A Dark Day in Phonm Penh, Cambodia

We had braced ourselves for this day, knowing that there would be some dark and sobering moments, as we learned more about the history of this country we were so lucky to be visiting. After all we had come to Phnom Penh with the intent to learn, and to try and understand more about The Killing Fields, The Khmer Rouge and the unexplicable genocide of the Cambodian people.

I have always wanted to learn more about this part of Cambodia’s history maybe because I remember as a young teen watching the news as the horrors were unvieled and I think this was a. the first International news I heard about, b. was old enough to be interested and to somewhat grasp what was going on and c. realizing that there was a world beyond the UK. I remember hearing about Pol Pot, The Khmer Rouge and Kampuchea and thinking how exotic and far away a place called Kampuchea must be. And now I gasp at the thought that it all happened in our lifetime that people on the streets of Cambodia who are my age lived through the terror of the Khmer Rouge.

Tony and I had talked to Tiah in vague terms about the genocide, what the word meant and what the people of Cambodia had suffered. It was a real parenting moment to decide whether at 14 she should know/understand such things and if she should know, to what extent should she be told. She had certainly matured over the months we’d been travelling but we were worried about pushing her.

In the end we were wise to let her ask questions and to make her own decision as to whether or not she was ready to visit the historical sites. We had not sheltered her completely but we had not exposed her to anything she wasn’t ready for. She decided to stay at the hotel and do some of her school work, and as Tony and I headed out, for what would be a very heavy day, I was glad that she had made her own choice.

Our journey into the past began at The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. The center lies 15 km south, about a 20 minute drive (depending on traffic) from the center of Phnom Penh. We travelled via tuk-tuk and in the mid-morning hustle and bustle of traffic it made the horrors of 40 years ago even more unimaginable.

Choeung Ek is a preserved site where many Cambodians were brought to perish. As we entered the gates we were greeted with head sets and a taped guided tour, which you follow at your own pace. There is an unspoken code of silence as one walks through the site, and in this quiet calm it feels like the only fitting commeration to so many lives that were lost.

There was an air of serenity and dignity that enveloped the land as we walked in the silence. The experience gives one time to process the history/information and then reflect.

There are artifacts that have been gathered and preserved and there is land that has been left just as it was out of respect for those that died and have not been recovered. Unfathomable is the fact that after all these years heavy rains swell the ground, unearthing bone fragments and scraps of clothing.

In the center of the land a stupa has been built to honour the dead. It is a beautiful structure but I do not want to say too much more of what I learned and saw – it is horrific and I know not everyone wants to read about such atrocities. I will say, to those interested, that there are some excellent books written about these dark years and if you should ever find yourself in Phnom Penh…

On completion of our tour, our tuk-tuk driver, who had been patiently waiting, drove us back into downtown Phnom Penh to our second museum – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. On the ride back Tony and I barely spoke. In fact I don’t think we said one word, there was just a haunting feeling hanging in the air between us.

As we left Choeung Ek we drove past a restaurant called The Living Fields that did make me smile and was further evidence that the people of Cambodia are rebuilding their country, their lives, their families with hope toward the future.

On our arrival at Tuol Sleng we were, again, given head sets and a taped guide to complete in our own time. The area was smaller than The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and very much focussed on the building and the people that had passed through its walls.

S-21 had been a high school which was converted into a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned within its walls and there are only 12 confirmed survivors.

We learned that prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken to the killing fields at Choeung Ek to be excuted and buried in mass graves. It was a hard day. Hard to imagine that a country lived through this. It’s also hard knowing that this suffering is not isolated to Cambodia alone. Left me feeling sad yet hopeful that perhaps we can learn from history – perhaps.

in the quiet shelter
of the fragipani trees
the dead rest


One thought on “A Dark Day in Phonm Penh, Cambodia

  1. So interested in hearing of your experiences here. I think the work that people do in these places with difficult histories, as paid professional museum workers, as volunteers, and as visitors, is some of the most important historical work there is. Memorializing, remembering, witnessing, whatever you call it, whatever form it takes, can be difficult and fraught, but I believe it must be done, not only so we can learn, but so that we can make peace with the past.


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