Memorial Pagoda, Choeung Ek Killing Field, Phnom Penh, CambodiaI didn’t want to go. I skipped them the first time I visited Cambodia 8 years ago. I still didn’t want to go when Keith and I visited few months ago.  I knew it was going to be profoundly sad.  I already cried many tears just from reading books about them.  But Keith convinced me that we should go  —  to fully understand Cambodia’s bloody past so we can better appreciate its present.

And so I let him drag me along to Toul Sleng Prison Museum and Choueng Ek Killing Field in Pnohm Penh, two of the many places that witnessed the horror and savagery of the ruthless communist regime of Khmer Rouge.

As expected, it was deeply sad and we were having second thoughts about posting this.  But then we realized  that,  although it only happened in late 1970’s,  many are not familiar with the history of Cambodian genocide, especially among  young generation.  A quarter of seven million Cambodian population died during the Khmer Rouge rule and their stories need to be heard.

Toul Sleng Prison Museum (S-21)

Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, CambodiaTuol Sleng used to be a high school and was turned into Khmer Rouge’s largest detention and interrogation center, notoriously known as Security Prison 21 or S-21.

Who were detained here?  Professionals, artisans, people speaking foreign languages, people wearing glasses, anyone who showed slight hint of intellect  – and their families.

Why?  Pol Pot, the deranged  leader of Khmer Rouge, wanted to create a nation based solely on agriculture and anyone who were not peasants didn’t belong to the utopia he wanted to create.  And those who didn’t belong were labeled traitors, arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed.

Pol Pot’s Hitler-like reign of terror started in 1975 and ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. If not for this invasion, a lot more lives would have been lost to Khmer Rouge’s hands.

The regulation that evey prisoner must adhere to.

Regulations, Tuol Sleng Prison, Pnohm Penh, Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Building A Cell, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom PenhThis is one of the cells in Building A where former high officials were detained and tortured whiled chained to their beds.


The Gallows, Tuol Sleng Prison, Pnomh Penh, Cambodia-2


Barb Wires, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh

Cells in Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, CambodiaSingle cells that were built in the classrooms.

09-Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom PenhWhen the Vietnamese forces uncovered S-21, they found several bodies in Building A tied to their beds. They were shot by Khmer Rouge staff just before they fled. The remains were buried in the ground of Tuol Sleng.


10_Photographs of Victims, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, CambodiaThe Khmer Rouge guerrillas were efficient in documenting their barbarism. They photographed each prisoner before they were tortured and sometimes after they were tortured. 11_Photographs of Victims, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, CambodiaThere were so many innocent children.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

After the prisoners in S-21 were tortured enough, they were brought for execution to Cheoung Ek, one of the many killing fields established by Khmer Rouge throughout the country.

Truck Stop, Choeung Ek Killing Field, Cambodia


14-Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


15_Mass Grave, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Pnohm Penh, Cambodia


16_Mass Graves, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Pnohm Penh, CambodiaIn 1980, 86 mass graves were excavated and almost 9,000 bodies were exhumed, most of whom were blindfolded and tied. There are 43 mass graves that are left untouched.

18_Magic Tree, Choeung Ek Killing Field, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


19_Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Pnohm Penh, Cambodia

Children were smashed on trees and many men and women were bludgeoned to death to save bullets.

Children's mass grave, Choeung ek Killing Field, Phnom Pehn, CambodiaThe mass grave for children.


Victims' clothes, Choeung ek Killing Field, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia


22_Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Pnohm Penh, CambodiaA Memorial Stupa was erected for the victims.


23-Memorial Pagoda, Choueng Ek Killing Field, Pnohm Penh, CambodiaThe remains of the victims interred in the Memorial Stupa.

(One thing we didn’t do was bring enough tissues.)


Chum Mey, Survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We had the honor of meeting this incredible man at Tuol Sleng. His name is Chum Mey. He’s one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison. He was tortured for 12 days and 12 nights. He was saved from being sent to the klilling field for execution because he had a skill that the Khmer Rouge found useful   — the ability to repair typewriters that were indispensable for Khmer Rouge in documenting their interrogation and tortures.

He may have survived but none of his family did. He is 84 now and he wrote a book about this ordeal in the hands of Khmer Rouge.

