Discovering Indochina – Day of Death: Phnom Penh


No one can travel to Cambodia and not be exposed to the horrors of the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge regime. Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia perpetrated one of the worst genocides in modern history. Pol Pot’s motivation still remains a mystery for many. Our tour guide, Rong, was nine years old when he was forcibly taken from his family and resettled from Phnom Penh to the countryside, where he was required to perform hard labor under constant threat of death. Rong said that the Cambodian psyche has been totally damaged by this dark history. He told us that the people are still are victimized by an ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder.

From being the most powerful presence in all of Indochina, in the 8th – 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire underwent a contraction by defeat then invasion by neighboring powers from the 14th to 19th centuries. This “dark age” of Cambodia is marked by warring factions, culminating in 1863 when King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom. This protectorate gradually became French colonial domination.

Cambodia regained its independence from the French in 1954, and King Norodom Sihanouk was declared the ruler of the new Kingdom of Cambodia (based on a vote that was rigged in his favor). The new king was able to expel Vietnamese forces that were fighting the French in Cambodian territory. Over the next few years Norodom Sihanouk drove all opposition, including the local Communist Party, which later became the Khmer Rouge, into underground resistance by his brutal tactics against them.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge

Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, was a French-educated Cambodian Maoist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until his death in 1998. After a wave of repression by Sihanouk in 1965, the Khmer Rouge movement under Pol Pot grew at a rapid rate. Many teachers and students left the cities to the countryside to join the movement.

In 1965 Pol Pot tried to get the North Vietnamese as allies in a rebellion against King Sihanouk, but they refused, having already made and agreement with Sihanouk to use Cambodian territory in their war against the South Vietnamese and the USA.

By the summer of 1968, Pol Pot began transitioning from a party leader working with a collective leadership, into the absolutist leader of the Khmer Rouge movement. Where before he had shared communal quarters with other leaders, he now had his own compound with a personal staff and guards. Outsiders were no longer allowed to approach him. Rather, people were summoned into his presence by his staff.

The road to power for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was opened by the events of January 1970 in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s reign was collapsing. He spent much time outside of Cambodia, and intrigues by his followers convinced the National Assembly that he should be removed as head of state. Afterward, the government closed Cambodia’s ports to Vietnamese weapons traffic and demanded that the North Vietnamese leave Cambodia.

The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Phạm Văn Đồng to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was also contacted by the Vietnamese who now, with China, offered him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. It is ironic that Sihanouk was the mortal enemy of the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s, and become their ally in the 1970s.

In October 1970, Pol Pot issued a resolution in the name of the Central Committee that really began a civil war in Cambodia. The resolution stated the principle of independence and was a call for Cambodia to decide its own future independent of the influence of any other country. This was the first statement of the anti-Vietnamese/self-sufficiency-at-all-costs ideology that would be a part of the Pol Pot regime when it took power years later.

Through 1971, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, also embroiled in the war against South Vietnam and the US, did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government, while Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge functioned almost as auxiliaries to their forces. Pol Pot gathered in new recruits to his army and trained them to a higher standard than previously was possible. At the same time, he severely restricted membership in the Party organization. Students and so-called “middle peasants” were now rejected by the party. Those with clear peasant backgrounds were the preferred recruits for party membership. These restrictions created an intellectual split between the educated old guard party members and the uneducated new members.

By the middle of 1973, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot controlled almost two-thirds of the country and half the population. Pol Pot started the process of reorganizing peasant villages into cooperatives where property was jointly owned and individual possessions banned. Vietnam realized that it no longer controlled the situation and began to treat Pol Pot as more of an equal leader than a junior partner.

In late 1973, Pol Pot ordered a series of general purges. Former government officials, along with anyone with an education, were singled out. The Cham minority attempted an uprising to stop the destruction of their culture, but the uprising was brutally crushed. The Khmer Rouge developed a policy of evacuating urban areas to the countryside, in order to crush the citizens’ “capitalist tendencies.” After the Khmer took power of all of Cambodia in 1975 this relocation policy was used for all residents of Phnom Penh and other cities.

Government resistance finally collapsed on September 17, 1975 and Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh and country until he was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979.

Our Tour

In one afternoon, we were taken to the two monuments of the extreme cruelty that was visited on the Cambodian people by the leadership of Pol Pot. Our first stop was to the S-21 prison. The second was to the infamous Killing Fields. Learning of the rise and domination of Pol Pot does not make it easier to understand the insanity of the events that took place under his leadership. All of our travel companions that afternoon were humbled by what we saw.

