Saturday, September 22, 2012

History Lessons in Phnom Penh

After reading First They Killed My Father, a book written by Loung Ung about her experience during the Khmer Rouge, I made a mental note to visit The Killing Fields and Toul Sleng if I ever get to Phnom Penh. Two years later, I drag my friends along for some history lessons.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center or The Killing Fields

Go: Choeung Ek is about 15 km from the city center. Travel time on a tuktuk will be 45 mins to an hour.
Fare: US$12 roundtrip for a group of 4 or less. We paid US$15 since we were adding extra load, i.e. my butt.
When to go: Any day between 8AM to 5PM. You can enter at 5PM and they'll wait for you until you're done.
Prepare your pocket: US$2 entrance fee, add US$3 for an audio guide
Prepare your itinerary: I suggest renting an audio guide. Although the site can be explored in just 15 minutes, you will need at least an hour to listen to the entire audio guide. When they run out of audio guides, there are tour guides to assist you.
Prepare yourself: Choeung Ek is one of 300 mass graves scattered all over Cambodia. About 20,000 people were executed in this site. When the Toul Sleng prison (S21) could not accommodate anymore, the prisoners were brought to Choeung Ek to be executed. When the number of prisoners brought to the killing field daily grew and the executioners could not eliminate all in one day, they built a detention center where the prisoners were kept to be killed the next day. Chemicals were used to cover the stench of corpses and to kill the victims who were buried alive. There are still many bones, teeth fragments, clothes buried in the ground and these come to the surface over time (flood and rain).

Do get an audio guide

Memorial Stupa where remains are preserved

A closer look at the Stupa

Mass grave of 166 victims without heads

Bracelets left on the grave by visitors

The killing tree where children were beaten to death

Where a loudspeaker was hung to drown out the moans of victims as they were executed

Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum or S21 (Security Prison 21)

Go: Toul Sleng is located in the city, about 4 km from the Royal Palace.
Fare: US$8 roundtrip but we paid US$15 for the tuktuk to take us to three places (Royal Palace, Toul Sleng, Russian Market). Although the Royal Palace is walking distance from the hostel, we opted to take the tuktuk since we were pressed for time.
When to go: The museum is open daily from 8AM to 5PM.
Prepare your pocket: US$2 entrance fee. You can also buy a booklet about Toul Sleng for US$3. Guides are also available but I wasn't able to ask for the rates.
Prepare your itinerary: Allow at least an hour and a half. More if you hire a guide. Original 1979 footage of S21 is shown every Mondays and Fridays at 2PM and at 9AM on Wednesdays.
Prepare yourself: Toul Sleng used to be a high school and turned into a prison and torture and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The site has four buildings. Building A contains cells used for jailing, torturing, and interrogating. In some of the cells, you will find a bed, torture device, and an enlarged photo of the victim as it was found by the Vietnamese in 1979 (the year Khmer Rouge fled the prison). Building B holds thousands of photographs. Each of the prisoners were photographed when they arrived in Toul Sleng. There are also paintings made by Vann Nath, one of the seven prisoners who made it out of S21 alive. The paintings show how people were tortured. Rooms in building C were subdivided into smaller cells made of brick or wood. Each small cell had a small box that served as the prisoner's toilet. The barbed wires on building C were to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide. Building D contains memorabilia and instruments of torture.

Rules of the prison

One of the cells in building A

The gallows

A painting by Vann Nath of how the gallows was used

Inside building B

 A painting by Vann Nath of how babies were killed

The barbed wires of building C

Small brick cells found in building C

Graves of the last ones executed by the S21 agents before they fled in 1979.
Their corpses were discovered in building A by the Vietnamese.

Chum Mey, one of the survivors of S21.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

Phnom Penh in 24 hours:
History Lessons in Phnom Penh (you're here!)
Chews Cambodia
I Came, I Saw, I...Spent


  1. very timely post. i could definitely use this soon. :) is this you Karl?

    1. Have fun in Cambodia! PS This is Dr Jekyll, not Mr Hyde :)

  2. waaaaaaaaaaaah! i am so inlove with the banner and envious! great post! =)

  3. I'm curious... was the place invaded that's why there were many victims of executions?

    1. Hi Ian! Thanks for dropping by. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, wanted to create a classless society. They considered professionals (teachers, engineers, doctors, etc), intellectuals, and people with a connection to the former government, as enemies. These "enemies" were eliminated.