About his interrogators, he wrote, “I was angry but after a long while…understanding that people had to do what they were told to do, I wasn’t angry with them anymore.  Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members. “


Visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the killing field was a deeply heartbreaking experience, but we were thankful we did.  It made us better understand and appreciate how far along the Cambodian people have come to healing as individuals and as a nation. And we hope it continues.

Cambodia Smile

When we think of Cambodia, we think of its gentle people and their heartwarming smile – the symbol of their incredible resilience and their will to heal.


Suggested Raading:
  • When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him
  • First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
  • Survivor: The Triump of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide by Chum Mey
 This link is part of Thursday Travel Photos. Check it out for more interesting travel links.

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About Marisol

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34 responses to “Visiting Cambodia’s Painful Past

  1. Leigh

    what a brutal time in Cambodia’s history and man did your photos hit home. Reading through what they did is sickening – and again you wonder why the world waited to do anything. The country has come along way and I hope they never turn back. A very powerful post.
    Leigh recently posted..Highlights of Hiking the Bruce Trail in Bruce Peninsula NPMy Profile

  2. Kudos to you for telling this story. If we, the travel blogger/writers don’t tell it, who will? It reminds me of the horror of the concentration camps of WWII, the holocaust museums and related historic locations and depositories. We do need to write about it, photograph it and remember. This is a fabulous post.
    Jackie Smith recently posted..George’s Story: Our time at ByzantinonMy Profile

    • Hi Jackie, thank you! We thought that if we can only touch one person with this post, then we did out job:)

  3. Sophie

    No matter how uncomfortable it may be, I think it’s important to visit these places: the concentration camps, the gulags, the brutal prisons – and to document it.
    Sophie recently posted..Pictou, birthplace of Nova ScotiaMy Profile

    • Hi Sophie, you’re so right. It truly is important to learn about them and to remind ourselves why we shouldn’t repeat it.

  4. Marcia

    You were very courageous to visit and to take us along with you and Keith. He’s right: it’s important to remember so those who lost their lives will not have done so in vain.
    I’m amazed that in 4 years so much was done. What if he’d been left to carry out his evil and neurotic plan? People like Pol Pot, etc., can find any pretext to exclude those who they perceive as threats. Sadly, there are more Pol Pots around.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Marcia, I know its amazing how much atrocities were done in so short a time. It’s also scared to think that there are more people like Pol Pot around.

  5. My first reaction was, Oh How Horrible! And so it should be. It was an awful time. There are still such terrible things going on around the world. It’s good to be reminded that humans are capable of atrocious deeds, and always steer well clear of being unkind, to anyone, ever.
    Johanna at ZigaZag recently posted..5 Ways to boost blog traffic via smart and strategic thinkingMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jo, you’re so right. I really wish everyone can avoid being unkind, unfortunately, some people feel empowered by doing evil acts :(

  6. I have known about the atrocities but this post exposed them in more detail. I don’t think I will go, unless my husband insists. It is undeniably and incredibly sad. Thank god Vietnam invaded when they did.
    budget jan recently posted..Train Stations I have known.My Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jan, it truly is deeply sad and I don’t blame you if you won’t go. But I hope that you will go if your husband insist. I’m thankful that Keith convinced me. It was heartbreaking and depressing. Seeing it for myself made me realized how much courage and will to live that Cambodians must have to move on from the atrocities of the past and not be defined by it. This is the part that I would like to remember more.

  7. Wonderful, moving post, Marisol. I’m not really looking forward to seeing either of these two attractions when we are in Phnom Penh, but I think it is important that I do go. In some ways, the rule of the Khmer Rouge seems like a lifetime ago, but as we have traveled through other parts of Cambodia, you can still see the scars of what transpired running deep through the country. Every Cambodian we talk to mentions the Khmer Rouge in some way, talks about what was lost, and so I think it’s important that for us to understand what happened that we go and look the past and its horrors squarely in the eye.

    You are right that there is a current of hope through all this, though, because for those who travel to this lovely country, I think it is hard to reconcile all the horrible things that happened with the bulk of what we see today. The people are so kind, so welcoming (they remind us a lot of Filipinos in that regard!) that they are truly resilience personified. I hope they continue to move forward, but unfortunately, their history is one they will always carry. I think it’s only fair that we help them with that and learn their story as well.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Port Barton: The Town that Tourism Left BehindMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Thanks Steph. If you can muster up some courage to go, I hope you do so. Although the scars of what transpired may still be visible, we appreciate that the people don’t seem to define themselves with their bloody history. You’re right about the people and how we can help them move forward by learning their history.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Agness, thanks. It was horrible indeed, but it’s good to know that the people are moving forward andI I hope they continue to so.

