Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Genocide, Killing Fields and Khmer Rouge

This is a depressing post. I thought long and hard before posting this because as the last stop of my Indo-China trip, I was quite hesitated to blog about this tragic history that sent Cambodia 50 years behind time just 30 years ago.

This is a school. A high school.

genocide s21

It looks no different like every other high school around.


With normal classrooms, playground and staircase.

students going up stairs

hanging punishment


Or is it?

Year 1975, the Khmer Rouge Regime began.

Cambodians were not prepared what was about to become of them. In the next three years, close to 1/5 population in Cambodia were murdered, slaughtered, perished and eliminated. The biggest massacre every to happen in history, worse than Hitler's time; a total of 1.7 million lives were taken.

And this school was turned into a prison, called the S21; or Genocide S21.

wired corridors

Politicians were captured, tortured and interrogated, and murdered.

prison A

In the school, you can still see blood stains on the walls and ceilings in some the classrooms.

blood stain on ceilings

This is the stain from this victim who got his stomach punctured while he was alive.

dead potrait of politician

Women were captured and photographed in still form while their kids and husbands were being slaughtered outside.

crying mother and wife of embassador
Wife of ambassador and a tear

Kids were captured because they were either somehow related to politicians, or there was simply no reason at all.

handsome kid prisoner

pretty girl prisoner

These lives were taken without a thought, with no mercy. And no life was taken before torturing interrogations took place. These included pulling their penis with metal grip, pouring acid up their noses, twitching nipples out, slicing skin, whipping, extreme kicking and punching and hitting of canes till the skull burst.

dead prisoner
Skull burst due to over-hitting

acid through nose prisoner
Acid from nose

Look at this photo carefully, the kid had his skin pierced through when they pinned the tag to him.

needled pocked through neck

It was inhuman.

A school, transformed into cells.

prison B

genocide classroom prisons

Feeding only one meal a day, many starved to death during their imprisonment here. It was the "least" cruel way to die.

There was no shower, you eat, shit, pee, and sleep inside a cell just enough to stand and move about.

s21 single cell

They wired the corridors, because there was once a girl who managed to run out of cell and jumped from fourth floor and die. The Pol Pot (leading commander, Politician Potential) got angry and decided to wire the place so no one could commit suicide.

s21 school corridor

me at genocide s21

During the last year of the regime, the Genocide alone killed over 300 people on a daily basis.

And this was just the introduction of what it was like during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The country haunts me. Cambodia, in my opinion, was a sad, depressing, tragic place that disturbed me gravely during my visit there. I couldn't bring myself to feel happy, to smile; in fact, I was full of tears, anger and a whole mixture of feelings.

I spent three days in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia (pronounced as "Nom Pen") studying the history of Cambodia, and understanding the state it was now. Of why it is still so behind time, why there are people on this earth still crave for true freedom and unable to live out their past.

I read this book called "Stay Alive, My Son" during my stay in Phnom Penh, a true story about a survivor who lived through the period, losing over 30 members of his family, including his son and wife. I finished the book over night, and cringed the night after, unable to sleep.

Wondering why? Asking why? There simply was no answer.

I visited the killing fields, a place where they bring people here to die. Mass lives burials were carried out up to few times a month.

Studying some of the skulled they dug up after the regime, you'll find skulls with holes and felt the pain of how it was like to die there, in that state.

hole in skull

Most times, bamboo sticks were used to save the cost of bullets.

cracked skull
Cracked by bamboo stick

piles of skulls

Collections upon collections of skulls were arranged according to different age group.

skulls of victims
Skulls of victims age 15-20

In 1988, they built a memorial dedicated to these victims. I was only 4 years old.

memorial at killing fields

It's the famous tower of skulls, storing all the memories of the past, to remind Cambodia and the rest of the world. And to dedicate a place to these victims for them to rest in peace.

tower of skulls

I could write the longest post ever about this piece of history, and it took me a really long time wondering how I should begin. I was simply lost of words.

There are a lot more to just photos, sometimes it's better to not say it, and simply experience it, hear it, understand it. This is the reason I travel, why I rather go out and see than to sit home and read. And I want to travel more, to learn about the many whats and whys.

I left Cambodia, ending my Indo-China trip knowing a bit more about the world, and a little less about myself.

nicolekiss at killing field memorial

To the Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge Regime. May your souls rest in peace.


46 kissed Nicole

  1. your post left me tearing. It is very beautifully written. :)

  2. wow ...what can i say for this post. thanks for sharing this info for little me who sit at home ...
    i always wish me to be like n learning abt world n ppl.

    btw, been reading ur blog for few years bk but never ever tot to leave msg..maybe becoz this post is deeply touch my heart that i couldnt hold my finger not to leave msg for u ..

    keep it up ur dreams and what u love to u is not easy to find what u really love to do i hvnt find mine yet.

