S-21 and The Killing Fields– Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’d like to start off by warning you that this is going to be very different from my normal posts. It will not be happy by any means, and the images posted are quite disturbing. I am going to attempt to describe the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. This was a horrific case of genocide that I did not learn in my history classes growing up. It was never brought to my attention until I arrived in Southeast Asia. Visiting the Killing Fields (admission $5) and S-21 (admission $2) is definitely something I would recommend to anyone and everyone, though I know I will not be able to visit them again due to the effect it has had on me. I will, however, tell you more about the genocide that was committed.

The Khmer Rouge, let by Pol Pot, ruled in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The goal of Pol Pot’s party was to eliminate all external influences within Cambodia and start at “year zero”. This created a movement of killing and enslaving intellectuals (lawyers, teachers… educated persons of all likes) or anyone else who was against his movement to begin a new society where everyone works for the greater good. His idea of a “degree” was to learn plowing, digging canals and other manual labor.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison

To the left is an image of Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh. Looking at it, it looks similar to images I’ve posted of the school I taught this past semester at. That’s because it was a high school turned prison. I’ve told you the nickname Thai’s in my city gave me, coincidentally, the white flowers on the tree are, in fact, Leelawadee. During the four years of it’s operation, about 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed here. Looking at the same photo, you’ll see a wooden structure with three large clay pots beneath. I immediately thought this was the remains of gallows, however, it’s use was far more cruel and drawn out than a hanging. Prisoners being interrogated were bound and hung upside down until they passed out, then lowered into a mix of smelly water (often manure) until they regained consciousness. This process was repeated until the prisoner either died, or answered the questions the guards were asking. The reasons for interrogating the prisoners varied. Some were questioned to determine if they were working for the CIA, while others could have stolen a cup of rice and just drawn attention to themselves. When you walk into the compound, you see a translated list of rules that must be followed by all prisoners:

Victims of S-21 were all documented when they arrived at the prison. They were not only Cambodians, but among the 17,000 who were imprisoned were eleven westerners (4 from USA, 2 from Australia, 1 from New Zealand, 1 from England, and 3 from France).

1. You must answer accordingly to my questions–Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to protest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your morals or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashed or electrification you must not cry at all
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Clearly, the guards within S-21 were harsh. In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fell, there were only seven survivors in S-21’s cells.

For those prisoners who survived torture at S-21, they were blinded and tied, told they were being transferred to another site. These prisoners were taken to Choeung Ek, formally a Chinese cemetery, but now known as The Killing Fields. When you arrive, you are given an audio headset that explains what you are seeing. The buildings have since been torn down, but signs tell you where they once stood. It was also mentioned that loud music would be played to cover the sounds of prisoner’s screams as to not alert waiting prisoners of their upcoming demise. The photo to the right features sunken holes. These are where mass graves once were. The bodies of the victims have since been exhumed in many of the locations, however there are still a large amount of mass graves that have not been touched. Though the bodies are no longer there, when it rains and as the soil settles, the remaining ties, blindfolds, teeth, clothes and bones in these areas will surface. I saw many articles of clothing and some ties (that bound prisoner’s hands) as well. There is an area where recently surfaced items are placed and kept as a memorial. Some people had found teeth and a shoe, which they graciously placed on top of the memorial.

Probably the most disturbing site in this tour is called “The Killing Tree”. When you approach it, you notice the abundance of bracelets, flowers and trinkets that have been placed at the base of the tree’s trunk. There are also teeth and small bone matter that have been placed there as well. The specific use of this tree was to kill infants and children. The audio tape graphically described the method of execution. Guards would grab the child by the legs, and hit it against the tree. The majority of the time, the child was taken straight from it’s mother’s arms and the mother would watch this happen shortly before she was executed. According to the Khmer Rouge, it was better to “kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake,” and “to dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots.” The thought process behind this was that if they let the children survive, they may become revengeful in the future.

At the end of the tour through The Killing Fields stands a Memorial Stupa. Within this memorial, there are 17 stories of bones that have been exhumed from the site. These bones belong to over 9,000 of the victims killed at Choeung Ek. It was quite chilling to look closely at the skulls of those who had died, because many of them had scars which told you of their horrific deaths.

I took many more photos, which I will post to Facebook once I get back to my own computer. Many more posts about Vietnam and Angkor Wat to come. I apologize this was not in chronological order, however you can imagine that this is something that would be quite disturbing.


Cambodia is still struggling to bounce back after the horrific loss of it’s people. The country is poverty stricken, I can only imagine what Cambodians are going through in outlying cities. While at The Killing Fields, I bought four big bottles of water. None of which I had any of. It was for the children who were just outside the fence, standing barefoot and half naked. The first time, I poured a bit of my water into one of their bottles. Tears came to my eyes as I watched the six of them share that small bit among themselves. They were not greedy with it, even though you could tell they were all dehydrated and thirsty. In the states, we take for granted the fact that we can drink water straight from the faucet. I know I’ve bought bottles of it plenty of times. It’s environmentally unfriendly and financially insane. Yet, here, they don’t have clean water to drink. I’ve filled so many small and empty hands with water, food and money in the last 48 hours, and yet I still can’t fill enough.

Although I am speaking about Cambodia in this post, and this began as a recollection of my tours in Phnom Penh, this is a problem that is occurring in more places than it should be. Children should never be in want of water. We should never see bulging bellies or sunken eyes. I think back on all the useless things I’ve bought that I never really needed. The money I spent on petty things that could have gone to give a child somewhere food, water or shoes. I can only do so much now, but in the future, I really want to do something to help these kids. If you’re interested, there are many organizations you can give to. Feed the Children is one of them. You can sponsor kids from all over the world. I am doing what I can to help them over here, but one day, when I am not helping them directly, I will be giving to them somehow.

I apologize that this post has turned into a solicitation. That is not how it was meant to be at all. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. Visiting S-21 and The Killing Fields was haunting, and I’ll never forget what I’ve learned here.


3 thoughts on “S-21 and The Killing Fields– Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  1. This is why Don and I did not visit any former concentration camps on our visit to Germany. We may do so at a future time, but I’m just not sure I can take in the horror of it all. At least in The Killing Fields, it was not your own people who committed these atrocities. Which are unspeakable. I’m of direct German descent and still have relatives there. The children of people who may have committed some of the horrible things that took place in WWII. I am astonished that none of the horror of the Killing Fields was in any of your history books. That’s shameful in itself. I’m very proud of you for making this trip and taking in what happened there. That took courage in my book. But I think you’re a pretty brave young lady anyway. To be where you are, on your own, is courages. And I really admire your desire to help the children of the world. I think you will be a force to be reckoned with.
    Keep safe, we love you.
    Aunt Cheryl

  2. Hello, Lindsey!!! Boy, your blog this time made me teary-eyed. You are really going to have to write a book. I think your gift is writing, Lizard!! I love you and miss you and look so forward to all your blogs. What an experience Phnom Penh has been for you. Of all your travels, this might be the one place that is a life-changer…about how you view others and their circumstances. It certainly is a compelling read and I can almost feel the impression it has had on you. Blessings, sweetie, Love Mia

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