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Cambodia – Phnom Penh

Capital of unbelievable suffering

For 3 years and 8 months from 17th April 1975, Cambodia went through the most radical social reformation known when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge swept to power following years of civil war. Within days, Phnom Penh was a ghost town as everyone was taken to the countryside and forced to work the land. In those years unimaginable things occurred. Despite the terrible past, most Cambodians are the friendliest people you can meet with big smiles welcoming you. Phnom Penh is back to a bustling city now but there are places still here to remember what the Cambodians have been through to make sure it can never happen again.

Our bus ride from Siam Reap was fun as we played eye spy with a family of 5 from Victoria Australia. The 3 young boys were doing their homework and chatting with us about their trip and the funny things that they had seen. We shared a tuk tuk when we got to Phnom Penh and looked after their bags while they went to find somewhere to stay.

We had a relaxing first day in town as we recovered from the early morning and late nights of the last few days. We walked the streets around our guesthouse which was right near the riverside area and watched people go about their business.

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The following day was dedicated to visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek (commonly known as The Killing Fields).

Pol Pot studied in Paris when he was young and developed his extreme Marxist ideas while there. He came back to Cambodia and led his party, The Khmer Rouge, to power. His idea was that the cities were full of capitalist greed so everyone from the cities were rounded up and moved out to the countryside to make the country and agricultural state 100% self sufficient for everything. The people were fed a morsel of rice water not near enough to support their 12 hours or more hard work in rice fields. Many from the city had no idea of how to farm and were punished for slow or incorrect work.

As with most dictators with radical ideas Pol Pot began to go crazy with fear of revolt, outsiders and his plan not working. So the Khmer Rouge started to prison, torture and kill anyone that they thought were against the regime. Even being a professor, wearing glasses or having soft hands implied that you were educated and posed a threat! The massive irony here is that all the leaders of the Khmer Rouge had gone to Europe to study and become educated.

S-21 was the prison name for what used to be a school in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge came to power they closed down all schools, colleges and universities turning most of them into prisons, stables and warehouses saying that education was of no importance. The school is now a museum to make sure that the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge carried out there are never forgotten.

The rules of terror

It’s not the nicest of places to visit on a holiday, but like when we visited Auschwitz in Poland, we feel that it’s important to acknowledge these acts of the past where humans can be so cruel to each other. Hopefully we can then try to stop this ever happening again.

The school had 4 blocks and Block A was where interrogations and torture were carried out. The remains of 14 people were found in the block when the Vietnamese liberated the city and in those particular rooms, the bedframes and shackles remain, usually with a picture on the wall of the room when it was found. Incredibly hard to look at and comprehend the suffering that happened in these buildings, it certainly tests your spirit!


Block B houses a lot of the information of the museum with face shots of prisoners when they were first brought to the prison. The fear and terror in their eyes speak more words than anyone can write down. The information in the museum was very informative with lots of detail about the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and the process of moving everyone to the countryside. It also gives details of the processes used in the prison which are too horrendous for us to put down in words. In the 3 year 9 month rule, an estimated 2 million people from a population of 8 million were killed. Killing that many of your own people is a concept that most people would find hard to contemplate!


Block C has been left as it was found and shows the cramped cells that were used to keep the prisoners. Wooden and brick cells no more than 1 meter by 2 meters were the ‘living’ quarters that each were afforded. The most striking thing that you first notice though is the barbed wire that enclosed the whole block making it impossible for the prisoners to throw themselves off the higher floors to end their misery.


There was some interesting information in the rest of the buildings with details of the international victims at the prison, including an Australian bloke from Perth which I was surprised to read about. There were also stories from the 7 survivors of the prison. A few stories of the survivor were similar in that they were picked up for some unbeknown reason while working in the countryside, endured suffering and at some point the guards found out that they were painters and were asked to paint pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders. They only then survived and had their conditions improve because the higher officers were happy with their work.

There was also some more information on the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Something I wasn’t aware of was that these leaders are only just now being tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. They were removed from power in 1979, and are only just being brought to account for their actions from 2011!!!! Madness!!! Also they all seem to have a Cambodian lawyer defending them, but always have one or two other lawyers from America or Europe defending them. Honestly, I don’t know how someone could do this job. Sure you might be able to get them off or reduce their sentence due to some technicality, but you are defending the worst of the worst crimes possible!

So while that ended a mentally tough morning at the museum, it gave us a lot more appreciation of something that we knew little about before coming to Cambodia. The afternoon was no less harrowing though as we headed further out of the city to Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek is a mass grave of victims, many of whom were firstly prisoners back at S21. In a bit of countryside out of earshot from nearby villages, the killing fields now house a memorial for the many who found their end there. There was a very good free audio guide that took us around the site and was really informative about the Khmer Rouge and history of the time. One fact that the audioguide gave us which we found amazing was that when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese liberators, the western world didn’t recognise the new government as the legitimate rulers. Therefore the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia at the UN until 1993!!!

The estimations put the number of people killed and buried here at 17,000 (including many women and children). Bullets were expensive, so barbaric means were used and the people buried in the mass graves under the cover of darkness, noise and chemicals to hide the activities going on here. Since the fall of power, the annual monsoon rains have caused the graves to show as big depressions in the ground. Following the path around the mass graves was naturally a very sombre experience even though the site feels very peaceful now.


One of the most obvious reminders of the victims that you get while you walk around the site is actually right at your feet. Over time with heavy rains, the things that are in the ground get pushed to the surface so as you walk along the paths there are countless amounts of cloth and rags that you notice sticking out of the soil as well as occasional teeth and bone remains. Every month or so, the caretakers of the site go around to collect and document the remains. By far this was the most striking memory that I left the site with!

Some of the graves have been excavated and the remains of 4000 people are now housed in the monument that stands in the middle of the site. While it may sound strange to display the remains of victims like this, it is important as this is the evidence that is being used to bring the people responsible to justice. This way, they will not have died in vain!

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We headed back to the guesthouse reflecting on the tough day. The following day was Monday and we had our appointment at the India Embassy to submit our application for the visa. We got a midday bus down to the south coast to spend our time while our passports remained at the embassy for their 3 day processing time.

While maybe not as fun and upbeat as our other blog posts, I hope you managed to read this far. Phnom Penh has the tough history that makes you realise that humans are capable of doing terrible things to each other, but it now has the friendly smiles to show you that a soul of the people is even tougher

Daniel – There was one terrible slogan above all else that the Khmer Rouge had which sums up their atrocities.
‘Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake’

Tanya – A pretty tough history lesson!

Posted by dbgomes 09:33 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia round_the_world

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