuk ride between the two places you are allowed to escape your thoughts of S-21 for a few seconds at a time to laugh at the driver dodging the craters in the road and watch in amazement at the five people on one motorbike. Although the latter has now become a daily occurrence, six people would be worthy of a second glance now. The entrance to The Killing Fields creeps up quickly on you and before you know it you’re retracing the footsteps of millions of tourists paying respect to the innocent men, women and children initially tortured and then brought here for their final breaths. The tour is as poignant and touching as S-21 whilst remembering the lost throughout. The tour will take you through the various areas used by the regime and the audio sets provide additional stories and information on the area. Throughout the tour you will see pieces of clothing and fabric that have risen up through the earth and an indication of the mass graves surrounding you within the area. This chilling thought is a continuing theme throughout with the glass cases containing bone and teeth extracts filling several areas of the grounds. Towards the end of the tour your final stop will see you visiting the memorial, a 25 foot high structure containing a large glass structure with the skulls of all innocent found within this area. A tiny fraction of the total killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“We can move on, but can never forget” Huo Meng
(survivor – a man we had the privilege to meet)