The dark side of Cambodia: The Killing Fields, and S-21 Prison

One thing I like to try and do, prior to visiting a new country, is read up on its history. To find out where it has come from, and what its people have gone through.

Cambodia, as a country hasn’t had it easy. It has been through 4 wars. It is one of the poorest countries in the World, with many of its people living on less than $2 per day. It also has a high incidence of sex and people trafficking.

It was also subject to one of the worst incidences of genocide in history. The communist party known as the communist party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge (French for Red Khmers) came into force in 1968, and from 1975-1979, Cambodia changed drastically, with over half of the population (the most estimated is 3 million) being unlawfully and brutally executed, with no real reason, other than Pol Pot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) wanting a peasant dominated society to triple its rice production, so he killed off over 2 million innocent people.

If you wore glasses, or spoke a second language, it was a good enough reason to be killed. Children were routinely signed up to the Khmer rouge, and brain washed into killing their own people also.

Many people who visit Cambodia, will do a tour of the tours of Angkor Wat, then travel to Phnom Penh to see the famous killing fields, at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre.

What some may not realise however, is that the killings of innocent Cambodians happened throughout the country, not just in Phnom Penh. I also visited the Killing Caves, during my time in Battambang.

Khmer Rouge History

Cities were emptied (on the pretence that the North American Army were coming back to bomb them, which wasn’t true of course), and people were made to march out to the countryside, to slave on the rice fields. They were given very little food or drink, and many died of malnutrition, or other diseases. The Khmer Rouge frequently transported people to other areas in large trucks, and they were held in prisons, then killed off the next day, or the same day. The prison areas were in the middle of nowhere, so as other local people didn’t hear what was going on. They played Khmer music loudly, so people were not heard to be screaming.

Borders to the country were closed, no one could come in, or go out, and the rest of the World had no idea what was going on.

Visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (The Killing Fields) and The Tuol Sleng detention centre (S-21 Prison).

When you first get to Phnom Penh, like in many places. The tuk-tuk drivers will offer you price for a tour. “You want to see the killing fields, and prison?” they say nonchalantly, as if it was a semi pleasant tourist attraction, and as if it was normal, or what happened there didn’t matter so much. However, it is a way that many tuk-tuk drivers make their daily wage, and more. It is how their families survive, the $20 fare is more than the average driver will get per day or week sometimes in other places, so fair play to them.

Dark tourism is something I’ve never thought about, but happens elsewhere, for example: Auschwitz in Poland.

However, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and S-21 prison is honestly the most terrifying place I’ve visited, I knew it would be. However, I like many others visited it, intrigued by what went on, only to be left with feelings of confusion, questioning why or how this could happen.

During my first day in Phnom Penh, I bumped into Matt and Stefan, two travellers I met in Battambang, we all wanted to do a tour, so buddied up and spilt the $20 tuk tuk fare, for the next day.

We left a little later than most, by about lunchtime, and were driven the 17 kilometres out to Choeung Ek. On the way we passed various empty sections, fields and small shacks. All I could think of was the people having to trek out on these roads in the searing heat, with very little insight into what went on.



Arriving at the museum, it looked like any other tourist attraction, various tuk tuks parked up, an entrance gate with an area to buy tickets. Much of what you first saw appeared normal, until you put on the audio guide, and walked around in silence, just listening to the stories and history (as told by a survivor).


The cost of getting into Choeung Ek is $6, and this includes the Audio guide.

Although I went with Matt and Stefan, we soon spilt to wander alone, listen and reflect upon what we were seeing and hearing.

The area that the centre is in, was once a Chinese cemetery and an orchard. Parts of it looked normal, until you came across signs describing the events that happened in the very spot you were standing on.

Many people leave small, colourful bracelets around fenced off areas, as a mark of respect, and although it brighted up the area, it did not soften the blow of what happened there.



Some of the following photos are incredibly saddening, and describe the awful events that happened here, I don’t blame you if you don’t wish to read any further.

Although I was reading what I was reading, and hearing the stories in the audio guide, it didn’t seem real at times, it sounded so terrible to be true. Then you come across a container full of clothes worn by victims, and the Stupa which is filled with actual human remains, with weapons of torture used to kill them, and it soon becomes very real, and incredibly sad.

One of the saddest areas I came across, was the killing tree. I don’t need to say anything more here. Just awful.



A Stupa is also erected in the centre, and is filled with the remains of bodies that were found there. At times during the rainy season, more bones float to the surface. It was a very real view of the many people that died there.




There is also a smaller museum, where you can hear more about the trials of those involved, we didn’t go in, as we were running short of time to get back into the city to the prison.

One thing that got to me a lot about all of this was that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was not tried for any of his atrocities, but instead died in his sleep (apparently, some say he committed suicide, not long before he was due to be on trial). He lived a long life, and got to enjoy his children and grandchildren, despite the fact that some of his victims didn’t get to live to the age of 2 years old.

S-21 Prison


Entry fee for the museum is $3



The S-21 Prison is situated in the inner city of Phnom Penh. Prior to the Khmer rouge take-over, this building was a school. After the take-over, it was used to hold and torture innocent people. Many were captured, taken there and made to confess fictitious crimes, they were then transported to the killing fields. Some were killed in the actual site also. Blood stains can be seen on parts of the floor still; the prison was left pretty much as it was discovered in January 1979. Rooms, which were once classrooms were covered in barbed wire, small cells were erected, with victims given very little space to move or eat.



Upon entry to the prison, victims were photographed. Those who were killed in the prison were also photographed, as if it was some sort of victory for their killers, an achievement that there were hundreds of dead bodies pilled up in a row.

For me this really hammered it home. This was very real. Innocent and petrified faces starred through me, with helplessness, almost like they knew what would happen to them. These images will stay with me for a long time.



One thing that went through my head, although this only happened 40 years ago, it is still happening today. Innocent men and woman in the Middle East are being killed, and for what reason?!

Will our children and children’s children be walking around Syria in years to come shocked with the events that happened there? Probably.

Having a position of power, is a huge responsibility. You should use it for good, and protect your own people, not kill them.

If you are in Cambodia, this area is very much worth visiting. It is part of the fabric of life for many Cambodians, and will remain so.

If you want more of an insight into this, you can read various books: I read ‘first they killed my father’ and also watched the killing fields movie (whist in Kampot, at a local cinema).




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