Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison

Disclaimer: This post contains some graphic images and stories that may be hard for some people to see and read.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison

I have had many hard days of traveling. On the way back from Southeast Asia, my mom and I were stranded in the Chicago airport for nearly 19 hours. I fainted mid-flight on the way to New Zealand. I got food poisoning on my last day in Fiji. But none of those even come close to being as hard as visiting The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Prison 21 in Cambodia.

A little background for those who aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Genocide (I wasn’t before going). The Khmer Rouge was a Cambodian communist group that took over in the late 1970s. This group, led by Pol Pot, forced Cambodians from cities and into concentration camps where they were tortured and eventually killed. From 1975 to 1979 approximately 2 to 3 million people were killed — 25% of the entire country’s population. Former government officials and minorities were especially targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Kids were taken from their parents and forced to become child soldiers.

During our trip with G Adventures, we toured one of the more infamous killing fields and torture prisons. It was a really hard an emotional day to learn about all the horrible things that went on during that time.


Choeung Ek Genocide Center – Killing Fields

I already knew the day was going to be tough, but I had no idea just how tough. Our tour guide’s family lived through it and even lost siblings (before he was born). Knowing that and seeing how personal it was to him made the experience that much more impactful.

We pulled up to the killing fields and the mood changed. Before we even stepped foot on the grounds, there was a chilling feeling in the air

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We started the tour and began to learn about the horrible events that happened here. Signs all around the grounds warned to be careful where you step because bone fragments often surface after rain.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Human teeth were scattered here and there.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Tourradar

Clothes that were ripped off prisoners still lay cast away on the ground.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Craters, where there was once mass graves, are everywhere.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There is a big tree in the middle of the grounds marked with a sign that says “Killing Tree.” This is the tree where the Khmer Rouge soldiers would kill babies by hitting them against it while their mothers watched before they were in turn then killed.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Killing Tree | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was heartbreaking to hear. Travelers from all over the world leave colorful string bracelets as a sign of remembrance. It’s a powerful sight seeing fence posts lined with hundreds of them.

Cambodian Killing Field - Choeug Ek and S21 memorial bracelets

Cambodian Killing Field - Choeug Ek and S21 leaving bracelets

Cambodian Killing Field - Choeug Ek and S21 - bracelets

This was a mass grave where 450 victims were found.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another area showed where the soldiers kept the “killing tools.”

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In the very center of the grounds stands a tall tower that houses the remains of many of the victims and acts as a memorial.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Rows and rows of skulls are stacked over three stories high. It’s a chilling sight and something that can’t really be described.

Cambodian Killing Field - Choeug Ek and S21 - stories of skulls

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Almost 9,000 bodies were found at this site alone.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Security Prison 21 (S-21) the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After Choeung Ek, we toured Prison 21, the place where people were held before being taken to the killing fields. Prison S21 was one of just 196 prisons where Cambodians were imprisoned. Over 14,000 people went through this prison during the late 1970s.

After Choeung Ek, we toured Prison 21, the place where people were held before being taken to the killing fields.

They didn’t allow photos inside the rooms where people were held or really anywhere but the exterior of the buildings. The rooms were concrete cells where people were tortured for information. Blood splatter can still be seen all over the walls and ceiling.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Whenever someone was brought into the prison, they were photographed and then interrogated for info. They have the actual photos of all the prisoners hanging up. We moved through room after room of photo-lined walls.

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Photo via http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/s21-victims.html

We got to one of the last rooms and it was filled with photos of children that had been imprisoned. Fresh from leaving Australia, and still heartbroken over leaving my kiddos (I was an au pair), I completely lost it. I had to excuse myself from the rest of the group and just cried outside.

Visiting The Cambodian Killing Fields and S21 Prison | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Of the 14,000 people that went through the S-21 prison, only 7 are known to have survived. Of those seven, only three are still alive today. We got to meet two of the survivors when we visited the prison.

I shared this horrible experience because I think it’s important to spread the word of what happened here to those who don’t know and create awareness. If you are ever in Cambodia, I would highly recommend visiting and learning about these places. Cambodia is a beautiful country with kind people, it’s important to know and remember the history of what happened here and honor those that were killed.

Have thoughts or questions about this post? Leave them in the comments below.

xx Chels

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