The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When I arrived in Cambodia, I was recommended to visit the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh by a local man. I was completely oblivious to what this was, not knowing that Cambodia had an underlying dark yet recent history. I did not know what to expect from my visit to the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison.

It is a visit that will stay with me and will haunt me whenever I think about it or read about it. The main killing field is a short tuk-tuk ride outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Outside the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the city, lies a field with a dark history. The Killing Fields is a site where millions of Khmer people were murdered and buried by their own government (the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime). People of all ages were captured, babies, children, women, men and the elderly, they were captured on the basis that they were too intelligent, they wore glasses, could read, had an education or if they were suspected of having any sort of connection with the previous government. They believe that the death toll from the Cambodian genocide in 1975-1979 was likely to be around 2.2 million people. 2.2 million innocent lives lost in one of the most shocking events in history, but what gets me, is that I didn’t know anything about it until I visited Cambodia. Why weren’t we taught this in school?

Today the killing fields are open for tourism, which gives you an insight of a deep history. Walking around the fields with my headset on, listening to what happened and sitting by the lake listening to survivors stories made me realise just how lucky I am to have the things that I have.  The site is so haunting that it really touches every visitor that goes, it gets you thinking and I can almost guarantee you will leave with tears in your eyes.

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Just some of the skulls that they extracted from the 20,000 mass graves that were found.
Just some of the skulls that they extracted from the 20,000 mass graves that were found.
This tree had speakers attached to it that played chilling music, so the outside world could not hear the screams of the prisoners.
This tree had speakers attached to it that played chilling music, so the outside world could not hear the screams of the prisoners.

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People left a bracelet on the mass grave they found full of children as a sign of respect.
People left a bracelet on the mass grave they found full of children as a sign of respect.
Mine was the blue and yellow bracelet.
Mine was the blue and yellow bracelet.

S-21 prison is the second site that I visited. It stands in central Phnom Penh and was once an old high school, in which the Khmer Rouge took over and turned into a prison, where they would torture prisoners for information. Of the 14,000 prisoners known to of entered S-21, only 7 survived. Everything was still intact on this hot humid day in October 2014, nearly 35 years after the Cambodian genocide ended. Haunting that 35 years on, the blood was still splattered over the walls, it was so silent that you could almost hear the screams. I nearly walked out, it was that much of a shock, but the more I walked around the more horrifying it got, the tiny cells the prisoners were kept in, not enough room to stretch their legs out straight, the torture equipment that was used and probably the most haunting was the thousands of portraits staring blankly at you that were on display of the prisoners who were tortured and killed, babies barely even born to elderly frail people. No one was spared.

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I learnt a lot about Cambodia’s history because of this visit, it made me connect more with the place and I found the people are some of the nicest people I have ever met and most of them that are still alive today in Cambodia were affected in some way or another from the genocide. Beneath it all, the people of Cambodia are some of the strongest I have ever come across and their past is all hidden behind a warm smile and heart.  Cambodia became one of my favourite countries and will always have a special place in my heart.

If you are interested in knowing more, then I recommend a book called ‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung. It is a personal account of her experience during the Khmer Rouge. It is an amazing read and a book that will stay with you. 

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