Dark tourism is becoming a more commonly coined phrase, used to describe travelling to places historically associated with death or tragedy. Think Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Ground Zero or Hiroshima for example.
For some it’s a morbid curiosity that draws them there, but for the majority it’s a sign of respect when visiting a destination; to learn more about its past, however terrible it was, remember those that lost their lives and hopefully learn from the mistakes of the past. Although, on a personal note, in today’s political atmosphere I do wonder if we ever actually do – does anyone else feel like we’re going backwards?!
This is what led me to set aside a day of my trip in Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, often called S-21, and Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields. I knew it would be a tough experience but felt it was important to better understand what happened during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, especially as this era still greatly affects the people of Cambodia today.
After a little research I booked a minibus trip that picked us up from our hotel, took us first to S-21, then the Killing Fields, before dropping back off where we began. I do recommend doing it this way as the Fields are a little out of the city, meaning you don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting about – something you’ll want to give little thought to after being faced by the atrocities that took place.
Visiting S-21 – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
It’s important to visit S-21 first as here you have access to a lot more information, plus you follow the same route that the prisoners themselves took.
Originally a school, S-21 became a prison when the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took power. During these years, which were only in the 1970s, it is estimated that around 20,000 Cambodians were brought here to be tortured or killed.
For $3 you can take an audio guide and make your way around the museum, but $10 pays for a local guide to take you around, the best option as they’re hugely knowledgeable and really bring things home, as painful as it is to hear.
The Khmer Rouge regime
Our guide was a child during the time of the Khmer Rouge. As she took us around the site, she told us how her family were separated and she was sent out to the country to work on a child labour farm, reunited with her mum only three years later but never again seeing her father or brother.
When Pol Pot took power he essentially wanted to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and start over at Year Zero. Believing possessions to be evil he forced the people out of the cities to work on the land, killing anyone who stood against him.
Not for the faint of heart
She shared her story as we walked through the rooms, many of which were left as they would have been during that time. When the city was liberated, 14 bodies were found in the cells and seven survivors rescued. Graphic pictures hang on the walls of how the bodies were found, shackled and shot, so I quickly learnt that a visit here is not for the faint of heart.
Some rooms had been split into tiny brick cells, not much larger than an airplane toilet, it was terrifying to think some people spent years in this tiny space, only removed for interrogation.
Many walls are lined with photos – some of the captives, others of the captors, often Cambodians who took up with the Khmer Rouge simply to save their own lives. Pol Pot first imprisoned and killed the best and brightest from across the country, to stop any opposition from rising up, later becoming ever more paranoid and even turning members of the Khmer Rouge against itself. In the end no-one was safe.
Outside the blocks, where I presume children once played, the gallows still stand, alongside memorials to those that never escaped the walls of S-21.
As we left we came across a situation I found, well, quite ghoulish. Two of the three living S-21 survivors were sitting by little stands near the entranceway, selling their books. I do understand how essentially their life revolves around the prison, and that they need to make an income however they can, but I still felt uncomfortable with the concept of them passing out their business cards and selling their book in this manner. I think to be honest I was pretty shellshocked from everything I’d seen and learnt inside S-21.
Following in their footsteps
From here our journey followed those of many prisoners who did leave S-21 – under the premise of being moved to another prison. In reality they were being moved to Choeung Ek, ready to be butchered.
And butchering it was. The atrocities described to us as we walked around the Killing Fields firstly made my blood run cold and then later boil with anger.
Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Today the site of the Killing Fields is eerily beautiful. As you leave your bus you’re greeted with a peaceful green backdrop of grass and trees – there’s even a beautiful lake you can stroll around, where colourful butterflies flit about. It feels hard to imagine that thousands of people were murdered here, but once you don your headphones and allow the audio guide to take you on a small tour of the site everything takes on a different light.
Now that empty shed in front of you turns into a dark, cramped prison where blindfolded prisoners were kept until taken out to be killed in the dead of night. Music blared out of speakers to hide the sounds of screams as men, women and children being murdered just a few feet away, and thrown into mass burial pits.
That exotic tree to your right turns from a thing of beauty to a weapon of torture – the spikes on its branches used to slowly and painfully decapitate prisoners without the need to waste bullets.
Another tree, now covered with colourful ribbons and bracelets, is instead dripping red with blood from the heads of small children smashed against it. Even in the heat of the Cambodian sun you’ll find that you’re hugging yourself in shock at the harrowing events that took place here night after night.
Blowing in the wind
The cenotaph is a striking end to your walk around the Killing Fields, housing nearly 9,000 skulls and many other bones excavated from the numerous mass graves across the site. Even now as you walk around you might spot pieces of bone or cloth in the mud, which is collected up every couple of months as they make their way back to the surface and become exposed.
Even on a dry day patches of the pathway is muddy and I was very careful to watch where I stepped as I made my way slowly around the fields. Having worn cream-coloured Toms, it was impossible to not get mud on my shoes. I cleaned them as well as I could before returning to the bus for a very quiet journey back to the hotel, but even so there’s one small spot that refused to fade entirely.
Perhaps I could have scrubbed it off if I tried hard enough, but I decided to leave it there, my small gesture of remembrance for those who died during, or survived through the Khmer Rouge regime.