Not many travellers are aware of the delicate and treacherous past of Cambodia, and those who are cannot believe it happened approximately 50 years ago. Cambodia was not always the serene tourist destination that lay before you today, the history is filled with many horrors and injustices.
During the Vietnam war, Cambodia was affected heavily by US bombings and there were thousands of casualties. The war was coming to an end, but Cambodia’s civil struggle only just began.
On the 17th April 1975 the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh wearing red, the color of communism. Cambodia would be run by the communist party of Kampuchea (CPK), led by Pol Pot, up until January 1979. Their goal? To convert Cambodia into a communist state.
They started by removing all individuality and enforced a nationwide shutdown of all educational, health and religious facilities, basically banning and destroying any education, free-thinking and religion.
Citizens were evacuated out of cities and towns and got driven out to the countryside to start toiling in forced labor camps. People had little to no training and were forced to increase the production of agriculture by three times, an impossible task. They were forced to work for up to 16 hours a day, under horrendous conditions, with barely any food. The clothes on their backs and one rice bowl being their only possessions. Many died of starvation and untreated illnesses, some were simply physically worked to death.
During the time of the regime approximately 3 million (of the former 8 million residents) died, that is almost 25% of the entire population. Many innocent people were tortured and killed. One of the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda slogans was, “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”.
Every single person was a suspect in the eyes of Pol Pot, even his loyal soldiers. Babies and children were killed in horrifying ways to prevent any acts of revenge in the future. Another slogan read, “To dig up the grass, one must even remove the roots”.
Educated people were hunted down, questioned and often killed wrongly, no fair trials were held, and people often committed crimes to be sent to the killing fields, where they knew their suffering and torture would end, even if it meant through their unjust death.
Many people suffered immensely during this time, getting killed for something as small as carrying two bananas. Mothers, who were forced to work in the rice paddies, unwillingly had to watch their babies starve to death, or be murdered.
For four years, the country deteriorated under the agonizing rule of Pol Pot, but in January 1979 the government was overthrown and the people rejoiced at the thought of possibly being reunited with their loved ones that were so unethically ripped away from them. Many of them, to this day, have not seen or heard from close family members, and most of them will possibly never be able to find the peace of mind knowing if they are even still alive.
For ten years the people feared communism, and even after Vietnam established the new government, many countries such as the UK, US, France, Germany, Australia and their Chinese allies, dissociated from Cambodia, believing that the Khmer Rouge was still in power.
While the country was shrivelling and trying to recover from the economic battle, the Khmer Rouge still had seats in the United Nations and even received financial aid. The injustice still continued.
The Khmer Rouge took position near the Thai Border, where they continued to control areas until the beginning of 1990. It was only until 1997 that the Khmer Rouge was factioned and Pol Pot was put under house arrest, but civil wars would continue until 1999.
Pol Pot died a year later in his home, he was 73 years old, yet many of his victims didn’t live to see the age of two. It is suspected that he was poisoned, but it was never proved.
The two most historical places to learn about and experience the atrocious regime and the history of the Khmer Rouge are located in Phnom Penh.
S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a heartbreaking look into the torture chambers of the city and has a reputation of being the Auschwitz of Cambodia. Just outside of the city, travellers can visit Choeung Ek Killing Field where approximately 20 000 people were killed.
Both are chilling but incredible experiences and it is recommended to spread the tours out over 2 or 3 days. We recommend you go to S21 Genocide Museum first, and then to the Killing Fields, as you will be taken in the steps that so many people were forced to tread back in the late 70s.
S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Opening hours: 8:00am - 5:30pm Entrance fee: USD 8, including an audio guide, several languages are available and up to two headphones can be attached.
What used to be a high school filled with laughter and education, turned into a prison filled with agonizing torment and pain in 1975. It is known to be the biggest torture prison in Cambodian history where over 17 000 citizens were misheard, tortured and later transported to one of the Killing Fields to be murdered in archaic ways. Everything was documented in full details, which makes the museum a great place to go for a history lesson.
Depending on how fast you move from audio spot to spot, the tour lasts between 1 - 2 hours, and is filled with hard facts as well as testimonials from some of the survivors and Khmer Rouge soldiers.
You will step into the intimate spaces where so many people were chained and tortured, and it is a spine chilling experience but definitely worth the tour.
There are also many photographs of the people affected by the regime, both victims and soldiers, so this makes for a very personal tour.
At the end of the tour, you can pay your respect to the lost souls at the monument and this definitely brings a feeling of peace that washes over you, so you are not left with the emotions of sorrow.
Choeung Ek, Killing Fields
Opening hours: 8:00am - 5:30pm
Entrance fee: USD 6, including an audio guide, several languages are available.
Choeung Ek was only one of the 300 killing stations in Cambodia during the regime, and around 17 000 people were killed there. Overall 200 000 people were killed at the killing fields all over the country. They were transported to Choeung Ek in droves after, allegedly, committing crimes, and killed shortly after their arrival.
As many as 300 people were killed daily at Choeung Ek and 129 marked mass graves cover the grounds. Some of these graves held up to 450 bodies. The tour is extremely insightful sharing the not only the facts about Choeung Ek, but also about the history of Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge.
Depending on how long you spend at each spot the tour will last between 1-2 hours and is worth every minute.
There are many heartbreaking things you will learn here, but you can pay your respects to the victims at the giant Sopa that stands tall and strong in the front center of the property. The Sopa consists of 17 floors, and have 9 000 skulls of victims on display, each categorized scientifically by forensic experts.
Even though both tours are emotional and harrowing, we do recommend you see both to get an insight into the history of Cambodia and the strength of its people.