  3. www.fieldoflove.net5/6/08 7:21 PM

    This is arguebly one of your best post ever. It's heart wrenching written and I believe you pour a lot of feelings in it. Thanks for sharing so much with the readers. You just make me feel how lucky am I...

  4. this journal touches my heart

    beautifully written.

    Somehow back in those days, cruelty seems so simple to those bad ppl back them.

    Life is so precious that we ought to cherish it

  5. hi nicole, one year ago, I was there like you were.

    And like you, I was there on the last leg of my trip in Cambodia, and was deeply disturbed by the amount of pain and suffering the Cambodians must have gone through. In fact, visiting Phnom Penh as the last stop of my trip left me feeling very depressed and haunted and helpless -- a vastly opposite feeling I had when I was in Siem Reap for the first 2 days.

    Visiting the killing fields, seeing all the mass graves -- and I believe you saw the magic tree where they hung a loudspeaker to play music so that the cries of those being killed (including children) at the mass graves cannot be heard, and also an exposed wooden log which is actually a coffin -- with some still undug because there were just too many, left me feeling really haunted and sad. I felt very disturbed that I was stepping on many of the remains as well -- because it was raining the previous day, the earth was exposed and there were fragments of bones all around the ground we walked about on.

    And I believe the school is a secondary school... not a primary school, but not that it matters anyway. The "playground" which you talked about -- the picture which you had of the 2 big pots and a hanging bar, is used to hang the victims upside down and to submerge them into the pot which contained water as part of their torture routine. It is also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum besides S21. Inside the school, there are 14 graves of the remaining 14 bodies that were found inside the classrooms which they converted into cells / torture rooms with the beds. The Vietnamese soldiers (I think) found the bodies because they smelled something very foul emitting from the school compound.

    Reading your blog made me recall the night before I depart Cambodia where I laid sleepless, feeling haunted, and disturbed in my hotel room (the day before, I visited the mass graves and the S21). You are really brave to take pictures with all the skulls -- my friend and I were quite superstitious -- but I nevertheless took a lot of pictures of the skulls and the prison too, but that night, I couldn't sleep.

    And I learnt from my friend the next morning, she couldn't sleep too. We were just too disturbed and distraught with what we saw and heard that day.

    Even after I came back, I was depressed for a few days. Imagine if we were to experience it -- wouldnt that have dramatically changed our souls and perhaps drive us to insanity?

    That's why now, I feel so angry with the Myanmar Junta too...inhuman. But that's another separate issue.

    Would really like to share with you my Cambodia photos as well. I have not labelled them but just dumped them onto a photo-hosting site. Maybe one day, when I am free, I shall update it with captions and labels before I send you a link to it via your email :)

    Thanks for sharing on your blog. I really enjoy reading it. Please keep on writing.

  6. That was very beautifully written, Nicole. It was truly very touching.

  7. Speechless & disturbing. To think that people are capable of such unspeakable cruelty to their fellow humans. Atrocious & unforgivable. God bless the victims souls.

  8. Glad that you visited the Toul Sleng Museum as well as the Killing Fields at Cheung-Ek. They are certainly not the "normal" tourist attractions. Definitely not for the faint hearted, but they definitely change one's perspective on life. The Khmer Rouge's reign of terror also explains why you see so few Cambodians between the ages of 40-60. Most of them were killed during their reign of terror.

  9. BTW, as a mark of respect for those who perished at the S21 prison, may I suggest that you remove the individual photos of the children and the ambassador's wife? You may also wish to crop the photo of the boy with the safety pin on the neck to show just the neck area. All those shown in your photos most probably perished at the prison or at the Killing Fields as only 7 prisoners are known to have survived S21. Let them rest in peace.

  10. Thanks for sharing this touching post. This shall never happen again.

  11. this is the effects of not being careful in handling political issues...hopefully people learn from the past and no such thing happens ever again in the is truly a disturbing sight...

  12. I couldn't say a word when I read this post. Sigh... Thank for sharing this nicole.. thank.. you reminded me that, I'm lucky over here..


  13. You should learn about the Holocaust if you didn't know about it. And I do believe that your statement about this genocide is worst than Hitler's time is wrong.

    During the Holocaust, I believe 60 million people were killed. All kinds of people including the disabled, gay, gypsies, children, and especially Jews and so on.

    Women during that time were shaved and then they use their hair to make socks. They inject dyes into the eyes of the prisoners. The prisoners were treated as medical experiments. Their gold teeth were extracted. They were locked in a room and were subjected to poisonous gases.

    The cruelty goes on...

  14. good article, indeed show how travelling and knowing each and every place touch your heart

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  16. Thanks for sharing Nicole!!now I will appreciate my life more!!

