A Cambodian Horror Story: Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and S-21

It’s been a long time since I was last here. After my last post, I made it as far as Australia and then I went back home to England in deepest darkest December where I felt totally and utterly deserted by the sun.

After Christmas, I went to France and I broke my wrist on a snowy mountain. That’ll teach me to dabble in winter. I’m now back in Asia with a wrist reinforced with metal complete with Franken-scar. I’m under strict instructions not to get it wet or bear any weight on it for six weeks. Obviously I’m at surf bootcamp in a remote village (which I booked long before the wristcident and stubbornly refused to cancel). I’m returning to the blog. Because there is literally nothing else to do.

So, let’s travel back in time to November. I was in Cambodia. I had very few expectations of the country, but it still managed to surprise me.

In my last post, I wrote about Siem Reap and its hauntingly beautiful temples crumbling into disrepair. I didn’t write about the local food tour where my friend and I sampled delights including custard apples which look like giant green warts but taste somewhat better. We followed narrow alleys in local markets and skirted heaps of fish entrails leaking rank juices onto concrete. We told ourselves that the liquid that pooled beneath us and ran over our flip-flopped feet was, at worst, muddy rainwater.

It’s been two months and I still remember the earthy burst of a giant woodlouse-like bug on my tongue. It wasn’t dry and crisp like the grasshoppers and crickets we ate and which we could easily pretend were just heavily seasoned bits of twig. It was definitely something that had been alive and crawling in dark places recently. The garlic and salt were unable to disguise the taste of bad-umami and floor. Never again.

Out of all of Cambodia, it’s Phnom Penh that I want to write about the most: a typical Asian city complete with spectacular temples and chaotic streets, but with a very raw history of extreme violence. Less than forty years ago, between 1975 and 1979, it was the seat of a brutally violent regime under the command of Pol Pot. He was driven by a vision of resetting the country to ‘year zero’ and establishing a society in which the life of the agricultural worker was the only acceptable one. It led to the murder of one in four Cambodians.

Phnom Penh has two key sites where you can come face to face with this atrocious part of its history. First we visited S-21, the infamous detention centre of the regime. Before its transformation, the compound had been a school. Simple white buildings, three storeys tall with open walkways, surround a grassy courtyard shaded by low, large-leafed trees. You can almost imagine the children playing here in the heat of the afternoon before retiring back into the cool, breeze-blessed classrooms to complete their studies.

But that’s as far as the imagination can take you; the site has been gruesomely transformed. Crude chainlink fence and barbed wire make cages out of balconies and air vents are bricked up, sealing rooms with stuffy heat. Dark brown blood splatters scar the ceiling and deep parallel grooves are gauged into the yellowing plaster from fingernails run down walls in agony and despair.

Across the courtyard in another building, the old classrooms have been divided into tiny compartments. Thin walls made of wood or breezeblocks create cells smaller than toilet cubicles. Prisoners were kept in darkness here for uncountable days in between episodes of torture. Out of 12,000 people who passed through here, only seven are though to have survived. It is deeply shocking. The atmosphere is intense, almost as if the walls are reverberating with the suffering they saw.

In the afternoon, we took a tuktuk out of the city for about twenty minutes until the traffic choked streets became muddy tracks. We were headed to the Killing Fields – no metaphor here, no sanitising and romaticising, no ‘Meadow of Remembrance’. Nope. They are what they say they are. Fields where people were killed. Thousands of people.

The shocking thing about the place with such a brutal name is the beauty of it. Butterflies flutter in and out of shady spots in long grass and wild flowers. A wooden pagoda is held on stilts above a large pond. Dragonflies create gentle ripples across the surface of the water. It is serene and peaceful.

And yet, inspect any closer and the violence of the place will begin to be revealed. If you look down around your feet, especially after the rainy season, you might catch yourself looking at some curious fragments poking from the dirt beneath. A shard of bone. A shred of cloth. The sign in front of you will confirm any suspicions. It reads: Please do not walk on the mass graves.

You will read about how nearly nine-thousand people were driven here after signing their false confessions and being sentenced to death. You will learn about how the officers battered their victims to death with clubs to save on bullets. You will hear how rousing revolutionary anthems were pumped through speakers at top volume throughout the night to mask the sounds of people screaming in pain. Men, women, children and babies were all killed here.

Victims were innocent people who were considered enemies of the state because of the jobs they held, the places they lived or the company they kept. With an ideology that focused solely on an agrarian idyll, anyone with a ‘city’ or ‘town’ job was considered problematic. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered because they were journalists or mathematicians, academics or accountants. Whole families were eliminated so that there would be no chance of future generations seeking revenge: “When you pull out a weed, you remove everything including the root.”

A towering shrine in the middle contains a vast collection of bones bearing the marks of torture and fatal injury – splintered bones and shattered skulls. You will realise quite how horrendous humans can be to one another.

I knew very little about the regime before my trip, and I couldn’t have imagined the scale of the violence. This is not a story confined to a history book or a curated museum exhibit, but something viscerally real. It is impossible not to be drawn into its horror. It is the most affecting place I’ve ever been.

As I mentioned in my last post, Cambodia revealed itself to be a country of extreme contrasts. Serene ancient temples sit mere miles from bars pounding with Justin Bieber remixes; innovative social enterprises are on the next street down from seedy strip clubs. I was only there for a week but the things I saw and heard will be with me for much longer.

One thought on “A Cambodian Horror Story: Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and S-21

  1. A well-written post, Rachel, I can feel the place as you describe it – Alice also visited Cambodia – Wilderness Expertise during 6th Form 0 she too was changed and impacted. Hope your wrist recovers well xx


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