24 Hours in Phnom Penh: Killing Fields & S-21 Prisons 

We parked at the Phnom Penh bus station around 6 in the morning, got off the bus and were slapped in the face with a pungent smell that led us to quickly walk away. Not quite sure where we were going, we were suddenly accosted with a hound of tuktuk drivers, all asking us where we wanted to go.

“Miss, where you going?”

“You want to see Killing Fields?”

“I take you to S-21!”

With breakfast being the only thing on our minds we quickly ducked into a ticketing office, disposed our bags, washed our tired faces away and began our full day of touring.

Stepping out into the street we were once again met by a determined tuktuk driver who we quickly struck up a deal with; Killing Fields, S-21 Prison, Royal Palace, National Museum (which we never ended up going to), Russian Market and Wat Phnom.

However, we relayed to our Tuktuk driver, Pen, that we were in dire need of food, and we needed it quickly. Pen just smiled and told us no problem and we all sped off in his tuktuk.

Coming from Siem Reap, the air in Phnom Penh was so much cooler and fresh, and with the sun darting in and out of the antique buildings I couldn’t help but feel a bit cold. But once we drove past Sisowath Quay, the sun and beauty of Phnom Penh burst on my skin. We sped along with the Tonle Sap River on our left while watching the city slowly wake up and spill onto the streets. 

We drove out further out of the city, passing through the many different faces of Phnom Penh until the city scenery was completely gone. We stopped at an open air restaurant and had our first meal of the day across the street from Choeung Elk.

After breakfast we crossed the street and walked up to the gates. It’s interesting how the atmosphere changed from the restaurant to Choeung Elk. Even the songs of the birds were softer, much more solemn. 

Once you pay, you receive a headset with an audio player, and a brochure with a map of the Killing Fields. On the brochure each location corresponds to a number on the audio player which tells you the story regarding each location. The narrator is a survivor of the brutal Pol Plot Regime; he also relays his family’s and his personal experience in the narration. 

Oddly enough, the Killing Fields might be one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been to, despite the deep sense of inhumanity that took place there, I felt very very calm. 

Walking around the Killing Fields and listening to the stories of pain, loss, and hate, there is one constant theme that spoke louder and remained with me for the rest of the day, the story of hope. Choosing to build a new hope that refuses to be tarnished by the past and forging ahead with hope. That’s the one thing about Cambodians that I will and can never forget, they live with such kindness and humility, despite having every reason to be cold and distant, they’re the most compassionate people I have ever met.

There’s so much I could say about the Killing Fields, but I do not think there are enough words or emotions for it. So I won’t say anymore. But I do urge anyone in Phnom Penh or in the area to take the time and go, look and listen. It may not be an easy story to listen to but it’s one that must be told and listened to. 

After the Killing Fields, Pen drove us to the S-21 prison which unlike the Killing Fields was overwhelming for me. The school that was transformed into a torture prison was a horror unlike any other. They still have the torture devices in each room alongside the clothes of the prisoners. The enlarged pictures of the prisoners stare dolefully out at you; their eyes are void of life.

One picture stood out to me in particular, a woman with short hair dressed in black, her eyes dark and helpless, her face is colourless; she’s clutching her baby who is blissfully and luckily unaware. The plain white background seems to enlarge her very being and along with it, her sorrow. I don’t know how long I stared at her picture; my mind raced with millions of questions and then slowly silenced and became numb. 

After that I left the rest of the tour and went and sat outside in the memorial garden amongst the flower bushes. I stared out at the huge monument that read, “We will never forget the crimes committed by the rule of the Democratic of Kampuchea.” 

What makes these atrocities even worse is the fact that it wasn’t committed by an unknown enemy or outsider. Rather these were their own people, their neighbours, and their friends who rose up against them and killed them. What do you do when your own country turns against you, when everything you treasure is taken away and you lose your life to one man’s unrelenting ideal of utopia?

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