  17. very eye-opening. i didn't know about this at all before.

  18. numbers apart, i think both hitler and khmer are the same in terms of potential.. if u put khmer in hitler's position, the numbers would be similar.. it's just the difference in circumstances, thus the difference in numbers..

    anyway.. 1 death is already too much.. both regimes deserve nothing less than hell..

  19. You are way off, 5-6 Million Jews were perished (sic) during the holocaust.

  20. I was there a 2 weeks before, on business trip. My boss who was there 8 years ago said the ppl has changed, now they are generally very happy, just because they can live a normal life.

    My cambodian acquaintance told me that the country has changed alot especially during the last 2 years.

    I knew there was civil wars but I didn't know it's this cruel. Actually I know abt the incidents that u mentioned but I didn't know it was in Cambodia!

    I can hardly relate the ppl I've known in Cambodia with history like this! They look so happy now.

    And they are having a better life, many people (rich ones) are asking for better products, etc.

    It didnt come easy..

  21. Lucky to come back to Malaysia alive when the times you went is pretty close to the monk's riot and stuff. Enough said :D


  22. Thank you Nicole for sharing.... You widen my eyes and my knowledge.... It is indeed very sad.....

  23. This has got to be one of your most sombre entries, Nicole.

    Nicely written. I was pretty dumbstruck. I've seen one of the travellers going here on the show: Globe Trekker. But reading ur entry leaves more impact on me.

    How is it that such cruelty was allowed to thrive back then, struck me speechless. Those who carried out the tortures, I wonder where their conscience hung. And the kids, my goodness. Just kids....

    Thanks for sharing!

  24. I read Stay Alive, My Son too and if my tears were blood, I would die of haemorrhaging that day

  25. Very good post, Nicole !
    My DH went ther and he feels the same way too. Why human being treat anothers with cruelty n so much hatred.
    I saw this post earlier during th day n decided to postpone reading it cos I didn't feel ready ^__^
    Thank's Nicole for the post

  26. thank you for the thoughts...

    feeling a little emo here... yup, i could feel how u feel when u were over there... that moment... just from reading it..

    so called life...

    which is why, life short... play hard ;)

    though it dun quite make any sense.. but be happy :) smiles

  27. Thanks for sharing nicole. I don't think I dare enough to be there and see all the pictures myself.

    I wonder whether people of North Korea experiencing the same seclusion and torture, yet are brainwashed to hail their leader as if they are God.

    Sad to see all this. But glad to know people in Cambodia are better of now!

  28. 阿彌陀佛... Sorry, I don't know you can read that or not... I really feel sorry about them... Maybe I can't even set foot at that place.

  29. Hey Nic,

    I have always wanted to visit the killing fields. Few years back I shortly read a book bout it in Melbourne. Putting aside all the countless documentaries I have watched regarding to Khmer Rounge Regime. I always cry after it and since then I have always wanted to visit Cambodia. And I hope soon, I will have the chance to....

  30. Nice post and thanks for sharing :)

  31. Opps, I guess I made a mistake about the numbers of casualties being 60million during Hitler's time.

    There are many other reference with different numbers.

  32. It is very beautifully written.
    I was there two year ago.
    maybe can visit

  33. It's really sad how people lose humanity and do crazy/cruel shit to others. I wonder how would they feel if they were the one being tortured?

    First They Killed My Father is another great book written by a Cambodian survivor of the Pol Pot regime. I just thought you might want to check it out.

  34. OMG. This post made me cry and feel heart pain (physically really feel the heart pain). Thanks for sharing. By the way, do they sell the Stay Alive, My Son book in malaysia? What's the author's name?

  35. really thanks nicole for sharing this. i d never know bout cambodia this way if it's not for u. i love how u bring out the situation with the facts that happened with the high school. keep up the good work in educating us! 3

  36. Your post really impacted me deeply. I couldn't imagine how cruel the people at that time could be. I couldn't imagine how badly those innocent people were hurt, tortured and killed. It's really painful to see the pictures. I cried when I read this post.

    Btw, where can we get the book: Stay Alive, My Son?

  37. what a beautiful post...Now I want to visit cambodia too. :)

  38. it was very touching.. i cried :(

  39. This is sad indeed. Why there are people out there who are willing to kill in order to get what they want? Isn't there a better method than killing?

  40. May they rest in peace ~

  41. which hotel did you stay in phnom penh? I dunno which hotel should i choose.. can suggest? Cheap pne n comfy one... keke

  42. nice write up....just thought of pointing out the comment about the skull that got "cracked" by a cane; those are normal lines you find in everyone, not the resultant of being hit in the skull.

  43. So beautifully written. Really sad & touching. Love every bits of your feeling towards the innocent souls.