Phnom Penh: Learning About the Khmer Regime
Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. Sadly, there is some recent history that really destroyed the country physically and mentally. In the late 1970s, the Khmer Regime took advantage of a country that had just been through many years of war. The Khmer Regime stormed into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, to a happy and excited city. They thought the war was over and were optimistic about the new government coming in. In the following years, the military government took over and committed genocide over the next several years. Race or ethnicity did not matter. Anyone who was not on board with the government was taken to prisons or work camps, where they were brutally beaten and oftentimes killed immediately. The brutally of it all rivaled that of the German Nazis. In total, the Khmer Regime killed 3 million out of 8 million people living in the country. That’s more than one out of every three Cambodians who were mercilessly killed for no reason whatsoever. It’s extremely sad and tragic, and it’s not very long ago that all of this took place.
With this history, the main places to see are not the most upbeat places but are very important to learn about. They include the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum (also known as the S-21 Prison. Like Nazi concentration camps like Aushwitz, it’s important to open these sites up to educate people so that this does not happen again. Even though this happened just several years before I was born, I knew almost nothing about it. Visiting these sites is crucial in understanding how these events have shaped Cambodia into what it is today.
Chueng Ek Killing Fields
Located just about 9 miles (15km) southwest of Phnom Penh, this is the most visited attraction in the area. We rented bicycles for $3 per day from our hostel to get there. On the way there, we took the most direct road which turned out to be a mistake. The road was full of traffic, dusty roads, and big trucks. One part of the road was halfway done with a new paved road, but the ledge up to the new road only allowed bicycles and motorbikes to get up onto it. We also got lost along the way when trying to take back roads and went through some large puddles/small ponds on the road. It was quite the bike ride.
The Killing Fields entrance fee was $6 and included an audio tour telling about the horrible things that went on here. There is now a large memorial pagoda set up in the very center of the site, commemorating those who were killed here and in other camps like this one across Cambodia. Inside the memorial pagoda are the skulls and bones of hundreds of people which were later dug up from the mass graves that were uncovered.
The audio tour takes you around to about 15 different places, including mass graves, former locations of places that the prisoners lived, and the saddest of them all, the killing tree. This is the most brutal of them all, so please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you are sensitive to brutal things. The killing tree is a large tree, about 4 feet in diameter, which was used to kill babies. Seeing this was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. This type of brutality is unimaginable. It shows how merciless these soldiers were and shows the horrific things that can be done. Also, because bullets were expensive, the soldiers would use another but ammo to kill. This included hammers, machetes, bamboo sticks, and many more weapons.
Walking around and imagining all of this is very hard to endure. It shows the power of groups and the “follow the leader” approach. When you’re just following what others are doing, it doesn’t seem so bad at the time. The government also recruited young men and teenagers from very poor areas, brainwashing them to go along with it all. Those years were absolutely tragic in Cambodia.
Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21 Prison)
The following day, we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as the S-21 Prison. This prison, formerly an elementary school, was used for political prisoners, those who were expected to be standing against the Khmer Regime. The prison was used to torture and kill anyone and everyone who may possibly be against the government. Prisoners were kept in small brick or wood cells, chained down. They were fed very little food, beaten, and often tortured and forced to admit things they never did. Thousands of people came through the prison while the Khmer Regime was in power. The only people that survived were those who had not yet been killed before the liberation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army.
A few of the buildings of the former prison are now used as a museum, showing mug shots of hundreds of victims, records, and the actual prison cells. Like the Killing Fields, it’s hard to see what went on here. It’s difficult to imagine the brutality and what the prisoners suffered through. These types of governments unfortunately still exist. Rwanda wasn’t so long ago. Who knows what’s going on in North Korea. And many other countries still have civil wars going on that are similar. It’s sad that people can be so brutally merciless and cruel.
Other than these two sites, there isn’t much else to see in Phnom Penh. In the rest of our time in the city, we went to a small movie theater called Flicks, where we watched a Spanish movie called “La Gran Familia” and also a movie about the Khmer Regime called “The Killing Fields”. It was nice to do something “normal”, watching a movie while eating popcorn and gummy bears. Other than this, we just walked around a bit, people watched by the riverwalk, and drank cold drinks to cool down from the heat. From Phnom Penh, we flew to Singapore, which feels like an entirely different world.