WARNING: This post shows photos of Cambodian torture facilities and death camps. Most photos are upsetting and many are horrible. You may not want to read this post. I did not much want to write it, except that I feel these stories must be told; this history must be remembered.

S 21 – Tuol Sleng Prison

The Tuol Sleng Prison was formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk. Its five buildings were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21” (S-21) and adapted the school to this need: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, many of the classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. At first it was people associated with the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers and government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, high-ranking officials and Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags, or had chemicals poured up their nose. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique, simulating drowning.

The prison was run by a man who in his earlier life was a star student and mathematics teacher. This was Kang Kek Iew , better known during this period as Comrade Duch. He was the head of the government’s internal security branch, and oversaw Tuol Sleng. He was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture for his role during the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. On 2 February 2012, his sentence was extended to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. The documentation unit was responsible for transcribing tape-recorded confessions, typing the handwritten notes from prisoners’ confessions, preparing summaries of confessions, and maintaining files. In the photography sub-unit, workers took mug shots of prisoners when they arrived, pictures of prisoners who had died while in detention, and pictures of important prisoners after they were executed.

The guards in this unit were mostly teenagers. Many guards found the unit’s strict rules hard to obey. Guards were not allowed to talk to prisoners, to learn their names, or to beat them. They were also forbidden to observe or eavesdrop on interrogations, and they were expected to obey 30 regulations, which barred them from such things as taking naps, sitting down or leaning against a wall while on duty. The interrogation unit was split into three separate groups: Krom Noyobai , political unit, or “chewing unit,” Krom Kdao or “hot” unit, and Krom Angkiem or “cool” unit. The hot unit (sometimes called the cruel unit) was allowed to use torture. In contrast, the cold unit (sometimes called the gentle unit) was prohibited from using torture to obtain confessions. If they could not make prisoners confess, they would transfer them to the hot unit. The chewing unit dealt with tough and important cases. Those who worked as interrogators were literate and usually in their 20s. Some of the staff who worked in Tuol Sleng also ended up as prisoners. They confessed to being lazy in preparing documents, to having damaged machines and various equipment, and to having beaten prisoners to death without permission when assisting with interrogations.

Tuol Sleng Prison has been preserved as it was when captured in 1979, and turned into a museum. The museum is open to the public, and along with the Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), is included in many tours as a point of interest for those visiting Cambodia. Despite the disturbing images it contains, the museum is visited by large parties of Cambodian school children. While this period with its tragedy, death and destruction has deeply affected all who lived through these years, Cambodia is a young country, with 2/3 of its people born after the Khmer Rouge period. So school children are brought here to see what their fathers and mothers endured.

There is no way that you could understand Cambodia without knowing about these death camps. During the Khmer Rouge rule, in a country of about 8 million people, probably more than 2 million died, about half through starvation and sickness, and the other half in the prisons and death camps. The life of each person and every family in the country was deeply affected.

Of the thousands who entered the Tuol Sleng, only twelve are known to have survived. These survivors are thought to have been kept alive due to their skills, judged by their captors to be useful.

Here is Tuol Sleng Prison from the outside, surrounded with barbed wire, its grey forbidding buildings rising above the wire.


The posted rules of the prison

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.6. While getting lashes 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.


From far away this looks like a normal school.


When you get closer you start noticing things, like this sign. Victims were buried at the prison when it first began, and at the very end. During most of the time, those who died here were buried in the mass graves in nearby extermination camps.


Building A. This was the building that was used to house and torture high ranking prisoners.


The barbed wire has been removed for its use as a museum.  In the photo below, Rong is seen in the foreground.



Each prisoner in Building A had his own room. In the rooms are gruesome photos.


Also objects that were used to restrain and torture the prisoners. The irons shown below were used to clamp the prisoner onto the iron bed.


The objects here were used by the guards on the prisoners. I don’t know what all of them did. The pick was used to kill. This was much less costly then using bullets. There are the remains of a plastic bottle. These were used to pour chemicals up the prisoner’s nose.


More gruesome photos of inmates murdered in their beds.





This gallows was used to torture and interrogate inmates.




This is Building B. The barbed wire was left on this building.


It was put on all floors because some prisoners would try to dive off the top two floors to kill themselves. The barbed wire put a stop to that.


Inside the rooms were small brick cells, so these rooms could each hold many prisoners.


The windows were barred over. There was a small hole made into the wall so that urine and excrement could be shoved out of the room.



In the next room are photographs of people who came through this prison. I think the Khmer Rouge were good record keepers.

There were many panels of photos of individuals. This is of men.


