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The S21 Museum and The Killing Fields – A Look into Cambodia’s Turbulent Past


Before we even started our trip I read the book First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which was my first insight into the painful history the country of Cambodia has suffered in the 20th century. When we actually got to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we were going to see Cambodia’sdark and disturbing past firsthand.

In the 1860s Cambodia became a French colony and remained so until World War II, when under Japanese occupation it proclaimed its independence. As Allied troops entered, the Japanese were forced to retreat and the French again tried to impose the colonial administration on the country and demands for sovereignty weren’t officially met until 1953.

Throughout the 1960s opposition to the government grew within the middle class and Paris educated leaders (Pol Pot). The King referred to these communist insurgents as the Khmer Rouge. In 1970, while out of the country, King Sihanouk was overthrown by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Matak. The new regime abolished the monarchy, renamed itself the Khmer Republic and demanded that the North Vietnamese troops leave Cambodia.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to cooperate and took over large parts of eastern Cambodia, then turning over these territories to the Khmer Rouge.

With time the Khmer Rouge grew stronger and stronger, and by 1973 they controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia and 25% of the population. On New Year’s Day 1975 the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive and in 117 days overthrew the Lon Nol government (On April 17 1975).

On that day the Khmer Rouge immediately demanded the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending everyone into the countryside to work as rice farmers. In 1976 a new constitution established Democratic Kampuchea as a Communist People’s Republic.

Pol Pot’s new government sought to restructure Cambodian society; creating an agrarian society independent of all others and removing people from all materialistic possessions and desires. Currency was abolished and there was intense persecution of all intellectuals. Schools were shut down, modern medicine disposed of, and all the cities were empty. Pol Pot hoped to instantly increase the rice production by 3 fold, while using the rice to purchase more weapons and ammunition to fund the war.

The outcome? The Cambodian genocide. This was a result of widespread famine, disease and arbitrary executions and torture.

We first visited the S-21 Tuol Sleung Genocide Museum, which was first a high school until it was turned into a prison for the Khmer Rouge.


When the Khmer Rouge took over “Angkar” became the government and everybody was working for Angkar. Angkar encouraged people to confess to their pre-revolutionary crimes (including participation in free market activity, contact with foreigners or any foreign or government agencies, etc.) People were told that Angkar would forgive them and they would be off the hook.

The reality was entirely different.


Between the years of 1975 and 1979 17,000 people passed through this prison, of which there were only 12 known survivors (those liberated on the final day when the Vietnamese arrived). The prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and associates as well as confessing to their crimes. Though the prisoners first started with workers and people involved with the former government eventually this grew to include all intellectuals and anybody accused of espionage. Prisoners included academics, doctors, teachers, students, monks, engineers, and in later years even the Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves. Even the term intellectual was very loose – if you wore glasses, spoke a foreign language, had clean hands, you were an intellectual and could be sent to prison.

When the prisoners arrived they were photographed and ask to give detailed biographies, beginning with childhood and ending with their arrest. Afterwards they would be striped of their clothes and possessions and led to the cell where they would be shackled either individually or to others. Speaking among the prisoners was forbidden.


Prison days started at 4:30am with periods of long interrogations and brutal torture. For food the prisoners received 4 spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup twice a day.

Medical care was only used to keep the prisoners alive after brutal interrogations long enough to sign their own confessions. With unhygienic living conditions disease was rampant.


The Khmer Rouge was looking for involvement with the CIA, KGB and Vietnamese troops and were interested in page long confessions. Everything was documented and many of these confessions are still visible today. The prisoners would be forced to name names, with many of them naming almost everybody they knew, up to 60 people, anything to stop the pain.

Once the confessions were signed the fates were sealed. There would be no way out. The prisoners would all be executed.


The majority of the prison guards themselves were only teenagers and scared for their lives as well. They lived only to obey the rules, whatever the rules happened to be. Angkar told them that it was better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake and they lived by this motto.

As you walk through the eery halls and cells at the Tul Sleung museum you cannot even begin to imagine what a miserable life it must have been behind those walks for the nearly 17,000 prisoners who entered the prison but never left.

