I have a thing with dark tourism. While it may come across creepy for some people, I think I could see it from a different perspective in a way that there were times when humanity failed that we should never go back to where it was. And this is what motivated me to travel to Cambodia and get on the Cambodian Genocide tour to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide in Phnom Penh.
It’s the same reason why I like reading books related to dark history like the Holocaust. The top of my bucket list includes visiting Auschwitz and Srebenica if one day I get a chance to land somewhere around Europe. I’d also like to go to where the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy took place in America.
Who am I kidding? I definitely wouldn’t miss Sarajevo if one day I go to Bosnia, so I could see the spot where Franz Ferdinand got shot. The list goes on, and my interest in dark tourism is also why I couldn’t miss the genocide tour when I was in Cambodia.
Apart from a cemetery, I think the dark history is also something that I could trace back in my travel to remind myself that I should never take things for granted with the life I have now. As hard as it feels like in some days, I’ve got it easy.
Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge
The Cambodian genocide has become one of the darkest histories that happened in Southeast Asia. Under the leadership of Pol Pot with Khmer Rouge, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population perished in the concentration camp while attempting to push communism in the country.
By 1979, it is noted that at least 1.5 million people died from the Khmer Rouge policies. They arrested professors and intellectuals suspected of having any connection with the former Cambodian government before the Khmer Rouge gained their power in 1975. Anything related to faith and religions was also forbidden, with thousands of Buddhist monks and ethnic minorities’ death as the result.
In Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, two notable memorial spots could take us to the dark history of the country. The first was The Killing Fields, the place currently known as Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, and the other one is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The latter was a former high school used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by Khmer Rouge.
Genocide Tour in Cambodia: The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Most of the hotels in Phnom Penh offer the genocide tour as a part of their services. However, it is also possible to arrange your own itinerary by renting a private tuk-tuk for either half a day or the whole day.
Unlike Kampot where you could only rely on PassApp to hail a tuk-tuk in town, Grab is available in Phnom Penh to get around. It is also possible to rent your private tuk-tuk in bulk for either half the day (6 hours) or the whole day (12 hours) by booking it through the app.
My mistake was that I already made an appointment with the tuk-tuk driver that got me to the hotel from Giant Ibis bus stop, so I had to pay $25 USD for half the day.
The next day, I booked it for half the day via Grab, it only cost me $17.5 USD.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields)
Choeung Ek, known as the Killing Fields, is the site where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over a million victims when they were in power. After the fall of the regime, almost 9000 bodies were discovered in the area.
Today, the site has also become the memorial site where more than 5000 human skulls rest in their final place. Around the memorial monument, you can also purchase flowers to pay respect to the victims.
Situated around 15 km from the capital city Phnom Penh, it took me almost an hour to reach the site by tuk-tuk.
The entrance fee to the Killing Fields is $6 USD, including the audio guide that you could opt in several foreign languages. Apart from English, it’s also available in French and Chinese.
My Opinion on The Killing Fields
Years ago, when I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I was struggling as I couldn’t help to cry while reading about the story of the war and watching the name of the victims carved in the museum. It was one of the most emotional moments when I traveled alone in some dark tourism spot.
I couldn’t handle it as I literally had to go to the toilet just to cry there. It was a terrible feeling, and I kinda prepared to get the same feeling too before I went to the Killing Fields.
However, since I was less familiar with the Cambodian history than Vietnam, I wasn’t so emotional by the time I visited the Killing Fields. I had to sit down to listen to the audio guide and imagine the stuff where it used to. I gotta familiarize myself with the story.
It was heartbreaking to find out that some clothing pieces around the field actually belong to some of the victims. It’s almost like, those clothing are really the witness of all the horrible things that happened 40 years ago.
The eeriest part when I visited the Killing Fields was actually when I entered the monument. I bought a flower, prayed for the victims as they deserved a peaceful rest after all the things that happened to them.
Still, when I went in and saw thousands of human skulls and bones displayed there, it was almost sad and scary to wander around.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
Before converting the building as a prison in 1976, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be Tuol Svay Pray High School. Under the regime, the construction began, and they renamed it as Security Prison 21 (S-21).
It is located not so far from Phnom Penh city center. It took me only around 15 minutes by tuk-tuk to get to my hotel.
Within the three years, until the Vietnamese Army invaded the prison in 1979, there were around 20,000 imprisonments in and out. Some were tortured into giving names of their acquaintance who they see as the threat of the regime. They also got interrogated, with some of them met their end in The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek.
The entrance fee to Tuol Sleng Museum costs $5 USD, and you can also pay $3 USD for the audio guide as well.
My tuk-tuk driver suggested me to buy the ticket since the story told in the audio guide would be pretty similar to the one in The Killing Fields. So I did, and I almost regret the decision.
See, the prison building was quite big, and without the guide, it was almost confusing where to begin.
My Opinion on Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Even if you didn’t pay extra for the audio guide, you could just wander around the museum and found the booth where some living survivors sit there to share their stories. One of them was Bou Meng, who got arrested with his wife, whom he never met again ever since.
Other than that, the building was quite spooky. Imagine the combination of a school building and a prison building where people got tortured and slaughtered… It couldn’t be worse, could it?
Especially those areas with some tiny cells, I have to admit that it was hella spooky when I was around there alone.
Despite the spookiness, after a while, it was actually quite boring to wander around the museum. I think I only spent around an hour to get there, and then I went back to where my tuk-tuk driver parked.
At the time, I already lost the mood to travel around so I just came back to my hotel.
My View on Cambodian Genocide Tour in Phnom Penh
As frustrating as it is to wander around the sites that are connected to the killing of more than a million people in Cambodia, I think the impact that I could notice from the genocide could be seen outside both The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
It’s like, you don’t even have to know the data when it comes to the number of victims under the Khmer Rouge because you could barely meet any local Cambodians that are older than their 40s. Be it in the market, or anywhere around the country.
I don’t know if it’s just me whose hobby is people-watching, but I could really feel how the population in Cambodia, those I met during my time there, is never older than the early 40s.
If you stop by Phnom Penh, I’d recommend arranging a Cambodian genocide tour with a few conditions that could make your experience probably better than mine:
- To save a couple of bucks, rent the tuk-tuk through Grab app.
- If you stay around the city center, maybe it’s best to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum first before The Killing Fields.
- Unless your tour includes a guide, who would tell you the dark Cambodian history, always pay extra for the audio guide. It’s worth it!
Other than that, I’m glad I’ve made it for the tour. I knew a little about Cambodia’s dark history, since I only recognized a thing or two about Pol Pot, given the idea I used to study International Relations.
But the tour sort of enlightened me how much impact the mass killing impact the current generation in Cambodia. Especially those that I’ve met when I traveled.
So, have you been to Phnom Penh? Did you get a chance to get on the genocide tour in Cambodia? Tell me your experience in the comment, and cheerio!