  8. I’ve read blog posts and seen pictures about these atrocities and each time, my heart breaks and I cry especially for all those children. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Marisol. I’m not sure if I can ever have the courage to see all this in person. It really is amazing what the survivors have endured and how far along the Cambodians are now and really appreciate their history. Chum Mey is an incredible forgiving man.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..5 Free Things to do in Santa Fe New Mexico with KidsMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mary, it was not an easy post to put together. I cried after I read the post before publishing it. The atrocities were really mind blowing and I think its important that we learn about them and hope that they won’t happen again anywhere.

  9. Wow, this must have been heartbreaking to visit. Thank you for explaining the reasoning behind this…I’m embarrassed to say, but this was never something we discussed in great length in history classes, and I’m definitely going to order some of the books on your suggested reading list to educate myself more.
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted..UYC’s Guide: 5 Delicious NYC BakeriesMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jess, you’re welcome. I know it’s sad that major events like this is not discuss in history classes. I think it is important for us to learn about them. One of the books will definitely enlighten anyone about what happened.

  10. Thank you for sharing this information and photos. Although I’ve known about Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields, you’ve given me an even more in-depth view. It’s wonderful that you got to meet Chum Mey. I can’t even imagine the torture that he and others endured.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Hawaiian Culture in HanaMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Cathy, meeting Chum Mey was very humbling. His is a great story of healing and forgiveness. We will always keep him in our thoughts when we find it hard to forgive someone.

  11. It is important to visit these places and tell the stories of the people that died there but I’m not sure that I would be brave enough to bear witness. I know very little about what happened in Cambodia apart from what was depicted in a Hollywood movie and the details that you have relayed are horrific. It’s heartbreaking to even contemplate the brutality of a regime that would kill so many of its own citizens especially the children.
    Lisa Goodmurphy recently posted..Taking the Kids to TorontoMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Lisa, it definitely takes a lot of courage to bear witness to these places but I was glad that I let Keith convinced me. It’s truly is hearbreaking and mindblowing. But I also realized it also takes a lot of courage for Cambodians to move on and not be defined by the atrocities of the past. And that’s what I would like to remember more.

  12. Freya

    This is so depressing; a bit similar to going to the War Museum in Saigon. But I agree with the others that it’s indeed important to keep this open to the public. When the memory of those horrific times is kept alive, we can hopefully prevent it from happening again. I admire the spirit of those who survived it!
    Freya recently posted..Inca Trail Day 2 – Dead Woman’s PassMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Freya, the spirit of the survivors are truly inspiring. They completely give me a different perspective in dealing with own situations. If this man can forgive people who tortured and almost killed him, why cant I forgive that man who stepped on my toes in the subway?:)

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Salika, Let’s also pray that the survivors will continue to heal and that this won’t happen again anywhere ever again.

  13. For the longest time, Cambodia was synonymous with the Killing Fields for me. Then after I moved to Malaysia, so many of my friends visited Angkor Wat, and that beautiful image slowly replaced the brutality that always clouded my thoughts about that country. I think it’s important to remember the complete history of a place, so bravo to you and Keith for taking time for what was an undoubtedly heartbreaking visit. Did you leave behind a bracelet at the Killing Tree or the graves? When we go, I think that my kids are still to young to handle this. It’s hard to believe that all that I drill into my kids about education being important is exactly what got these poor victims targeted in the first place.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted..Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet MarketMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Michelle, you know you’re right that with the increasing popularity of Cambodia’s World Heritage Sites, the history of the country has been overshadowed. I think it’s good in a away as it may help people in moving forward but at the same time its important not to forget. Yes, this may too much for the kids. I didn’t have a bracelet to leave behind but I left my hair crunchies:)

  14. I have seen the Killing Fields when I was in elementary school and I couldn’t forget it. I can’t imagine going there and seeing for myself all the proof that it really happened. I agree with the others, though, that it’s an important part of Cambodia’s history and should be preserved, if only to remind people about their dark past.
    Aleah | recently posted..We Go Solo: Solo Travel Planning Tips for WomenMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Aleah,
      Yes, it’s also important to remember hoping that it will remind people to steer clear of evit acts against others.

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