Day 50 | Catching a glimpse of the Khmer Rouge atrocities

Today was a very special and dark day for us as we witnessed the absolute worst nature of humanity by visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, both of which highlight different aspects of one of the most brutal genocides of the last century committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot’s leadership. In the afternoon, we returned to a more pleasant activity and visited the Royal Palace that we were not able to see yesterday. Our day ended on a happier note with delicious pizzas and a nice tuk tuk ride back to our hotel through the illuminated streets of Phnom Penh.

We got picked up from our hotel at 7 AM by the bus company that runs half-day combined tours to the prison and the killing fields. Our bus had less than ten passengers. The prison is located within the city center itself and was our first stop. Before we arrived there, we were advised to get the audio tour as it would provide a lot of additional information. We were also told that we would only have enough time to hear the most important subset of the stories highlighted in the audio tour.

As we entered the prison, formally named the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S-21 (for Security Prison 21), we discovered a fairly large complex with a number of buildings. We learned that the prison was a former high school that got converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. During the next four years, about 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, and ultimately transferred to the Choeung Ek extermination center to be executed.

Following the visit path recommended in our audio tour booklet, we first stopped by the fourteen white graves. When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh and the S-21 prison in 1979, they found the bodies of fourteen anonymous prisoners that died attached in their cell after being tortured. Everyone else had been executed at the killing field already. To honor these fourteen anonymous prisoners, as many white graves were built.

14 white graves to remember the 14 anonymous prisoners found dead when S-21 was liberated

We then entered building A. This building hosted several torture rooms where prisoners were attached to a metal bed frame, tortured and coerced into naming innocent family members or friends, or to confess crimes that they never committed. A few of the rooms featured a very graphic black and white photograph of one of the fourteens dead bodies found by the Vietnamese, in the state in which they were found.

Next, we walked to building B. That one was enclosed in barbed wire to prevent escapes.

Building B at S-21

Its rooms, which were previously used as classrooms, were converted into inhumane detention blocks with tiny individual cells. Holes were made into the walls separating each classroom, allowing the prison guards to more easily keep an eye on the prisoners. The cells in this room were made of bricks held together by metal frames.

Prisoner cells inside building B

We walked through one such room that still had its original blackboard. On it, the Khmer Rouge had written mandatory prison rules for the prisoners to follow. The rules were written in both Khmer and French. The rule at the top of the board says that it is absolutely forbidden to talk.

Board with prison rules written in Khmer and French

We walked through some other rooms on the second floor. Cells in those rooms were just as tiny, but were made of wood. They each had a door with a tiny opening, just large enough to pass a plate of food or a bowl of water.

Next was building C. We did not stay long inside that one as it was similar to the previous one and only had a couple of audio tour stops. We moved on to the last building, building D, which had many photographs and torture equipment. One important stop there was the photographs of the handful of S-21 survivors. Out of the 20,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, only seven survived, two of whom we saw as we finished our tour.

Photographs of all the S-21 survivors

Another room featured various torture machines including a tilted waterboarding table.

Tilted waterboarding table used to torture prisoners

Finally, the last room we visited in building D had actual human skulls, as well as maps, analysis and various evidence of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime. A map of Cambodia made of skulls drew our attention.

Artwork in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

We left building D and stopped in front of the memorial to the victims of Democratic Kampuchea, also the last stop of our audio tour. The memorial consists of a small white stupa on which the sentence “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime” is written in English and in Khmer. Surrounding the stupa are sixteen black stones listing the names of all the victims that could be identified.

Memorial to the victims of Democratic Kampuchea

At the end of the audio tour, as we walked towards the exit, Mimi started crying. We passed by one of the two survivors still alive. He was modestly sitting on a chair next to a pile of books he wrote about his experience as a prisoner here. It was very moving to see this old man that went through such horrible times. Right next to him, an old woman who we presumed to be his wife handed a tissue box to Mimi. It was time for us to get back onto the bus to our next destination, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center also known as the killing fields.

The ride to the killing fields took about an hour in part due to how far they are from the city center but also due to traffic. As a result, our driver told us that we wouldn’t have as much time as we normally should and asked us to skip some of the less important stops on the tour so we could be back to the city on time. We were super frustrated that we would have to rush the visit once again. If we had to do this again we would definitely just get a tuk tuk to the prison and killing fields and take as much time as we need.

We were dropped at the entrance just before 10 AM.

