They say that crossing the border to Cambodia, one moment can change your life forever. The capital Phnom Penh and its history will definitly have such an effect on you and your view on the world. Let’s say like, you will see and learn so much about this country here, that yes, it will change you!
When travelling Cambodia you should not miss out the capital Phnom Penh. The city is an Asian metropole in its development state. It is not to compare with Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but I am pretty sure it will get there. Phnom Penh has something different to offer, than a vibrant nightlife, high skyscraper and a mekka for shopping queens.
The capital can be seen as the central point of Cambodia’s history. It’s the starting point of the Communist regime (1976 -1979), the Khmer Rouge, which killed almost 25% of the population. The average age of Cambodia is 25 years young because of this mass killing. There is not a family, which did not lost at least on family member in this time.
Who are the Khmer Rouge
Khmer Rouge are the members of the communist party in Cambodia. Their leader Pol Pot was a Marxist- Leninist politician. Pol Pot is definitely in line with the most cruel government leaders on this world so far.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge won the civil war in Cambodia and invaded Phnom Penh and called out the Democratic Kampuchea. Let’s say, they were everything but not democratic.
First the general public was happy about the government change, but it didn’t took long until the Khmer Rouge showed their real faces. They immediately killed all their political opponents and started the agricultural reform. This meant that they moved all the citizens from the cities to the country side and made them to workers on the rice fields no matter wat. Kids, old people, woman, man, ill people it doesnt matter. Who wasn’t able to work, got killed. They wanted to become the world biggest rice exporter and establishing a strong economic through that.
They killed everyone who refused to follow. Not just them, also everyone with an higher education or who appeared to be intelligent. For that it was enough to wear glasses or to have too soft hands. They killed and buried these people on the mass graves around Phnom Penh, called the killing fields. They also imprisoned people under unbelievable cruel conditions in a central prison in Phnom Penh called S21. Be aware when visiting them, this will not be a happy day for you. (More about the history here)
I visited these places with my travel mate and an Austrian girl we met at our hostel at breakfast. We all were happy we didn’t had to do this alone.
The killing fields of Phnom Penh –facing death:
The killing fields around the capital are called Cheung Ek and approximately 15km south- west of the center. You can reach them by tuktuk, scooter or take a guided tour. We rented a scooter and it took us a bit more than 30 minutes to get there. The entrance fee will be 3$. They offer an excellent audio guide in several languages for also 3$ which is actually a must-have if you want to understand this place.
Nowadays this place is a peaceful and quiet place, but as soon as you step on the first human bone coming out of the mood under your feet, you will understand what path you are walking on.
The audio guide will lead you through the area and explains you everything slowly and in details. There are still a lot of facilities standing and the graves are marked. As the rain carrys away the ground, every now and then remaining human bones are coming up. You will see them and you will walk on them, even if the administration tries to sort them out and cover them again. You are walking on craves!
There is a tree covered with red threads. Here they knock the heads of living babies against it, until their brain was damaged and the kids dead. The red threads are symbolizing the blood and the brain on the tree.
There is also a tower of approximately 10 Meter high, filled up with scalps from the button to the top.
As the Khmer Rouge did not want to invest anything in killing the people they didn’t used guns as the bullets would be to expansive. For example, they used sharp plant sleeves to cut throats and you can still see them growing there. They also used a lot of other methods to kill the people on unbelievable cruel ways.
The audio guide is really amazing and the peaceful area gives you a lot of places to be alone with your thoughts and process what you just heard.
The next spot of cruelty is the prison led by the Khmer Rouge to torture the people. For that you need to get back to Phnom Penh.
The S1-Prison is called the Tuol Sleng Museum. It is a former high school on the outskirt of Phnom Penh. S21 was not just a prison, but a place for torture, interrogation and execution.
The documentation of the regime shows that from 14.000 prisoners only 7 survived the time in this place. The regime documented exactly what they did and how, with transcripts and photography. Entering this place turned me inside out.
There are five buildings and the rooms are still the same as when the prison was shut down. On the walls are transcripts describing what happened in this particular room and there are pictures of the prisoners before, during and after their torture. There are so many pictures and documents, you get the feeling like the victims are still there. You can also still see the instruments and everything the Khmer Rouge used, to torture people.
I will be honest, we didn’t finished all the five buildings. After first visiting the Killing fields and then visiting 4 of the buildings of S21-Prison, we were not able to keep on going.
When leaving the place we needed a drink and needed some minutes to process what we have experienced.
As a German I have been to a lot of places like this is in my live. I visited several concentration camps all over Germany and Europa, but still this place was one of the most shocking once.
What was even more shocking, was the fact that nobody was ever punished for this or had to face any real consequences. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and stopped the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot lived with his wife until he died with 72 years. Not to think that anyone really bothered before to stop this massacre. The Khmer Rouge even hold a seat at the UNO afterwards until 1982.
Visiting these places is not easy but should definitely be done when you are in Phnom Penh. In my opinion the history of this amazing, interesting and beautiful country is ignored, by not visiting these places.
Sorry for not having more pictures on this post, but I stopped making them at one point.
Get lost but don’t get hurt!