Phnom Penh

Last year, we spent one night in Phnom Penh as a stopover between Siem Reap and Saigon. There was not enough time to do anything other than walk around the night market, grab dinner, and spend some time along the river. I very much wanted to visit the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, so when we planned our trip this year, we included a few days in the capital city of Cambodia.

Our hotel, the Okay Boutique Hotel, was in an excellent location – only a block away from the Royal Palace, a few blocks from a street lined with restaurants, and within walking distance of the river. Entering the lobby was like stepping into a museum. The décor in the lobby was traditional Khmer, as was the décor in the room. It was located in an alley off of the main street. The only noise we heard was from the Buddhist temple across the street – chanting and drumming at various times of the day. I will take that noise over the noise of bar fights that we heard when we were in Phnom Penh last year!

We decided against visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum. We walked past them, but they seemed much like other places we have visited and so we opted to not spend the price of admission to visit. Cheap, right?

The riverfront is a busy, popular place for tourists and locals alike. People here love to exercise in the morning and evening. We passed Zumba groups and groups of people using the free exercise equipment.

We found a local market to walk through. I don’t want to know what animal the tails were taken from. Frog seems to be a popular local dish.

I noticed that there were an excessive amount of single men of a certain age group (60+) here. Not sure if they are ex-pats or just tourists, but they kind of gave off a creepy vibe. Perhaps that explains the hotel policies that were posted by the elevator. There are plenty of bars that have young, attractive, overly made-up women lurking outside to entice the old gentlemen in. And, there is no shortage of massage parlors, but most seemed to be on the sleazy side.


The main attraction for me was learning about the genocide that took place under Pol Pot’s regime during the late 1970s. There are two places to visit – a museum, and the actual Killing Fields themselves. The museum is in the city, but getting to the Killing Fields requires taking a tuk-tuk, cab, or tour. Because it was quite warm, we decided to book the (misnamed) Hop On Hop Off Bus which was air-conditioned.

We knew from reading online reviews that the bus wasn’t a traditional HOHO, but the price was right and the air conditioning appealed to us. Hotel pickup was part of the deal so we wouldn’t have to wait in the heat. While we waited in our hotel’s lobby, two monks came into collect alms. The monks here carry bright orange umbrellas that match their bright orange robes. They waited patiently until an employee could come over to deposit bags of food in their begging bowls and to hand over some cash. They then chanted prayers for the employee before departing.

We were picked up from our hotel at 7:45 am. The bus was about half full at that point. It filled up by the time we headed to the museum which meant we spent the next 45 minutes driving around picking up our fellow passengers. There was a guide on board but his main function was to check payment vouchers rather than to give us much information. He said nothing at all to us until we got close to the museum when he played a pre-recorded tape that said we were now on stop 6 of our tour. I can only assume that the company’s intention is to do an actual HOHO city tour, but at this point, there are only 2 stops.

There were 3 options for touring SL 21, the Genocide Museum. You could pay $3 per person and tour on your own or you could rent an audio guide for an extra $3 or you could hire a guide for $2 to $10, depending on how many people were in your group. We were not given enough time at the museum to do the entire audio tour, so opted to go it on our own.

SL 21 used to be a school, but when the Khmer Rouge took over, it became a torture and interrogation center. Seventeen thousand prisoners passed through here between 1975 and 1979. The prison could handle 1 to 1.5 thousand at a time. Initially, the Khmer Rouge went after anyone perceived to be an intellectual – easier to control the masses if they are uneducated. So, teachers, monks, doctors, lawyers, government officials, soldiers, etc. were rounded up and taken here. Later on, the Khmer Rouge turned on its own people and sent them to SL 21 (Pol Pot was nothing if not paranoid). When we started touring the museum, I did not know much about the history of the regime but by the end of the day, I understood much more.


The basic idea was that if a person were picked up by the Khmer Rouge, they were guilty of something. The job of SL 21 was to get them to confess to their crimes. This was accomplished by a variety of torture techniques. When the prisoner finally gave in and wrote a confession (if they couldn’t write, someone wrote it for them), they were killed. After all, they had admitted your guilt. By 1976, there was no more burial space available, so after being tortured, prisoners were sent to an extermination center 15 km from town, the Killing Fields.

SL 21 had 4 buildings: A, B, C, and D. Building A had photographic displays of some of the prisoners, which included 2 Americans that were tortured and murdered by the regime. The Khmer Rouge was just as thorough as the Nazis in terms of their record keeping. Each prisoner was measured and photographed upon arrival before being put in a cell. They were fed small bowls of watery rice (sometimes only containing 1 or 2 grains of rice) once or twice a day. Anywhere from once per week to once every two to three months, water was sprayed over the prisoners in lieu of a shower.

