Behind Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh is most travellers’ must see sight in Cambodia.
I don’t think I have ever visited a country with a history more harrowing than that of Cambodia. This definitely came to light once we reached the nation’s capital.
As a Law student specialising in international human rights, I’d heard mumblings about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was only when I got to Phnom Penh, though, that I was able to educate myself about how atrocious they really were.
Between 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge committed one of the worst mass genocides in history – systematically killing between 1.4 and 2.2 million people.
Phnom Penh’s tourist attractions now include a genocide museum and the infamous Killing Fields.
Admittedly, it’s probably not what springs to mind when you think of backpacking around South East Asia.
As a human rights activist and responsible tourist, I believe it is essential these stories continue to be told. If you ever visit Phnom Penh, do the responsible thing and visit these educational landmarks, to help Cambodia heal.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
In 1975, Pol Pot (leader of the Khmer rouge) and his forces transformed Tuol Svay Prey High School into a maximum security prison. It became known as S-21, short for Security Prison 21.
It is now a rather gruesome tourist attraction, serving as a permanent reminder of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. When you enter the museum, you are given an audio guide to listen to as you make your way around the checkpoints within the old high school.
Matter of fact explanations of torture techniques are interspersed with stories of unimaginable suffering, told by survivors and those close to the victims.
A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is not for the faint-hearted. Every room is plastered with a real black and white photograph of the exact torture that happened in the very space you are standing in.
There is something about standing between the same four walls as the torture victim you are listening to, which has a deeply profound effect on anyone that visits. The sheer mundaneness of the surroundings only serves to amplify this. From the outside, the Tuol Svay Prey High School could be just that – any other high school.
I didn’t take any photos inside the museum, out of respect for those who were telling their stories.
There is a sign detailing a list of the 10 prison rules, standing next to a guillotine which the Khmer Rouge used to hang prisoners from.
- You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
- Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge
By the time the Khmer Rouge were done with it, Tuol Svay Prey High School was clearly no ordinary high school.
No matter how faint-hearted you are, a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a must on any Phnom Penh itinerary. The museum allows those who suffered through the crimes of the Khmer Rouge to begin to heal and allows the world to hear their stories.
If that’s not a lesson in responsible tourism, I don’t know what is.
The Chuong Ek Killing Fields
A visit to the museum is likely followed by a 30 minute drive out of the city to the Chuong Ek Killing Fields. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign, 17,000 men, women and children who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were driven to their death.
Once you enter the Killing Fields, you are given an audio guide similar to the one you have just listened to.
Only this time, it details how civilians were brutally killed and then dumped into mass graves. I should warn you now that as you walk around the site, it is still possible to see remnants of clothing and bones peeking through the grass from these ancient graves.
I didn’t take many pictures during my time here, as I was consumed by the endless accounts of shocking incidents read by those who experience them first hand. But one sight stood out:
The killing tree, against which Khmer Rouge soldiers bashed children’s heads before throwing them into a mass grave. The tree is adorned with friendship bracelets, small tokens left by all those who have visited, in remembrance of those who lost their young lives.
I haven’t plastered this post full of shocking images, as that’s not what I want you to get out of it. If you ever go to Cambodia, please make the time to visit these two historical sites and educate yourself about the atrocities that went on. South East Asia isn’t just about full moon parties and beaches!
Cambodia is starting to see justice through bodies such as the Khmer Rouge tribunal. There is, however, still an extremely long way to go. Join me in making sure none of the suffering is ever forgotten, by reading books such as Haing S Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields and watching films such as Netflix’s First They Killed My Father.
Have you ever struggled to be a responsible tourist in the past? Where and why? Let me know in the comments below.