S-21 and the “killing fields”


Day 67, Sunday 11 March 2012, Phnom Penh and back to Bangkok

Final day of a two day stop over in Phnom Penh, I was keen to get out to S-21 and Killing fields today, had a light breakfast of toast, but was a waste of time, however I did feel  a little better so I decided to just go and see how it all went. I am quite hungry and not exactly full of energy today, so was going to make this a shortish trip.

I am sure everyone knows what happened in Cambodia during the mid to late 1970’s when the country was known as the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea under the brutal rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party. If you do not know then you need to, up to three million of the then eight million population died under the regime.

S-21 (security prison 21) was an old school converted into a prison and torture centre when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975. It is now the Tual Sleng Genocide museum. During its time as a prison from 1975-1979 between 17,000 and 20,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and murdered here, including New Zealander Kerry Hamill, the brother of rower Rob Hamill. A documentary movie about Kerry Hamill, Brother No 1 (the name for Pol Pot) is on release in NZ in march 2012, so go see it !


As we had to be at the airport at 3.00 I took a tuk tuk for the trip and left the hostel at 8.30 for the twenty or so minute ride to S21.  I did get the obligatory monk shot on the way though!

S-21 was interesting, it is a sad place and it is the portrait photos of the victims and staff that are the hardest to look at, though working out the difference was impossible, some are so young. Not feeling a hundred percent lessened the impact on me I think.

The torture rooms, when the Vietnamese arrived at the school in 1979 they discovered a number of bodies still in these rooms and there is a photo on each wall, I have elected to not show any of these photos or photos of skulls from here or the killing fields.

The prison block is a three storey set of converted class rooms, the Khmer rouge made crude doorways between the class rooms by smashing holes in the walls. In each classroom numerous cells were created, on the third floor they were made of wood and the first and second brick and concrete.

One of the victims and her baby

Some of the guards.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge executive.From S-21 I took my tuk tuk out to Choeung Ek, one of many “killing fields” around Cambodia and the site were victims of S-21 and others were taken for execution. About 17,000 people were killed at this site between 1975 an 1979.


Choeng Ek is also the main memorial site just outside Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and really there is not a lot to “see” as all the buildings that were here during regime have been torn down.  You can do a self guided tour with an audio player which describes the site as you walk around.

To conserve bullets the khmer rouge what ever was handy to dispatch their victims.

The audio tape has a story of one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge which I (along with many others) listened to in a shady walk at the back of the site.

The final part of the tour is the memorial stupa which contains bones and the skulls of 5000 victims, many of the skulls are smashed and damaged from the method of execution.

Some graffiti on the wall at S-21

Vietnam invaded Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1979 to put an end to the Khmer Rouge reign, thousands of Khmer soldiers fled to Thailand and to near the Thai border.What is really scary is that even though all this was well known after discovery of the mass grave sites in 79/80 the US and its normal allies supported the Khmer Rouge until 1993 in its struggle against the communist regime in Vietnam and the puppet government it had installed in Cambodia. Some of the key players in the killing fields were allowed to go free….

After that rather sobering start to the day I went back to the hostel for lunch which was very nice and stayed in for a lot longer than the previous few meals, though i made the mistake of having a coffee once we got to the airport as I was gagging for one… it was expensive and ended badly.

I did make it safely to Bangkok and we stayed the night back at the HI Sukhumvit hostel again.


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Wannabe writer and photographer. Interested in travel and place. From Auckland, New Zealand.

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