The gallows were one of the ways that prisoners were tortured.

The remaining buildings were where the cells and interrogation rooms were located. Inside the door of the cells was written, “Don’t Be Too Free”. The last building had exhibits showing how the prisoners were tortured and the weapons of torture. Upstairs, we watched part of a documentary about SL 21. A “doctor” was interviewed. He had been given 3 months of medical training before being assigned to the prison. His function was to revive the patients enough that they could be tortured again. He bathed their wounds with salt water. Patients were forced to give blood – 4 liters worth. By the time they had been drained of blood, they were close to death and were taken out to the Killing Fields to be buried.

At the exit to the museum was a childhood survivor of the camp who was selling and autographing his memoir.

The visit was reminiscent of visiting Auschwitz. It is incredible that humans can be so inhumane. Horrifying.

On the ride to the Killing Fields, we were shown a movie on how Pol Pot rose to power (skip down a few paragraphs if you are not interested in history). It was an interesting documentary. He was a bit unusual in that unlike most despotic dictators, he preferred to stay hidden. He became a Communist while being educated in France. He hated how the royal family ruled Cambodia and wanted something different. He wanted a return to the glory days of Angkor Wat when Cambodia was an agrarian society.

When he returned to Cambodia, he became a high school teacher by day and at night, converted people to his belief system. He had to go underground due to a government crackdown in 1963 and fled to live among the hill people. He found his perfect revolutionaries there – they followed him with no questions asked. His goal was to remove all traces of the modern world.

When Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia, it threw the nation into turmoil. This allowed Pol Pot to gain power. The US thought that the Khmer Rouge was affiliated with the Viet Cong and that when the VC were conquered, that the Khmer Rouge would be as well. Not true; the Khmer Rouge hated the Vietnamese.

The bombing forced over 1 million Cambodians to flee into Phnom Penh. On April 16, 1975, the US evacuated their embassy. A day later, Pol Pot’s regime took over. Initially, people were delighted. They thought that the Khmer Rouge would make things better for them. Sadly, within a few hours, this was proven false. Two million people were ordered to leave Phnom Penh for the countryside. Anyone that hesitated was shot.

Because in Pol Pot’s mind, anything modern was impure; anyone with an education was a threat. So, the educated were his initial target. Anyone wearing glasses was seen to be smart and were killed. Ordinary people were sent to labor camps. The family unit was now destroyed. All were to be part of a “new” family, the Ankar.

Pol Pot came out of hiding in 1977 to run his country. He thought that Cambodia would be a model for countries around the world. Not just paranoid, but also delusional.

He believed the Viet Cong were going to invade Cambodia, so sent troops there. Instead, the Vietnamese responded by attacking and taking over the capital. This was the beginning of the end for the Khmer Rouge. The labor camps were closed; Pol Pot escaped to the jungle where he lived until his death in 1998. He was never punished for his crimes, nor was he ever repentant. During the intervening years, the Khmer Rouge continued to fight using guerilla tactics, but their numbers were now only 3,000. In 1992, the UN took over Cambodia from the Vietnamese and reinstated rule by the royal family.

We were given an hour and ten minutes at the Killing Fields. We opted to skip the audio guide, but in retrospect, this was probably a mistake. Unlike the museum, there is very little posted information. Our guide told us that it was not an option to take a guided tour, but we passed multiple groups that were. Also, there is a movie shown every 15 minutes in the museum, but we were not told about it. By the time we found the museum, there was a one hour break for lunch, so the movie was not being shown. One woman said that the information was the same as on the audio guide, but since we didn’t rent one, we missed out.


The first stop for us was the pagoda where the skulls of the victims are displayed. Outside, flowers are sold that can be placed as a remembrance to the victims. Inside, each of the 4 sides is labeled with the ages of the victims. Below the skills are signs showing the different ways they were killed.

Walking around the area, you can see where the mass graves were. The larger ones are covered with a roof and a sign explains how many were buried there.

There is a tree where children were murdered. People leave colorful bracelets there.

After wandering around the grounds, we went to the small museum. The museum itself does not have much information that was not already covered by the Genocide Museum (SL 21).

We were driven back to our hotels and dropped off. It was a grim day, but I think it is important to learn about how these types of atrocities happen to try to prevent them from happening in the future. My only issue with the tour was that we should have been given more time at the museum and less time at the Killing Fields.

Altogether, we spent 3 full days in Phnom Penh, which was more than enough time. Two would suffice, but we always schedule one more day than we think we will need which allows me to catch up on my blogging. We are definitely ready to move on to Siem Reap!