Cambodia has had a recent tragic history that its population still needs to recover from. Back in 1975 the communist party of Kampuchea formed by the Khmer Rouge took over control of Cambodia.
The regime was led by Pol Pot who set up policies that disregarded human life and forced millions of people to leave the cities and work in the agricultural sector. A lot of people died on the long walks or starved to death due to barely any food being provided to them.
The regime was in charge until 1979 when the Vietnamese captured Phonm Penh, the capital of Cambodia. During these four years, nearly two million people died. Most of them imprisoned, tortured and murdered which led to hundreds of mass graves in Cambodia.
S21- Cambodia’s most famous Prison
S21 used to be a high school in its earlier days, which then was turned into a high security prison by the Khmer Rouge. It was one out of 150 execution centres in Cambodia at the time. The prison is located in Phnom Penh and the number of people who were imprisoned is still unknown.
What is known, however, is that out of the estimated 17000-20000 prisoners only a handful survived. People were tortured on a daily basis, forced to write wrong confessions and give up the name of family members, who would then be imprisoned themselves.
S21 is now a museum, informing visitors as well as locals about the tragic history of the country. It is definitely not an easy place to visit. But necessary to understand what actually happened and to know why Cambodia is the way it is.
As a visitor you will be confronted with pictures of prisoners, torture methods, real human skulls and a lot of history.
It wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, which is why I can only show you pictures of the buildings itself, but even more of a reason for you to experience it for yourself.
How to get to the S21 Prison and what is the entry fee
The prison is located close to the centre of Phnom Penh and I’m sure it would be possible to walk, depending on where you are staying. However, I would recommend taking a Tuk Tuk. You can get the Tuk Tuk to wait for you outside and it will take you to another place after. If you want to visit the Killing Fields on the same day then you will definitely need a Tuk Tuk, since these are located a couple of kilometres out-of-town.
Entry is $5 without an audio guide and $8 with an audio guide. (I would 100% recommend an audio guide!!) The audio guide is available in a lot of different languages as well.
Tip: Pay in dollars, otherwise the exchange rate will be higher.
Killing Fields in Phnom Penh
The Prison could only hold a limited amount of people, which led to a lot of Killing Fields created by the Khmer Rouge. These are mass graves, where prisoners would be transported to in the middle of the night to be executed. In total, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for around 2 million deaths, out of a population of only 8 million people back then.
The best known of these killing fields would be Choeung Ek, which is located 17 kilometres South of Phnom Penh. It was built into a memorial which can be visited by tourists. In the heart of is a Buddhist Stupa, which is filled with more than 5000 human skulls.
The price is $8 dollars for visitors, including an audio guide. The audio guide is this time absolutely necessary as you make your way around the mass graves and the famous killing tree. Most buildings that used to be there, do not exist anymore, so you need to listen to understand what happened there.
Still to this day, the population of Cambodia has to recover from this nightmare. Even those people that survived the Khmer Rouge regime, have lost family members and are still traumatised by the events. Thousands of people became refugees and fled their own country. These factors contribute to Cambodia’s poverty these days.
Overall it’s been a very sad day, but also really informational and educational. Even after I had already entered Cambodia I didn’t really know much about its history. This visit to Phnom Penh has definitely changed that.
I believe, learning about the past and present of a country is fundamental for getting to know a culture. It can’t therefore always be beaches and sunshine.
So if you think you can handle it, then I would recommend a visit to both of these places when traveling to Phnom Penh.