The Killing Fields and S21, Phnom Penh

The air is still and silent.

The sky is clear and heavenly blue.

Couples walk together hand in hand.  Slowly.

A man brushes a tear from his wife’s cheek.

The tower of skulls looks down on us.


The Killing Fields

We arrive in Phnom Penh after a roughly 6 hour Giant Ibiz coach ride from Siem Reap.  The news of “Brexit” sees us explaining ourselves to nearby French and Italian passengers.

As you’d expect the city is dense and bustling.  The dust kicks off from the street and the space that exists in Siem Reap doesn’t here.

We cross the vast Mekong River and cruise past the Royal Palace before catching a tuc tuc to our guest house.  The driver cracks a joke about leaving the European Union before dropping us off.

We don’t intend to stay here long.  Apart from Bangkok our experience so far has steered us away from capital cities.  There are some things we need to see though before we move on.

I had read about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime largely from the eye witness account of Loung Ung in “First they killed my father”.

Like any kind of genocide or tragedy of such magnitude, there is a morbid curiosity to try and understand how and why it happened.

Estimations vary on how many Cambodians were killed at the hands of Pol Pot during the period of 1970-75.  Anywhere between 2 and 3.5 million.  Men, women and children.

Many of the dead are still buried in the roughly 200 mass grave sites which feature on the periphery of former labour camps around the country.  The sites are now known simply as the “Killing Fields”.


On the morning of our first day me and Hannah book a tuc tuc driver to take us to Phnom Penh’s most famous Killing Field which has now been turned into a remembrance memorial and is a major tourist destination.

After navigating the busy streets of the city centre we are soon in the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh.  The streets are narrower but cleaner and children laugh and play on their way to school.

We arrive early but the heat is already with us.  Hannah is determined to not let her cast stop her and takes the lead on her crutches.

We pay the entry fee and collect our audio tour guide.  Inside the entrance gate there is a noticeable stillness and quiet.

The area has been well kept and maintained.  Lush green grass and preserved structures mark out a circular, numbered path.  In the centre a tall, white building draws the eyes.


The audio tour is narrated by a survivor of the genocide and former resident of the labour camp.  As we make our way around the points of interest he fills in the blanks with bloody detail.

The open graves which still contain remains of the dead, rags of clothing which still dot the ground, blunt, rusted instruments of torture and the tree of sorrow used to tie screaming children to before.

The experience is visceral and real.  It helps to bring to life a truly incomprehensible time with colour and sound.



After 2 hours the tour ends with the white building in the middle.  Inside a glass cabinet stretching some 2 metres to the top contains the skulls of many of the people who were found here when the Khmer Rouge were forced out of Cambodia.

Some of the skulls display the evidence of death.  Huge cracks and fractures from blows to the head or worse are a gory reminder of what occurred here.

Me and Hannah leave feeling numb.  We sit outside and wait for our ride and don’t speak.  It seems pointless.



After a harrowing 2 hours we head back to the city and decide to lighten the mood by visiting S21.

S21 is a former school located in central Phnom Penh which was converted into a interrogation camp during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Much like the Killing Field that we visited the site has been maintained as both a tourist attraction and way for the world to remember.

With the UNESCO stamp of approval, S21 is always busy and when we arrive it is no different.


We are accompanied for two hours by an extremely informative and well made audio guide which fills us in on some of the atrocities that took place within these walls.

We amble from room to room.  Pictures of former inmates young, old, men, women and children line the walls.  Each story as harrowing as the next.

Its hard to listen to and understand but by the end we realise how important this place is. A standing monument to the worst of human endeavours.

A brutal reminder to the modern world.



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