Phnom Penh- S-21 and the Killing Fields

The effects of the Khmer Rouge Regime has been felt at ever stop during our trip in Cambodia, and after a 6 hour bus journey we arrived in the Capital Phnom Penh where the full effect of the regime can be seen.

Khmer Rouge uniform given to everyone in the country to make them all equal

Arriving in late afternoon we managed to get a nice wee hotel (with air con) for only $11, much cheaper than I thought we would find in the capital city. It might not have been a prime location as it was full of prostitute bars however it was cheap and cheerful!

The next day we hired a tuk tuk for the day for $12. Our first stop was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the torture prison S-21. (Security office number 21) It was designed for the detention, interrogation, torture and killings of around 20,000 people thought to be a threat to Pol Pot and his regime.

The regulations the Khmer Rouge set for the prisoners

The museum has been left almost exactly as it was found and is not a particularly easy visit. Entry is only $2 and a guide is only $3 each, as someone who lived though the regime the guide was excellent and able to answer all of our questions as well as explain all the parts to the prison which would not have made as much sense if the guide had not been there.

first 'classroom' with a picture on the wall as it was found

The prison was previously a primary school which Pol Pot transformed into a huge holding centre for mass torture to try gain “confessions” from the people thought to be ‘traitors’ to the government. In reality many of the prisoners lied and made up confessions to try to stop their torture.

When the prison was liberated in 1979 they found very well and carefully documented accounts of all the prisoners as well as shackles, torture tools and 14 corpses of the last people to be killed, still shackled to the beds.

Our guide first showed us the graves of the last 14 people who are buried in the garden inside Tuol Sleng, when discovered the corpses were unidentifiable due to bad decomposition and records were unfinished. We were then taken into the first room, formerly a classroom, but now only containing an iron bed, shackles, a metal box and a picture on the wall. This was one of the rooms that the last remaining 14 people were found and the picture on the wall was the room as they found it with the deceased man still attached to the bed covered in blood. The picture was in black and which however the image will never leave me! The tour continues following the same pattern, the room with the instruments that was found followed by a picture on the wall with the deceased still on the bed.

We moved onto the next building and the ‘holding cells’. Again these were old

Tiny holding cells for the prisoners

classrooms transformed by the Khmer Rouge into small cells holding individual prisoners. The cells were only 0.8x2meters and even within the cells the prisoners were still shackled. The top floor of the building was used as mass detention with long shackles used to hold many prisoners at once. On the outside of the building all the balcony’s are covered in barbed wire. We were told that one prisoner escaped from his cell and jumped from the balcony to commit suicide instead of suffering more torture. After this they installed the barbed wire so the prisoners were unable to commit suicide.

Barbed wire to stop prisoners committing suicide

It s hard to believe but 1684 staff were employed in S-21 and its branches. The prison contains many statements from works who said they did so in fear of their lives as if they refused they would be seen as traitors to the Angkar and undergo the same fate as the prisoners they were processing.

One of 2 survivors left

We moved onto the next building containing all the victims of S-21 as well as the chair used to take the pictures which used a metal stick at the head to ensure the prisoners kept their heads up, Pol Pot was inspired by the Nazi regime and took this chair from something similar they used to process their prisoners.

Out of the thousands processed in S-21, only 7 survived out of which only 2 are still alive to this day. We were lucky to meet one of these survives who happened to be at the prison on the day we were there. The Khmer Rouge killed his wife and his three children as once they had taken one person prisoner they would take the whole family to be sure none of the relatives came back seeking revenge. The man had been tortured and was now missing nails, sight in one eye, hearing in one ear and badly scarred all over his body. He only survived by using his skill in painting to help the Khmer Rouge document their activities.

Some of the torture equipment on show with pictures showing how they were used.

The prison was a very sobering experience that left me speechless and close to tears on many occasions. Our guide told us that we was lucky and was forced out of the city into the country side by the Khmer Rouge. He explained that Pol Pot wanted Cambodia to be ‘self-sufficient’ and ordered everyone out of the cities and into the county to help produce rice, anyone who objected was shot. The problem with this idea was the city dwellers were not educated in farming and were not taught how to farm. They had to work 12-18 hour days on very little food, there was not enough food to go around and much of the production was sent to China to buy arms leaving the workers with very little food and many perishing of starvation.

Leaving the prison the tuk tuk drove us 45 minutes out of town to “Choeung Ek” also known as the “Killing Fields”. Cambodia has around 300 of these killing fields and mass graves however Choeung Ek was the biggest and best known. Prisoners who did not die during torture at S-21 were blindfolded, shackled together and moved via trucks to Choeung Ek and usually killed that night.

Some of the killing tools used

The prisoners would be taken off the trucks to the top of the mass graves and slaughtered before being thrown in the graves with the other executed people. As bullets were expensive the Khmer Rouge used anything they could get their hands on such as knives, hammers, shovels or pick axes.

teeth that have come to the surface at the Killing Fields

All the remains have now been taken out of the graves however every so often bone fragments, teeth or clothing comes to the surface due to heavy rain. When we were there we saw many teeth and clothing scattered on the ground. It is very eerie as the field is now very peaceful and would never suspect the horrors of what happened here.

The Killing Tree



Walking around you pass many mass graves however the last one was among the most shocking, unlike the others this was used for women and children. Beside the grave is the ‘killing tree’ where the Khmer Rouge would take a child by the legs and beat their heads against the tree to kill them. The children had done nothing to the Angkar and were often executed to prevent them coming after Pol Pot to seek revenge when they grew up. It is very gruesome and not a nice thought!



Stupa now built to honor and store the dead

The last stop is the massive Stupa which has been erected to pay respect to the victims. The stupa contains around 9,000 skulls which have been dug up and examined by forensic teams and put in one of 17 platforms put into order of sex/age and cause of death. It is there to serve as a reminder of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and to serve as a way to prevent such a horrible things happening again.

Some of the 9,000 skulls left at the Killing Fields

During Pol Pots regime it is estimated that over 2million Cambodian’s were killed in a population of only 7million at the time. Both S-21 and the killing fields make for a very emotionally tiring day, however, as a visitor to Cambodia I think it is important to understand the brutality of the events that happened less than 40 years ago and shaped the nation.

some of the many picture of the victims


2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh- S-21 and the Killing Fields

  1. A hugely interesting post. Incredible cruelty displayed here.
    So hard to think this all took place just a short time ago.
    Not sure if you have seen the film ‘The Killing Fields’ Mum and I saw it when it first came out in 1984. Definitely worth watching, especially after having visited this place for real.

    • Might try and get that, I have seen it kicking about in the book shops here! It really was quite a hard day i think because it is all still so raw.
      Our guide told us his whole story about being moved from the city and losing his parents and siblings and it was incredibly sad!
      Very glad we visited though as i learnt so much!

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