What to expect when visiting Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum in Cambodia

kiling fields in cambodia

What to expect when visiting Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum in Cambodia

When you are researching a trip to Cambodia three main things will come up a lot and that is Angkor Wat, The Killing Fields an beautiful beaches. So of course I was going to include the Killing Fields on my recent tour of Cambodia. I started my tour of Cambodia in Phnom Penh so I visited these two sites at the beginning of my tour.

Memorial at killing fields in Cambodia

What happened at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

During 1975 to 1979 when the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia millions of Cambodians were executed and more died through starvation and disease. The country had just got through the Cambodian civil war but horrific events were not over yet for Cambodia.

I still don’t understand the full extent of what happened and you can find out more information here but the brief information I did learn was that people who seemed to be connected in some form to the government and even just Cambodians that were professionals and educated were taken overnight to these fields and killed.

There are a number of killing fields across Cambodia the most famous being Choeung Ek near Phenom Penh which is the one that I visited and the people that were killed here were then buried in mass graves which can still be seen today.

Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia

I must admit I didn’t really know anything about the killing fields and the history of what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. It was emotional walking around even as I was learning about the history which is heart-breaking.

I cannot believe that something like this could have happened so recently as the 1970s. I even asked my mum about it when I got home and she wasn’t aware that it had happened, she said at the time she doesn’t recall anything being broadcasted. It is strange how 1.7 million people can be killed and the news didn’t even reach the western world. Even when I was at school nothing about this horrific event was taught or even mentioned.

I had done a little research into visiting Cambodia and the killing fields were mentioned in articles about places to visit in Cambodia but I still didn’t realise what happened until I actually visited.

I visited the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields where thousands of Cambodians were taken to be killed on the 2nd day of my trip around Cambodia. I am glad that I did it at the beginning of the trip as it gave me a greater understanding of the country and it was also mentioned when visiting other areas so it was useful to visit first.

We arrived at the Killing Fields and it is literally an acrid piece of land but holds so much tragedy, it is unbelievable that this could have even happened. Walking around we were all speechless as the history of these grounds were explained.

killing fields in cambodia
Clothing that has been found

It is quite a sombre place but listening to the chirping birds as we walked around was surreal.  So many people were killed during this time and there are said to be around 77 fields throughout Cambodia that no one is sure which field their relatives were even taken to.

Mass grave at Killing fields in Cambodia
Mass Grave

Even if the words that you will hear do not reintegrate the devastation that took place seeing the shallow graves will. It is still possible to see the remains that were buried. Some of them have been added to the memorial but there are still many that can be seen in the ground. Every time it rains more are exposed and even clothing comes to the surface as more of the earth is washed away.

Our group was silent as we walked around as no one could even believe that something like this could happen. Some people did survive and of course there are relatives of the people that were murdered still alive today and it seems that what happened it still very raw, listening to our guide tell us about what happened was emotional and it was for him as his voice still broke in places when he was telling us the history.

There is a memorial that was created in 1988 in the centre of the field and this holds the bones of some of the executed. To see the volume of skulls and bones is astonishing and really is unbelievable. Even as I write this now the feelings of such powerful emotions are flooding back, this is a truly disturbing place to visit. It is a place of Dark Tourism but it does need to be seen as it is such a big part of the Cambodian history, however be warned that this will be a emotionally tiring day. 

Part of the memorial at the killing fields in phnom penh
Skulls that make up the Memorial

The information you hear during your tour of the killing fields will be disturbing. There was a tree which had bracelets hanging from it and this was called the screaming tree. We were told that children were hit against the tree to kill them to save on bullets.

killing tree in phnom penh
This was really emotional to see

I felt a little weird taking photos during my visit and obviously I did this as respectfully as I could this is not a place to be taking selfies but I wanted to share with you some of the sights during the visit. Seeing bones and pieces of clothing will be emotional as you are hearing what happened here. Other respectful things to consider are not to smoke, eat or drink when walking around, don’t touch the remains that can be seen in the ground of course this is a given but some people still will try.

A lot of people team it up with visiting the S-21 genocide museum which is close by and is also such as moving to visit.

What is it like at the S-21 Genocide Museum

Toul Sleng – S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh – was the main political prison, where an estimated 12,273 were detained during the Khmer Rouge regime with only seven known survivors. It was a high school that was turned into a torture centre during this horrible time.

S21 Genocide Museum
Used to be a High School
prisoners in phnom penh

Three of which are still alive today and can be seen on a daily basis at the Genocide museum. It is quite sad that these survivors have to visit this place every day as it is the only way they can earn any money as they have no support from the country’s government.

memorial in genocide museum

They sit there all-day greeting visitors and signing copies of their memoirs which I didn’t like seeing as they looked so sad and frail, they should not have to do this in order to earn money. I was sat by them for a bit whilst I was waiting for some of my group and it was sad these three men should be at home living what life they have left.

One of the survivors at the S21 museum
One of the survivors

Again, another place of dark tourism and respect needs to be considered when visiting this site, no eating drinking, smoking taking selfies or messing around although due to the sombre mood during your visit you won’t be walking around laughing anyway. Although there is no dress code for the S-21 Genocide Museum and Killing Fields it is important to dress respectably.

sign about another survivor of the s21 musem in phnom penh
Another survivor

How to get to the Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum

The Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum are common tours that can be done from Phenom Penh and can also be visited independently.

Tours can be found on Get Your Guide or Viator which are my go to sites for tours when I am travelling.

You can visit the fields and museum by tuk-tuk. The fields are about 40 minutes outside the city of Phenom Penh and will be cost $15-$20 with a $5 entrance price (prices as of 2019). You could also rent a car and driver which is quoted as around $32 online.

Both sites are fairly accessible for someone with mobility limitations such as myself. I found both sites easy to walk around. The prison has toilets and there are also toilets, souvenir stalls and snack place outside of the killing field site.

I would recommend getting a guide (person or audio) or doing a guided tour to know what it is you are seeing at both of these sites to get the full impact of the visit. I visited as part of a Busabout tour of Cambodia but if I was to visit independently, I would book a group tour on Viator or Get Your Guide which are priced around £12.

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