Definitely Not the Happiest Place on Earth: Cambodia’s S-21 and the Killing Fields

I suppose it is entirely possible to go to Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, without going to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Choeung Ek.


There are in fact, other things to see in Phnom Penh. The city once known as “the Paris of the East” is on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers, so you could escape the heat and humidity by taking a boat ride.

The ridiculously ornate Royal Palace is in Phnom Penh. We went, but it ended up making me so angry. To see all that manicured and gilded opulence while right outside the walls the trash is piled up and there’s no clean drinking water or basic sanitation just really chapped my hide.

Phnom Penh

The National Museum of Cambodia is also in Phnom Penh. We went. It was a bit of a let down. Not too many items on display. Perhaps understandably. There are a lot of open-air markets selling cheap tourist stuff, mostly made in China. We went through a few, bought a few trinkets.

But really, unfortunately, the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are those tied to it’s horrific, recent past.

I had done a lot of reading about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge before our trip. I thought I was pretty prepared, but how could anyone be prepared for such sadness? Knowing about the fight to overthrow French colonization and the roots and growth of the Communist Party in Southeast Asia doesn’t explain genocide. Reading about the motivations of Pol Pot and his party — to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people — doesn’t make their subsequent actions any more rational.

But it’s very much a living, breathing history. You can see the effects everywhere. The countryside is still riddled with millions of mines. You see people with missing limbs begging outside of Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. The median age is 21.7 years, and only 3.6% of the population is over the age of 65. (In comparison, 12.6% of US citizens are over 65.)

We hired a tour guide to take us to Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. Her name was Maria. She seemed pretty young in her salmon-colored tour guide button up shirt. Her accent was very thick and we had to lean in close to understand what she was saying and even then, we only caught every third word.

She told us that she was born after her country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese. She has an older brother who was young during the revolution and still remembers it.  And her mother, of course. Her mother’s first husband was killed during the regime, she thinks it was at Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), but they’re not sure. He might just as easily have been trucked out to Cheong Uk (also known as the Killing Fields.)

I was actually a little stunned by how seemingly emotionless she was while she told us all this. I asked her if it bothered her, talking about her family, but she just shrugged and said it was part of her people’s history and that it’s better to talk about it. I tried not to ask anymore questions. I focused on just taking in the information and being respectful.

Our first stop was Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture camp, prison and execution center. From the outside, it looks like any high school – five buildings surround a quiet grass courtyard where kids might have played during recess.


But then you notice the list of rules with warnings of punishment by shocks of electric, and you realize — this stopped being a school a long time ago.


Former prison staff say as many as 14,000 prisoners were held at S-21 before the Khmer Rouge leadership was forced to flee, in the first days of 1979. There are only seven known survivors of S-21, one of whom, Chum Mey, sells his book on the S-21 grounds. I don’t know how he can come back to that place everyday. He’s obviously made of some strong stuff.


Visitors walk through cells still containing the rusted chairs and beds where prisoners were tortured and killed. Inside are displays of the weapons of torture, skulls, blood stains and 114 small black and white photographs — just a sampling of the photos of the thousands of people who were murdered here. (The Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers, compiling “confessions” and documenting everyone who passed through).

It’s a pretty solemn place. It felt weird even taking pictures. I probably only took 6-7 half-hearted photos. It just didn’t feel right.


But this one below is my favorite photo from the whole day.


I don’t know anything about him, but I love this guy. I don’t know if he’s smiling out of defiance, or he has no idea what’s about to happen to him (that seems highly unlikely) or if it’s just natural instinct when he saw the camera, but I am fascinated by that picture and that smile and what it might be saying. You do not see many grins at S-21, that’s for sure.

After our time at S-21, we took a short drive out to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.


Choeung Ek is just one of thousands of other such sites around the country (Killing Fields) where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide. You could basically be killed for any reason — you were Chinese, you were an intellectual, you were a threat to the Communist regime, you had a family member who was a suspected spy, you wore glasses (a sign of being an intellectual) — or for no reason at all.

The Choeung Ek killing fields are about the size of a soccer field and are surrounded by farm land. It contains mass graves, slightly sunken, for as many as 20,000 Cambodians–including women, children and infants — many of whom were tortured at S-21 before being killed. This was a place where people were brought to die, not be held prisoner.


To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge used a variety of execution techniques, but especially bludgeoning with whatever handy instrument might be laying around. They also hung loudspeakers from the trees and played music to drown out the screams of those being tortured and killed, anywhere from a few dozen to over three hundred people a day.IMG_2909

A memorial building – a Buddhist stupa — was built in 1988 and stands in the center of the killing fields. Many of the 8,000 skulls inside were pulled from the mass graves.


It was another very quiet, solemn, almost peaceful place, which feels very weird to say, considering what it was — a place of torture and death. We did not stay very long. Again, it just felt so weird and wrong to even be there.

There was an audio guide that apparently goes into a lot of detail, but we chose not to listen. I think what we were seeing was horrific enough.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in an afterlife or ghosts hanging about or anything even remotely like that. But I will say, there is something very moving and just–heavy–about a place like Cheoung Ek. You don’t have to be a spiritual or religious person to have respect for history and needless suffering.

Nonetheless, walking into a glass tower containing thousands of skulls, matter-of-factly lined up, with tiny colored dots telling you how they think they might have died was just shocking. No book can really prepare you for that.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to understand what they’re doing here with the stupa, how they remember and honor their dead. I’m trying to understand a tour guide who calmly tells you her stepdad and her grandfather were murdered while showing you around an execution site. I’m trying to understand how a young man who’s about to be tortured and murdered can smile for a camera. I’m trying to understand how a man who was imprisoned in an execution site and saw his wife and son murdered right in front of him can step foot in that facility everyday without collapsing into tears and anger.

I may be uncomfortable with how closely and nonchalantly Cambodians live with their recent history, how it’s turned into a tourist attraction, but that’s my own discomfort. What do I know about that kind of suffering?  They lived through all this and more. And they’re still living through it.