Despite living in Cambodia for over a year we still haven’t posted anything about two of its most important sites. It’s been 10 years since we visited S21 Prison and The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and my fading memory won’t enable me to do them justice. Instead, Amy Poulton from Page Traveller has written a fantastic, insightful post on this subject for me.
Note: Amy chose not to take any photos at the sites out of respect. The few images in this post have been sourced and are licensed for reuse.
S21 Prison and The Killing Fields
Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich history, home to the impressive ancient city of Angkor. Yet, some of Cambodia’s modern history is much more tragic. Two difficult but important places to visit are Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 Prison) and Choeung Ek Killing Fields (The Killing Fields). These are both in the capital, Phnom Penh.
This guide to visiting Cambodia’s more affecting sites includes background information on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Genocide, my personal experiences visiting these sites and some advice for how and why you should plan to visit S21 Prison and The Killing Fields.
Trigger warning: this post contains some disturbing information about the Cambodian genocide, including violence, murder and sexual assault.
Cambodia’s Turbulent Modern History
Around 200 execution centres, such as infamous Security Prison 21 (S21) at Tuol Sleng, were set up to torture enemies of the Khmer Rouge. When the torture finally produced a confession, prisoners were executed at nearby Choeung Ek.
The Khmer Rouge was eventually removed from power in 1979 and the horrors of the regime were finally revealed. Today, S21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek is now a memorial site known as The Killing Fields. Both are difficult, but important places to visit in Phnom Penh.
Glossary of terms
Khmer Rouge: Another name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Khmer is the name given to someone from Cambodia and to their language; whilst Rouge (French for Red) is the symbolic colour of communism.
Kampuchea: The historic name for Cambodia.
Pol Pot: The notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge and former Prime Minister of Kampuchea.
Angka: ‘The Organisation’ – the name of the ruling body of the Khmer Rouge.
S21 Prison(Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum)
Visiting S21 Prison
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Visiting The Killing Fields
The atmosphere at The Killing Fields is very different to the atmosphere at S21. When I arrived, having just come from S21, I was preparing myself for more heartbreak.
A tall memorial structure stands in the centre of the museum grounds, housing 9,000 skulls of some of the victims killed at Choeung Ek. Although the stories on the audio guide are still horrific, the experience is very different to visiting S21.
The surrounding areas were quiet and serene, the grass was green, the smell of incense was in the air and birds were singing. Children were playing football outside the gates of the museum.
Colourful bracelets are placed in memory of those who died with messages of peace and traditional money offerings were scattered on the ground. The atmosphere is tranquil; it feels as if the people who died here are finally at peace.
Why You Should Visit These Sites
It is a personal choice whether to visit S21 and The Killing Fields. However, I believe that – though both are shocking, heartbreaking and difficult to visit – it’s important to push past feeling uncomfortable to educate yourself about the darkest periods of global history. This ensures that those who suffered are remembered, what happened is never repeated and you have context for what Cambodia has been through.
I only visited these sites for a day, but the memories of what I learned there will stay with me forever.
Itinerary, Time and Costs
Here’s all the information you should need to plan your visit to S21 Prison and the Killing Fields from Phnom Penh
Itinerary: I highly recommend that you spend one full day visiting the two sites; you will need more time to digest the information than you think. Get up early and head to S21 first, then finish the day at The Killing Fields.
I would advise not to plan anything for the evening of your visit, as you might be very affected by what you see and learn. Also, be sure to dress appropriately by covering your legs, chest and shoulders, out of respect. At the Choeung Ek memorial, you may be requested to remove your shoes.
Transport: I rented a bike from my hostel and cycled to and from the sites. However, Phnom Penh’s traffic is super-scary to cycle in and I underestimated how far out of town Choeung Ek is. Therefore, I recommend that you hire a tuk-tuk instead for about $15 – $20 USD (£10.50 – £14 GBP ) for the day, plus tip.
Tours: There are plenty of tours available should you wish to go with a guide (around $15 USD per person). Personally, I preferred to go alone and use the audio guides available, so that I could go at my own pace and take in the information at my own speed. There is also a guide service at S21.
Costs: Entry to S21 is $5 USD (£3.50 GBP), or $3 USD (£2.10 GBP) for under 18s with an ID. Entry to the Killing Fields is also $3 USD. Audio guides are $3 USD at both sites and guide services are available at S21 for $2 USD (£1.40). Note that these prices are subject to change.
Yes, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are difficult to visit, but I hope this guide has helped give some context to the sites and to Cambodian history.
Amy from Page Traveller
Amy is a bad Brit, but a badass bookworm. She has lived in Hong Kong, Italy and Mexico, as both an expat and digital nomad. She writes about her love of exploring real and fictional worlds at www.pagetraveller.com.
I hope this post encourages you to visit these two places and has offered some helpful advice on how to prepare yourself and how to be respectful during your visit.
Pin me for later!
Have you been to S21 and the Killing Fields? What are your thoughts on visiting places with a dark history such as these when travelling?
P.S. Read our ‘Off the Beaten Track Cambodia’ series via the following link: