Visiting Phnom Penh (Killing Fields) & Understanding Cambodia’s Tragic Past

Phnom Penh is a beautifully modern city; with an amazing riverfront, a beautiful Royal Palace, and winding alleyways housing a number of restaurants, movie houses, and coffee shops, it’s hard not to fall in love with the pristine beauty of the city.

However, when visiting Phnom Penh, it’s important to acknowledge that this city (and the country of Cambodia as a whole) has a tragically violent history. The city of Phnom Penh allows tourists to have a look inside the debilitating past of Cambodia through historically informational places open to visitors.

The Killing Fields: Choeung Ek

A memorial at the Killing Field, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A memorial at the Killing Field

The first spot that tourists should visit, located outside of the city center, is Choeung Ek—also known as, The Killing Field. When Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, wreaked havoc on the entire country, it is said that upwards of 3 million people (out of a total population of 8 million) were brutally killed during the genocide he and his group instigated.

Seeking to impose Communism on the country of Cambodia, Pol Pot and his followers killed anyone and everyone who opposed their regime—most notably, the intellectuals and city folk, who were too individualistic to be a part of his ideal Communist system.

Bracelets to commemorate those who died in the genocide, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Killing Fields

Bracelets to commemorate those who died in the genocide

Choeung Ek is only one of hundreds of Killing Fields throughout Cambodia. Much of the infrastructure and evidence here was destroyed after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, but mass graves have been found all throughout the area — they also say that during heavy rain, new bones and clothing are constantly uncovered.

A mass grave, Killing Fields

The Cambodian government built the tall Memorial Stupa, which houses 17 stories of skulls and bones inside, to commemorate those who were so unjustly brutalized throughout the Pol Pot regime. Choeung Ek is a really eerie, depressing, and truly unbelievable place to see; you are able to listen to a recording as you walk around to different numbered sites, which provide a lot of details about the Field itself.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The school/prison, Phnom Penh

The school/prison

Another must-see in Phnom Penh is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A school turned prison throughout the Khmer Rouge regime, is a devastating reminder of just how brutal Pol Pot and his followers were; they did not just kill — they brutalized, dehumanized, and tortured millions of innocent people. The posters upon posters of photos of the victims are sobering and heartbreaking.

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Pictures at the school/prison

The prison was essentially a half way house, where Cambodians were kept after being arrested and before being transported to one of many killing fields. Guards forced false confessions out of people, and then punished them, physically, for the crimes they “committed” against Pol Pot. Tactics included hanging people upside down until they passed out, then putting their heads in sewage to wake them back up and continue interrogating them. Walking around the Museum is a sobering reminder of just how much this country has faced.