Cambodia is a fascinating country with an incredibly turbulent past. No other city in Cambodia highlights this as much as Phnom Penh. Visiting this city is an incredibly sobering experience. However, it is definitely a must-do on any visit to Cambodia as it really puts into perspective what the Cambodian people went through. The first place we visited was Tuol Sleng Prison, which was an office of the ‘Kampuchea Democratic’ (i.e. Khmer Rouge) during the years 1975-1979. It was devastating to see the atrocities committed here and get a feel of the realities of Khmer Rouge rule under Pol Pot. Tuol Sleng was formerly a school but was converted into a prison and interrogation centre for ‘traitors’ of the regime when Pol Pot forced everyone out of the cities and into the countryside to work the fields.
While here we learned about the methods used for interrogation and the general conditions of the prison. It is one of the most horrific places I have ever visited. We were shocked at how much documentation and pictures the Khmer Rouge kept while running Tuol Sleng. Basically anything and everything was done to the poor souls who ended up in here in order to get them to admit their ‘crimes’. They were then sent by trucks to the killing fields to be executed.
Next we visited the Choeung Ek killing fields, which is about 20kms outside of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is just one of over 300 killing fields scattered all over Cambodia, however, it is the most well-known. An audio tour costs about US$10 and you wear a set of headphones and follow a map around the area. It’s incredibly well done. Prisoners were sent here from Tuol Sleng in the early evening, they were then executed and buried in mass graves. Loud music and diesel engines were used to drown out the screams of the victims. The worst part is that, in order to save bullets, most victims were clubbed to death and thrown into mass graves. What disgusted me the most was that when one family member was condemned then the rest of the family usually was as well. Pol Pot believed in rooting out opposition from the roots (“pull out the roots so that when it rains new grass will grow” – a Chinese saying under Mao). This means that children and babies were also killed. It truly was sickening to learn about these atrocities. It is estimated that 25% of the Cambodian population were killed under the Khmer Rouge. That is INSANE.
The rest of our time in Phnom Penh was a bit morbid, given what we had seen. However, Phnom Penh is a nice city and worth spending sometime in, as it is rapidly recovering from the atrocities of the past. There is great food and some nice places to walk around, like passed the Royal Palace.
Overall, our time in Phnom Penh was interesting and incredibly sobering. Everyone needs to visit places like this to learn what absolute power and fanaticism can do. This kind of thing can happen anywhere. Cost wise, we spent around NZ$60 (US$40) per day.
Editor’s Note: Visited Cambodia in 2012, updated in 2017.