Day 3 – Killing Fields & S-21

Today was harrowing, but the morning started with a slight funny hiccough. As every good morning should!

We’d arranged for a tuc tuc to come and collect us outside our guesthouse at 8.45 to take us to the Killing Fields. We woke up nice and early, got ready and shovelled boiling noodles in our faces and rushed outside for the trip. As we stepped out (in a quiet alley) a cheerful tuc tuc driver shouted “Hey! Killing Fields, yeah?” So we said yes, showed him our receipt, which he confirmed and welcomed us onboard. We double and triple checked that he was with the right company and he kept replying with “yes yes!”. So we continued. His bike didn’t really start properly which wasn’t a great sign, but when it did we bumped and edged along the roads on our way. It just didn’t feel right though. He didn’t seem to be the sort of service you’d expect from a company with which you’d pre-book. We asked a few more times “Bright Lotus?” “Yes yes!” …. “We pay yesterday” “yes yes!” So we continued a little further, debating it between ourselves, not entirely convinced he knows what we are saying. We asked again “No pay…no money! Yes?” This seemed to get the message across, and he wasn’t pleased at this idea. In his mind we were expecting him to take us on a day trip for free. So we fumbled through an explanation and appeared to ruin his day by asking him to take us back. We learnt our lesson. Be more careful. We arrived back to the correct guy waiting to take us out for the day and the receptionist clearly thinking we’re total idiots. Take 2.

First we stopped at S-21. I could’ve spent a day there on its own, just absorbing the atrocities which had been performed by one human to another. The justification of actions, which starts from those in charge giving orders and those tasked with executing them, is something I will never understand. It is terrifying to see what humankind is capable of. It is the group mentality which allows heinous acts such as these to be committed. Those in charge do not see the people who are tortured and murdered, so are removed. Those who carry out these acts do so on orders from authority. Their kin are doing the same, it is very difficult to rebel against this system. It’s well planned and fundamentally disgusting.

S-21 used to be a high school but was transformed into a prison where people were crammed into the small rooms and systematically tortured until they confessed their crimes against the Angkar. Torture techniques included lashes, electric shocks, water boarding, being strung up by ropes to the wooden structure in the garden (photo below) plus many more gruesome things. Whilst being tortured they were forbidden from crying out, to prevent anyone discovering the true purpose of the building. There were only ever 12 survivors from S-21.


Men, women and children were brought to many prisons such as S-21 by the Khmer Rouge and tortured until they wrote confessions, almost always false, about their sins. They were forced to detail not only their own sins but also implicate their family, friends and neighbours. Once these confessions were obtained, they were all sent to the Killing Field to be slaughtered. The photo below of a man on a bed was taken immediately after the camp was liberated. Prison guards killed the remaining 14 people and left them while they fled. Their deaths were not quick or pain free. 14 white grave stones lie in the square to remember these people.


The next stop was the Killing Fields. They are located 15km out of Phnom Penh, in an area that would have been secluded and the roads covered by trees so that no one would disturb them.

In 1975, when the Kmer reign was just beginning there would be 2-3 truck loads of 50 people arriving every week, ready to be “smashed”. Bullets were not used because they were expensive and loud. Instead Cadres would line people up infront of an open ditch and bash their heads in with bamboo rods / hoes / machetes / iron rods and many more, more gruesome options which I won’t detail.


Babies and small children were picked up by their feet and their heads swung against “The Killing Tree”. I’m sorry to write about this, but the sight of this tree, the open trench next to it, the skulls of babies and the graphic images which fill my mind will never be forgotten and are some of the most powerful things I have taken from today. I cannot simply skip that detail. However much people can justify actions by not wanting to rebel against authority, how, HOW, could you ever live with yourself after that?! Truly chilling.
The site is scattered with 169 mass graves in which 9,000 bodies were discovered. This is just one location of many.

You can see bone fragments and torn rags of clothing by the roots of trees if you look carefully. The clothes tell a story, I think more than a skeleton can. Skeletons don’t show character or personality the way a person’s clothing can. I am truly shaken by this place.


The Memorial Stupur which stands in the centre of the site holds most of the skulls and large bones of the 9,000 who have been dug up or have naturally surfaced with the shifting of the earth. The skulls are piled high on 17 levels, as far as you can see. All skulls are marked depending on what weapon was used to kill themselves. Just a small coloured sticker identified them.


Well today will definitely stay with me forever. Tomorrow we are travelling to Mondulkiri to escape the bustling city and find some big areas of green-ness! Cannot wait.

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