Phnom Penh, Cambodia: A Dark History

A day in Phnom Penh, Exploring Cambodia’s Dark History

Cambodia has to be one of my favourite countries to visit; it may not be as commercialised, touristy or have the same infrastructure as its neighbours, Thailand or Vietnam but this is what sets it apart. I love the fact that you won’t find a Seven Eleven, a McDonald’s or even a Starbucks around every corner. Cambodia is full of history and culture; you can walk around the towns and cities and be welcomed with local shops, restaurants and very friendly locals. If you are looking for an authentic travel experience then Cambodia is certainty that, what you see is what you get!

Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia is no exception, the city is crazy and bustling with mopeds, tuk tuks, cars, vans and buses all tousling for the right of way, traffic is crazy and you will often see people taking no notice to road signs or traffic lights and even driving down the street on the wrong side on the road! I’ve seen mopeds with four or five people squashed on with many even carrying young babies! Don’t let this put you off though, just be prepared for lots of beeping! However Unlike Siem Reap, Phnom Penh hides a dark past!

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The fact that Cambodia seems to be 20 years behind other countries in the area is generally due to the horrific and tragic events that took place during the reign of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979.  During this time is it estimated that up to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. The Khmer Rouge attempted to socially engineer a classless communist society and took a particular disdain for intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. Immediately after taking control of Phnom Penh the Khmer Rouge evacuated its 2.5 million residents, stripped them of their belongings and made them toil the fields as part of a re-education program.

The Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia to the Democratic Kampuchea and under Pol Pot’s new regime the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life, children were taken from their families and made to join the military. Anybody who disagreed or complained about the new regime where usually tortured and sent to detention centres such as the infamous S-21 now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and killed. It is thought out of the estimated 20,000 people imprisoned at S-21 there are only 12 know survivors! Many of the bodies of those killed were buried in mass graves known now as the killing fields.

A visit to the killing fields and the S-21 museum is a must do when visiting Phnom Penh, However is it not a pleasant experience! Both museums give insight into the atrocities at that time and give you a very sobering experience. At times I was overwhelmed with emotion but it is important to learn about such events in the hope that these atrocities and suffering don’t happen again. However it’s sad to know that this was not the last genocide the world has experienced and that in some places around the world these things are still happening now!

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – S-21

The S-21 detention centre was one of many in Cambodia and was formally the Chao Ponhea High School. However in 1976 it was turned into a prison and interrogation centre and was re-named the Security Prison 21. It is thought that there was as many as 1500 prisoners there at any one time who were repeatedly tortured and coerced into giving details of other family members or close associates who were then in turn arrested and tortured and killed themselves.

Most of the victims of S-21 were soldiers from the previous regime, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers and monks, virtually anyone who was seen to be an intellectual. The prison had very strict rules and most prisoners were held there for up to 3 months, during this time the torture system was designed to make prisoner confess to whatever crimes they were charged with, regardless of whether it was true or not, after which they were then killed.

Cambodia a dark history
The strict rules!

In the beginning most prisoners who were killed were buried near the prison but eventually they ran out of space. This meant that prisoners were then transported out of Phnom Penh to what is now known as the Killing Fields, were they were executed and put into mass graves. Although the majority of those killed were Cambodian, there were many foreign nationals including some westerners.

Cambodia a dark history
One of the rooms used for torturing prisoners!
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Another area used to torture prisoners!

The S-21 museum can be easily reached by foot from the city centre and entrance fee is only $5, you can also get an audio guide for an extra $3 which is a must do!

As you enter the museum you can easily imagine what the site was like when it was a school. Within Its typical square layout the large courtyard in the middle, you can imagine the children running around playing. However as soon you get to the first point on the audio guide you are right away transported back to reality and the atrocities that have taken place!

At times I found it very difficult to read all the displays as the amount of information and graphic detail is so intense. To be honest as we have visited the Killing Fields beforehand,  I left the museum before seeing all of it as by that time I just couldn’t take any more  in. Doing both museums back to back is a very tough experience; I recommend if you have the time, visit them over two separate days.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
You can imagine how it looked like as a school.

Along with detailed accounts, photos and original fixtures the museum also plays documentaries, including survivor stories. There is also a gift shop and on some days you will find one of the survivors who has a book stall.

The S-21 museum is open daily from 8 am – 5 pm

For more information visit

Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields

The killing Fields Memorial is located about 17 Kilometres from Phnom Penh with an entrance fee is $3 with must have audio guide another $3. The audio guide here is brilliant and really helps you understand the site and the details of what happened. The only real transport to the site is by tuk tuk which you can hire for the day for about $20.

Choeung Ek The Killing Fields
One of the mass graves now underwater.

The site itself used to be a Chinese cemetery and orchard of which you can still see signs of today. It is though about 20,000 men, women and children were killed here and then dumped into one of the many mass graves.

The site itself is just one of many found ‘killing Fields’ around Cambodia. Many victims had previously been tortured in one of the many security prisons such as S-21 and were brought here to be executed, however to save on bullets, they were killed the cheapest way possible, usually bludgeoned or hacked to death or by using the sharp leaves of the surrounding trees to slit people’s throats.

The audio guide takes you from point to point painting a picture of what happened here, explaining what it would of looked like. As you walk around the site you will see many coloured bracelets which have been left as a mark of respect, you will also walk around areas of mass graves, many of which have not been unearthed. In some of these sights you will come across items of clothing or pieces of bone which have found their way to the surface due to heavy rainfall.

Cambodia a dark history
Coloured bracelets left as a mark of respect.
Choeung Ek The Killing Fields
Area where children and babies were killed.

Some points of the tour can be very harrowing especially the points were it is known that executioners beat and killed children and babies. The most poignant part of the tour is towards the end when you come face to face with the large stupa containing thousands of sculls as well as items of clothing and weapons used to kill. There are many parts of the tour where you and still and reflect and listen to some of the stories on the audio guide.

Cambodia a dark history
Stupa containg sculls.

The Choeung Ek memorial is open daily from 8 am – 5 pm

For more information visit

Looking for somewhere to stay in Phnom Penh? If so, I recommend for budget hotels or Hostelworld for hostels. If you are looking for something more luxurious then I recommend using as you will get one free nights’ accommodation for every 10 nights booked!

Thanks for reading, if you would like to be kept updated on my future travels then why not subscribe or follow me on your favourite social media.

Happy travels,

Louise X

Read more:

Angkor Wat: Exploring Cambodia’s temples

3 Week Thailand itinerary: A budget guide

Ayutthaya Historical Park: A day trip from Bangkok

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  1. Kate says

    I really enjoyed Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng Museum is something that I’ve never forgotten. I had to leave some of the rooms there because it really upset me. We also visited the Killing Fields on the same day – like the Prison, this has stayed with me. I can’t believe how awful people can be to other people. 🙁

    1. LouDoesTravel says

      Yes both places had the same effect on me, truly horrific what people can do to each other 😢

  2. Nicoline says

    I’ve wanted to visit Angkor Wat for ages but never really considered other places in Cambodia until now. Even though it’s a dark history, Phnom Penh sounds very interesting!

    1. LouDoesTravel says

      Angkor Wat is Fabulous, I’ll have a blog up about it soon, so keep an eye out for it 😊

  3. Kelly says

    When I was in Cambodia, we visited both of these sites in the same day, and I’d agree that it might be better to spread them out as it is very emotional. Great post, and I certainly hope more people visit these places to learn about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

    1. LouDoesTravel says

      Thanks for the lovely comment Kelly, Yes it’s a very emotional place and I hope more people visit these places too!

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