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 Cambodian Killing Fields and Prison 21.
Disclaimer: This post contains some graphic images and stories that may be hard for some people to see and read.
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.
The Cambodian Killing Fields – Choeung Ek Genocide Center
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
We began the tour by learning 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.
Human teeth were scattered here and there.
Clothes that were ripped off prisoners still lay cast away on the ground.
Craters, where there were once mass graves, are everywhere.
The Killing Tree
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.
It is 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.
This is a mass grave where 450 victims were found.
Another area showed where the soldiers kept the “killing tools.”
Choeung Ek Genocide Center Memorial at Killing Fields
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.
Rows and rows of skulls are stacked over three stories high. It’s a chilling sight and something that can’t really be described.
Almost 9,000 bodies were found at this site alone.
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.
They don’t allow photos inside the rooms where people were held or really anywhere but the exterior of the buildings. The rooms are concrete cells where people were tortured for information. Blood splatter can still be seen all over the walls and ceiling.
S21 Prisoner Photographs
Whenever someone was brought into the prison, they were photographed and then interrogated for info. The actual photos of all the prisoners are still hanging up. We moved through room after room of photo-lined walls.
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.
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.
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