On Killing Fields & Prison Museums

First things first, sometimes you’re going to be sad out on the road. That’s the nature of travel — not everything will go according to plan or it’ll rain when you’re meant to be doing something fun. Something will inevitably go wrong at just the wrong time.

It’s a different matter entirely when you plan to be sad. That’s what you’re doing when you arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the express purpose of visiting the Killing Fields and S21 Prison Museum — two locations used by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. During that time, in which Pol Pot and his regime terrorized the entire country and closed its borders to any outside influence, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 to 2.5 million Cambodians — their own countrymen — in horrific manners in these death factories. Two of which I visited mid-December and what I saw will surely leave a lasting impact on me.

What struck me the most about the Killing Fields, located about a 40 minute tuk-tuk ride outside of Phnom Penh, was how beautiful the location really was. Tucked in between rice fields and groves of shade-blessing trees, it looked like a nice place to have a picnic. That is until you start reading the placards and the audio guide starts recalling the horror stories of families torn apart, individuals murdered with palm leaves, and mass graves for men and others for women and children beaten to death and buried naked with no regard for who they once were. The Khmer Rouge were truly evil, seemingly enjoying the act of killing just as much as the so-called cleansing that they were after. The Killing Fields today, while mostly devoid of its original structures, still displays mass graves that after a heavy rain can often uncover new bones from their depths. In the middle of the impromptu graveyard is a large pagoda constructed for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Inside is an incredible 17 levels of skulls uncovered from the sight. I’ve seen some unsettling things working as a journalist, some things I don’t care to dwell on very much. But that pagoda was one of the wildest, most unsettling things I’ve laid eyes on. Especially after we’d just finished listening to an audio guide detailing how these people were treated in life. And then right before our eyes are their skulls on display. Honestly, it’s almost too much.

Speaking of “too much,” the next stop of the day was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, known during the reign of Pol Pot as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This reformed school served as a prison for those deemed to be traitors to the Khmer Rouge’s cause and housed 20,000 inmates during the genocidal campaign. Of that, only seven prisoners survived. To be sent to S-21, often on baseless charges, was a death sentence. You could feel the weight of that when walking through the grounds, much of which has been preserved as it was while other bits have been turned into photographic museum displays. Both extremely powerful. Photographs weren’t allowed inside many portions of the museum and I was honestly pretty grateful for that. I don’t want images of some of the paintings I saw, depicting torture and death contraptions in the most gruesome ways imaginable, on my memory card for all times sake.

All told, I’m glad that I went and I’m glad that I left. It’s something that every socially conscious traveler should experience when passing through Cambodia, but I recommend following it up with a massive Mexican burrito (like I did) to get your spirits back up. It may be history but it’s honestly not that distant history. The Killing Fields and S-21 are important reminders that we can’t allow for things like that to continue to happen around the world.

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