Phnom Penh, being the capital and largest city in Cambodia, is insanely busy, dirty, and smoggy. But, it’s got some great bars and restaurants (more on that later) and amazing sites to visit. We arrived after a bus ride from Siem Reap, in time to have dinner and head to bed for another early morning. We were picked up at 8 am for a tour of the Genocide museum, at the site of the former S21 prison, followed by a tour of the killing fields.
This is without a doubt the saddest and most devastating site I’ve ever been to. Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as the “purest genocide of the Cold War era”. Death tolls are unknown, but analysis of the mass graves shows at least 1.3 million dead, and most analysts believe the real toll is around 2.5-3 million. The Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled between 1975-1979, wanted to entirely erase the previous regime, as well as ethnic minorities such as Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Christians. High-level government employees were taken to various prisons (often converted schools), and tortured for names of other employees. Below is a typical cell for a “VIP” prisoner – high level official. Also, a photograph of the children which survived the genocide, rescued by soldiers during liberation.
Educated men and women were also targeted and imprisoned, each given a tiny cell, sleeping on the floor and hosed down once a month in place of showers. Many died of skin diseases solely for that reason. Torture was a daily event, and often soldiers rubbed salt and chilli peppers on the whip wounds after a beating. Suicide attempts by jumping were common and barbed wire was strung outside the cells to prevent this. Sadly, we were told MANY more gruesome details at both the museum and killing fields, and saw for ourselves bones revealing themselves in the fields, each year after the rainy season.
It was utterly nauseating to learn about this time in Cambodia and I’m sad that it is not a more widely known event. Bracelets are strung at the sites of the mass graves in remembrance, as well as at the “Killing Tree”, which was the death place of many children.
At the end of the tour you can buy a flower to place in front of the bone temple, in remembrance of the victims.
Phnom Penh and the killing fields are more than worth a visit- it’s a place which you won’t leave feeling happy, but definitely a place everyone should see.