This is of women. Remember as you see these photos that there were 12 survivors out of 17,000 inmates of this ‘prison’.



These are children working, digging a canal, I think.

Part of the Khmer Rouge approach was to take children away from families and to split up the rest of the family.

When he saw the photo below, our Cambodian guide, Rong, said that he was in a camp like this. He was taken away from his family when he was 9 years old, and put into a child work camp, where he stayed for the duration of the Khmer Rouge government. He said that his family was lucky though. ‘Only’ one family member was killed by the Khmer Rouge, his oldest brother, who was the star child and had the best prospects for his future. His parents lived, as did he and his sister. So the loss was much less than most families.









There were a series of photos of bodies, recently killed.







Here is a man who is still standing in a room of the dead.



Without further comment, more dead.







The tools shown below were all used to torture and kill.


One of the survivors was an artist, Vann Nath. He painted this series of paintings from his memories, and he won the prestigious Lillian Hellman/Hammett Award which recognizes courage in the face of political persecution. He died in 2011.

A man being beaten with whips.



Fingernails being pulled off.



Waterboarding. (Is this where you learned this, Dick Cheney?)



Putting hot iron into his chest.



Another water torture.


When the Khmer Rouge got a woman with a young child in a death camp, they would take it from her, and smash its head on a tree to kill it. The rationale was “to stop them from growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.”


Near the end of the exhibits was a case full of human skulls.



Below, Carol stands with Mr. Chum Mey, one of only three survivors who are still alive. When I stopped to greet this man, I could only stand there and cry. He gave me a gentle look back as if he understood the tears.



Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields

After the Khmer Rouge were through with their victims at Tuol Sleng, they would send them to Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek, the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17 km south of Phnom Penh, is best-known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed about 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies have been discovered at Choeung Ek since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in Tuol Sleng prison.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial whose central feature is a Buddhist stupa. The stupa is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls and bones. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in. Tourists are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit Choeung Ek. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site.

Executions were mainly done by young men from villages, recruited by the Khmer Rouge. Most were executed here by pickaxes, to save bullets, and buried in mass graves.

Here is a map at the memorial, which is on these grounds today.



The stupa built for the memorial.


This building houses an exhibit, and has a small theater where they show a short film about the killing fields.




A map that was here shows the first round of relocations that were done from all the cities. Everyone was taken from the city. Then a year later they were all moved again.

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn urban Cambodians – the “New People” – into “Old People” through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. One of their mottos, in reference to the New People, was: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss”



Photos of skulls recovered from mass graves.



Tools like these were used to kill those who were sent to these camps.



Piles of leg and other bones, other than skulls.



A sign on the grounds.



One of the mass graves.



450 victims where buried here.



The extermination camp was built on an old Chinese-style cemetery. Remnants of the original graves are still there.



Another mass grave, 166 people buried, without heads.



More than 100 women and children, buried naked.


After the graves were opened up and remains taken for preservation, things keep coming up through the soil.

In the exhibit case below are strips of clothing.



This is one of the infamous killing trees.


Bones that came up though the soil after recovery.



This tree was used for speakers, to cover the sounds of people who were being executed.



In the stupa are many skulls, filling the lower levels in the building. The upper levels, whose contents aren’t visible, house bones other than skulls.



Some cases are open, so you can be directly with the skulls.



You can feel this in ways that are hard to describe.




Through the doors you can see level upon level of skulls.

People are inside the stupa, saying prayers, chanting, offering flowers and incense. People are moved when they experience this. Who would not be?



One last look at the stupa.


Even though in the Bhagavad Gita it says, “The wise grieve neither for the living nor the dead,” I still grieve for these people and for Cambodia.

I wonder what can bring people to do these kinds of atrocities to other people? I know one part of it is to somehow make these people “the other.” In Pol Pot’s Cambodia these “others” were the previous government, the “old people,” the peasants, who were favored, and made guards and executioners, vs. the “new people” educated, and from the cities. Then they were the enemy within, people who were seen as traitors. In addition to all this, there seemed to be the clear understanding that you either went along, or you would be considered a traitor, and be treated as such. But still, these were Cambodians torturing and executing other Cambodians.

We vividly saw that the scars from this infamous period are still very much with the Cambodian people.

Related Posts


Phnom Penh
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Sunset at Pre Rup
Ta Prohm The Temple of Doom
Angkor Wat
Touring around Siem Reap


Hanoi, Day 1
Hanoi, Day 2
Hội An
Mỹ Sơn
Nha Trang
Mekong Delta
Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon

Other Travel posts:

Touring and Travel in India
Touring and Travel outside India


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