Our guide to Cambodia's killing fields and S21 museum
To understand present-day Cambodia you really have to understand its recent dark history. Prepare yourself with our guide to Cambodia's Killing Fields and S21 (Tuol Sleng) museum.
For such a vibrant and happy place, Cambodia has a terribly dark recent history.
Upon seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge - under revolutionary leader Pol Pot - began a murderous regime that lasted for four brutal years.
The Khmer Rouge's aim? To establish a classless communist state based on a rural agrarian economy, all in complete rejection of the external world, free markets, and capitalism.
To cut a long story short, normal life ceased to exist and anyone who didn’t conform to the Khmer Rouge's ideals ended up at one of the many prisons around the country; and ultimately, silenced permanently. It’s believed up to 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives during this time. It was a horrible brutal period of which Cambodia is still recovering from.
Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek genocidal centre are two of those former prisons, and are now commemorative sites located in Phnom Penh. They're also a must-visit for anyone looking to gain a further understanding of the Khmer Rouge’s barbaric dictatorship.
If you’re interested in understanding more about Cambodia's brutal recent history, here is what to expect at Cambodia's Killing Fields and S21.
our guide to visiting Cambodia's killing fields and S21 museum
S21 Museum (Tuol Sleng Genocide museum)
WHAT TO EXPECT
A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 for short, is a deeply harrowing experience.
The first thing we noticed upon walking in is how nondescript it is. And yet S21 Museum is anything but. Once an ordinary high school in downtown Phnom Penh, it became a notorious prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was here that prisoners were sent after their arrest, interrogated, tortured and forced to live in tiny brick cells.
Forced to admit guilt, most were then sent to Choeung Ek and executed. Up to 20,000 inmates passed through these doors and the museum serves as memorial to the heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It's raw, and shocking.
Similar to the Nazi dictatorship, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of each prisoner and these are on show throughout the museum. Each room has a focus, from the earlier beginnings of the prison through tiny cells in which the inmates were forced to live, to the final days of the regime.
We slowly made our way through each room as hundreds of innocent Cambodian eyes followed us, unfiltered and often showing brutal outcomes. The black and white portraits lining the museum walls feature the men, women and children who passed through here can be found in some wings of the museum, and really bring to life the inmates who suffered.
We recommend hiring a guide to gain a direct insight into some of the stories behind the photographs. You can also read the stories of Chum Mey and Vann Nath, two prisoners who survived Tuol Sleng through their skills, and the two men can often be found in the courtyard talking to visitors. Otherwise, use the audio guide provided as you enter details the various sectors of S21.
After our visit, we felt more than a little depressed by mankind, and you will too. However, visiting is essential to gaining a true understanding of the brief but brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and its lasting impact on modern Cambodia today.
S21 MUSEM - THE DETAILS
Cost | $6 USD includes audio guide tour. A guided tour $6 USD
Opening hours | 7am - 5.30pm
Location | St 113, Phnom Penh
Reviews | Read reviews of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum on Tripadvisor
HOW TO GET TO TUOL SLENG (S21)
Almost all tuk-tuk or taxi operators will take you to Tuol Sleng, with a Tuk-Tuk being the far cheaper option. Plan on spending about $10 USD for a return trip.
Alternatively, guided tours are available to book from hotels or tour agents.
KEEP READING: OUR GUIDE TO PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA'S THRIVING CAPITAL
CHOEUNG EK GENOCIDAL CENTRE (or, the killing fields Cambodia)
WHAT TO EXPECT
Located in a non-descript farming district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh lies the former extermination camp of Choeung Ek. It was here that between 1975 and 1978 around 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at Tuol Sleng were transported to be murdered.
We’ll be straight with you; The Killing Fields are more horrific than S-21 and not much can prepare you for what you’re about to see. Walking in, the memorial stupa stands above the site, a beacon of memory to the lives lost here.
Upon arrival we were given an audio tour, which featured the chilling account of Him Huy, a guard and executioner at Choeung Ek, who takes you through the happenings of this camp. Through his words, everything surrounding us became very real.
Choeung Ek houses the remains of 8985 people murdered and buried in mass graves during the Khmer Rouge regime. When exhumed in 1980, many of the bodies were bound and blindfolded, bludgeoned to death to save money on bullets. 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched and we were able to walk around and view them. Over time, fragments of human bone and clothing have risen, and are now clearly visible; a very obvious sign of the horrors here.
The most gruesome component of the killing fields was the killing tree, where the inhumane executioners beat children against the tree until they died. It was hard to not shed a tear at this part of the tour.
In the middle of the Killing Fields stands the Memorial Stupa, a beacon to those lost decades earlier. More than 8000 skulls are located in here and are arranged by sex and age. Visible behind the clear glass panels are the cracked skulls, broken bones and various tools used in the murder of prisoners. While a peaceful tribute to those lost, seeing the battered skulls is enough to bring a tear to your eye. Heartbreaking stuff.
If you’re interested in learning more, there is a museum with information on the Khmer Rouge and the criminal trials, some of which are still ongoing.
Opening hours | 8am - 5pm
Location | Choueng Ek, Phnom Penh
Cost | round $6USD for adults, including the audio tour
Reviews | Check reviews of Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre on Tripadvisor
HOW TO GET TO CHOEUNG EK GENOCIDAL CENTRE
Almost all tuk-tuk or taxi operators will take you to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, with a Tuk-Tuk being the far cheaper option. Plan on spending about $10 USD for a return trip. Alternatively, if you're looking at doing both Tuol Sleng (S21) and Choeung Ek in one day, coordinate a price directly with your tuk-tuk driver.
A shuttle-bus tour is available with the Phnom Penh Hop On Hop Off service, which includes hotel pick-up from 8am in the morning or 1.30pm in the afternoon.
Guided tours are available to book from hotels or tour agents.
We recommend dressing and acting appropriately when visiting both sites. So for men and women, that means covering shoulders and your knees.
We know selfies prove you've visited an attraction, but this is absolutely not the kind of 'attraction' you want to be doing that at.
Both Choueng Ek and Tuol Sleng are the sites of terribly tragic events. Please, always remember to show respect to your surroundings.
We suggest taking a few reusable bottles of water/drink as it can get very hot walking around both museums.
day trips to choueng ek and tuol sleng
When it comes to sites like these, we always feel that going on a tour with a local guide is the best way to gain a deeper insight and understanding of their past, and how these events are shaping the present-day. Below are some highly recommended guided tours of both the Killing Fields, and S21.
Visiting both S21 and The Killing Fields is a harrowing day out, but to understand present-day Cambodia you really have to understand the days past, and therefore you need to visit these sites. Now you’ll know what to expect.