A Travellerspoint blog

Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng Museum (S21) and The Killing Fields

Sad times :-(

sunny 35 °C

Vietnam to Cambodia

Up at 6am – again (GRRRR) on our last morning in Vietnam. We got on a boat at the town’s harbour and where taken to a local fish farm and a minority village. The sign which welcomed us into the village told us not the buy the cakes from the children as it may result in dysentery – nice. They still hassled us for the whole 20mins – bless them, they obviously have no idea what the sign says!!
Dysentery avoided, we boarded the boat to the border which took around 20mins. We then jumped off the boat and into a restaurant where the guide took our passports/visa documents and $25 each and disappeared down the road on a motorbike for half hour. Visas arranged, we jumped on a different boat for 10 mins and again got off, climbed up across a dodgy wooden plank and scrambled up the riverside to find our way to the entrance to Cambodia.


A man stamped our passports and we turned around to go back to the boat, not before Shane stopped to help a small boy lower a basket of mangos out of a tree. He was rewarded with a fresh mango for his efforts!


Back on the boat for an hour, we were dropped of at another bit of riverside, this time we climbed up a muddy bank and found a handful of men and cows staring at us in amusement as 17 large rucksacks and 17 large westerners were squeezed into a tiny minibus for a sweaty uncomfortable 3 hour ride into Phomn Penh.

Arriving at Phnom Penh we were greeted by the friendliest TukTuk driver we have met yet. He was laughing and joking with us, asking our names and shaking hands - all while trying to charge us double for a ride to our hotel. Glad to be out of the Sauna Minibus we agreed a price and arranged to meet the other guys later for a drink before hopping onto 'Sams' TukTuk for a brief ride to Mad Monkey Hostel.

The girls at Mad Monkey greeted us with the biggest warmest smiles we have seen so far in South East Asia and got us glasses of fresh iced water with lime slices in it while we checked in. The Hostel is run by 3 English lads and they have done a good job at making the place feel really homely. Downstairs the bar feels like a trendy wine bar in the UK and the staff are all amazingly cheery and crazy all the time. The rooms feel a bit like home too and are of a very good standard, we even had towels folded into shapes with fresh flowers on placed on the bed.
We were only 5 minutes into Cambodia and already the feel was that it was much more organised, friendly and tidier than Vietnam - seems like it is going to be a great place to stay for a while!

That night we took a TukTuk to the other guys hotel and had a lovely barbecue meal followed by cheap beer and arranged to go to Tuol Sleng Museum (S21)* and The Killing Fields the next day by moped.

  • The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge communist regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill".

The following explains some of the atrocities carried out in S21 and Choeung Ek, not for the squeamish.
If you wish to skip this section as some may find it upsetting, skip ahead until you see the next batch of bold text

Waking up at 9am I organised a moped for the two of us ($7 for 24 hours) and planned the route to the Museum. We set off on the best rented moped yet and found our way (more luck than judgement) to the museum, all be it 1 hour late. Luckily the other guys had a nightmare hiring bikes and so opted for a tuktuk for the day and had only arrived a few minutes before us.
We all knew that today was going to be a difficult day emotionally but had no idea how hard it was going to be. We hired a guide for the walk around the museum and she told us the history of the place and how her family had been brutally tortured and murdered here. Her emotions were apparent as she explained she had searched for answers and a reason why these things had happened but nobody in Cambodia actually knows of a real reason why these atrocities were committed. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage", these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center.


The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes or suicide attempts.

The classrooms converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers made of stone or wood.

Some of the rooms being stripped of any content and used to house over 70 people in horrid cramped conditions.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.

Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings.
They were tortured repeatedly and daily with many horrid inventions. We saw clamps used to hold their hands while fingernails were pulled out and alcohol poured onto the wounds. Some of the old school equipment was adapted into ways of abusing the inmates. An old wooden frame was used to hang the victims upside down while they were whipped or tortured until they passed out. When they eventually passed out from the pain they were lowered head first into large pots of putrid waste, instantly coming round so that the torturing could continue.

Most prisoners were held in these horrid conditions at S21 for 2-3 months (if they survived that long) before being slaughtered.
For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976 they ran out of burial spaces and the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre, fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and anything else that was cheap owing to the scarcity, and subsequent price of ammunition.

It was a really tough morning looking at pictures of some of the victims and seeing the conditions they were forced to survive in. After we had finished we were all feeling pretty down but decided that we needed to see Choeung Ek to complete the picture and it was better to get it over with in the same day. So we headed out to the Killing Fields, following Shane and Oli's Tuk Tuk in a slow precession. along the main highway for around 15km.

There is the choice of an Audio Guide by way of headphones at the entrance which we all took in order to get accurate descriptions of the events. It was another hour of quiet reflection as we slowly wandered around the area entering numbers into our audio guides to hear descriptions and personal accounts of what happened.
The worst thing for me was the fact that clothing and bones from victims still surface all the time due to rain etc and as you walk around you are stepping over items of clothing. I even saw a few human teeth of a victim laying on the floor.

The remains are collected once a month and put into boxes to be catalogued and preserved. Jayne's worst moment was by the Killing tree. This is a tree that was used by the soldiers to smash babies heads against before throwing them into a mass grave. It was here that she pulled a bit of clothing from the floor to reveal it was a piece of a small childs dress.

The final part of the tour finishes at the monument that has been built to house the remains of those found. It is 17 shelves high and most of which are filled with human remains. It is incredibly eerie inside with traditional music playing and hundreds of skulls staring at you from their final resting place.

It was a truly shocking and moving day but we are glad we did it as it is of huge historical importance in Cambodia's and the Worlds history.

Apologies if you have found the above upsetting but it is important to tell the story of these people and believe me, reading this is nothing compared to actually being there.

Continue from here if you do not wish to read about S21 or the Killing Fields.

After a rather depressing day we all went for a few beers and a nice meal to take our mind off the things we had learnt. Jayne and I tried to figure out how we were going to sort out our visa problem for Thailand in the cheapest way possible. The problem was that if you cross the boarder overland you get a 15 day visa which was no good for us as we have approx 25 days left planned to travel through the north of Thailand. The only way to get the 30 day visa we needed seemed to be to fly in, but the cost of flights had over doubled since we last looked, making this not an option either. We were left with a choice of staying in Cambodia until only 15 days left of our trip, or going into Thailand with a 15 day visa and exiting the country before it expires. Visa runs are available at a small price where a company will take you into a neighbouring country and back again to renew your visa, this may be an option we will need to take later on.
After a lot of time trying to figure out what to do, we opted to overland into Bangkok with a 15 day visa and worry about it later. This would mean that we would stay on our original plan and be able to meet up with Tamsin and Megan and Phil again for the last part of our trip (it was also the cheapest option!).

Exhausted from the hectic and harrowing day we headed to bed after booking our coach ride to Siem Reap for early the next morning.

Posted by Chris_Jayne_RTW 23:38 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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