Entrance of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Here too, we decided to pay extra for an audio tour. We started our visit and walked past the memorial stupa a first time. We did not enter it yet as it’s supposed to be the last stop on the tour.

Memorial stupa

There were many groups of monks also visiting the genocidal center while we were there. In the picture below, monks are looking inside a mass grave.

Monks at the killing fields

This is the mass grave in question where 450 victims were discovered. There are several mass graves like that one.

One of the many mass graves inside the killing fields

Later on, we arrived in front of the killing tree, one of the most important stops on the tour. Trees like the one pictured below were found all over the Cambodian killing fields. They were used by executioners to kill infants and young children in front of their weeping mothers by holding onto their ankles, swinging their small bodies and smashing their heads against the tree as many times as necessary. Usually once was enough, but not always. We learned that the executioners laughed as they murdered the innocent children as not laughing was interpreted to indicate sympathy, making the executioner a potential target. The act of killing children was justified by the idea that you rip the tree from the root – you kill a person and his/her children in order to prevent acts of revenge later on.

Killing tree

We passed by other large and deep holes in the ground that indicated mass graves.

Mass graves

We finished the tour at the inside of the memorial stupa. It had endless rows of human skulls meticulously annotated by age, sex and probable cause of death based on size and shape of skull fractures. Of all the places in the two monuments we visited that morning, this was definitely the one where it was easiest to measure the scale of the atrocities done by the Khmer Rouge during this dark period of Cambodia’s history.

Endless rows of human skulls inside the memorial stupa

We all came back onto the bus and drove back to the city. Inside the bus, it was much more silent now as people were thinking about all the horrible things they saw in the last few hours. We asked the driver to drop us at the riverfront to have lunch before doing a less depressing activity. We ate at a small restaurant serving very good traditional Khmer food. We then walked to the nearby Royal Palace and waited for it to reopen at 1 PM after the midday closure. Since it was the weekend, the lawn in front of the palace was sprinkled with local families picnicking and children playing sports.

The most impressive building was the Throne Hall however we were only able to see it from the outside since entering it was not allowed. There were tons of tourists there.

Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay (Throne Hall)

This is another building in the complex. This one serves as a Buddhist temple.

Preah Tineang Phhochani

We got someone to take a pictures of both of us in front of the Throne Hall.

In front of the Throne Hall

The gardens were impressive and perfectly taken care of. We liked those very big trees cut in a round shape next to the Victory Gate on the Eastern side of the complex.

Perfectly cut tree next to the Victory Gate

Other smaller trees were cut like chess pawns.

Mimi posing inside the Royal Palace

Tourists were not allowed to come near the Moonlight Pavilion, pictured below.

Preah Tineang Chanchhaya (Moonlight Pavilion)

I got one last shot of the Throne Hall before we moved to the next section of the Royal Palace.

Throne Hall

We walked through the gates that separate the Northern and Southern areas of the palace grounds. The blue doors had these hollow patterns that Mimi filled almost perfectly.

Filling door's pattern

Next, we passed by a model of Angkor Wat which we will visit in a few days.

Angkor Wat model

The Southern part had a couple of stupas.

Stupa inside sunglasses reflection

We finished our visit of the Royal Palace with a building that had many royal seats for riding elephants.

Royal seats for riding elephants

As we left the Royal Palace complex, I asked for a picture with one of the many Cambodian armed guards that were patrolling in the area. After hesitating for a few seconds, this guy finally said OK.

Posing next to a Cambodian armed guard

After that, we walked to the Central Market, one of the top markets in the capital city. We passed by a primary school with an interesting sign posted on its fence.

Sign on the fence of a primary school in Phnom Penh

Unfortunately when we arrived to the market it was just about to close, and in fact many shops were already closed. We took a tuk tuk back to our hotel. There we rested for a few hours before taking another tuk tuk back to the riverfront. We had the same friendly tuk tuk driver who took us to the dance performance yesterday. We had dinner at Happy Herb’s Pizza, a well reviewed pizzeria place. We got two delicious pizzas and Cambodian beers to quench our thirst.

Happy pizza and Cambodian national beer

After dinner we went for a quick walk along the Mekong River. We had asked our tuk tuk driver to come back to pick us up near the pizza place but since we were done with dinner sooner than expected, we had some time to kill.

West bank of the Mekong River

We met our driver at 8:30 PM and he took us back to our hotel.

With our favorite tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh

We finished the day much happier than we started it and felt like we had visited all the major attractions of Cambodia’s capital city.

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