The museum shows hundreds of photographs, and confessions from the prisoners. Up in one of the rooms we watched a documentary where the few prison survivors (saved for their talents – such as painting or carpentry) met with the prisons guards face to face and tried to understand each other after the fact.

Even years later the survivors cannot fathom how the guards were able to go through the torture and the interrogations when it was so evident the information was all made up and entirely insignificant. The guards, while admitting to all their actions can do nothing more than say they did what they had to do to escape imprisonment and execution themselves.

Most of the prisoners were eventually taken to the Killing Fields, a mass grave site in Choeung Ek, just outside Phnom Penh. It is only one out of over 20,000 mass graves discovered after the Khmer Rouge period.


The people arrived by the truckload, terrified, not knowing what was in store for them. One by one each of them was forced to kneel over a large grave, blindfolded, and was then hit over the head with a axe or other farm tool and tossed into a large pit. Music played so the others who were waiting could not hear the brutality that was taking place.


The most disturbing part of the Choeung Ek is the tree where it is shown that babies were killed. The Khmer Rouge executed all members of a family to make sure nobody was left to seek revenge in later years. Many infants were killed by swinging their legs and bashing their heads against tree trunks. Strands of hair and blood stains were found on the tree years later.

tree used to kill babies

Between the years of 1975 and 1979 1.3 million people were executed with over a million more dying from starvation and disease. It is one of the largest genocides in the history of mankind.

As we walked around the Killing Fields, we noticed how surprisingly serene the area is. The grounds are well kept and there is a memorial to the people who lost their lives, and finally they can rest in peace.


An audioguide tour takes you through the ground with a narrator providing both historical content and some personal memories of how people lived during the Khmer Rouge rule.

Out of a population of 8 million over 2 million were executed or died during the four years the Khmer Rouge was in power.


Most horrifying of all is that this occurred less than 35 years ago and is relatively unknown outside of Cambodia.

Entirely stripped of an intellectual class and adult population in the late 70s the people of Cambodia are still feeling the effects of the Khmer Rouge today.

A visit to both the S21 Museum and Killing Fields is highly recommended. Though painful, it is important to learn and generate awareness for these historical events to prevent future genocides and massacres from happening.

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7 Responses to The S21 Museum and The Killing Fields – A Look into Cambodia’s Turbulent Past

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I actually skipped this on my blog after I visited a couple years ago. I couldn’t find an appropriate way to explain the history and how it feels to be there. It’s a very strange experience to visit these places, I had no idea this happened not so long ago. I think it’s necessary to visit these places if you really want to understand Cambodia. I found the country to be very welcoming, proud of their culture, and open about their history.

    Joy July 6, 2013 at 9:26 PM Reply
  2. Thank you for this touching post.
    We hope that for Cambodians the dark times are over forever.
    It is very good idea to show, that traveling is not all about exciting adventures.
    But also about discovering and bringing to light the dark pages of human history.

    beinginawe July 7, 2013 at 5:47 AM Reply
  3. The book is amazing. I read it before I came to Cambodia about two years ago, but I always welled up when I read it. It was so touching. Visiting the sites is not easy, but as you said is important to do so to fully understand why Cambodia is where it is now and to raise awareness about Cambodia’s tragic past.

    TammyOnTheMove August 7, 2013 at 1:33 AM Reply
    • I completely agree that it is important to visit these sites even if it is painful or uncomfortable. I could not put the book down and could not believe everything that the family went through during those years (along with all Cambodians in general).

      Vicky August 14, 2013 at 5:27 PM Reply
  4. Great post about such a harrowing event and scenes. I’m heading to visit the sites tomorrow and your blog has really helped to prepare myself.

    Jodie August 24, 2013 at 11:27 AM Reply
    • Hope you enjoyed visiting the sites and found them to be educational and informative. As painful as it is to learn about what happened in Cambodia during this time period I really believe it is crucial to understanding the history and culture of Cambodia and its people (and to generate awareness to prevent similar events from happening in the future)

      Vicky September 2, 2013 at 4:31 PM Reply

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