Phnom Penh – a city bursting with history

On my first full day in Phnom Penh I visited the infamous Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (commonly referred to as “S21” standing for Security prison number 21 – there were over 150 of them). It’s been more than 12 days since I visited these two places and everyday I seem to think about them more and more.

I thought I would start by briefly explaining what led to the use of the security prisons and killing fields before reflecting on how they affected me. Be warned that this may be quite a long post – the visits have had more of an effect on me than I ever could have imagined.

A brief history 

Cambodia’s Civil War that started in 1970 ended in 1975. On 17th April 1975, under the command of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was evacuated and its 2.5 million residents were sent to labour camps in the countryside. Those evacuated quickly became known as the 17th of April people. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a communist agrarian utopia. The year they came into power became their ‘Year One.’ Pol Pot wanted agricultural output to double in 4 years, a completely unrealistic goal, and banned private properties turning them into collective farms to enable this. With no experience of harvesting crops many failed to produce the amounts they were required to grow (3 tonnes of rice per hectare). Most of the workers worked for 19 hour days and many thousands died from starvation and heat exhaustion whilst working in these labour camps. In these labour camps family relationships were banned as the Khmer Rouge believed that parents were exploiting their children.

The Khmer Rouge also banned religion and anyone found to be practicing Budhhism was immediately executed. Those Cambodians who were educated, could speak French or other foreign languages, were rich or wore glasses were sent straight to the security prisons to be tortured before being sent to the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge thought these people may have connections with foreign governments and had the potential to overpower the Khmer Rouge and so must be killed after being tortured to find out what they knew.

When people were thought to be a threat they were taken to security prisons to be tortured. Their photo would be taken on arrival and meticulous records were kept of prisoners. Prisoners were often forced to write false confessions that fitted whatever crimes they had been charged with which were often thousands of words long and mostly fabricated. They would name family and strangers alike and make up the names of political parties they supported and had connections with. The methods of torture are painful to think about. S21 (Tuol Sleng) was a high school before it became a prison. As such the guards used what had been a climbing frame for pupils as a way to torture prisoners. They would be suspended upside down until they passed out and then dipped into a barrel of human faeces until they regained consciousness when the whole thing would be repeated again. In some respects this was not that bad. Other methods included water-boarding, ripping out people’s fingernails whilst simultaneously dousing their fingers in alcohol, routine beatings by often 4 or 5 guards at a time and the use of electric shocks. Guards sometimes raped female prisoners but as this was against policy if they were found out they too would be executed. If a prisoner died before their confession was signed then the guard deemed responsible would be imprisoned. As the Khmer Rouge had most doctors executed, some guards were given basic medical training to try and keep prisoners alive. At the same time though, prisoners were experimented on much like the Jews were in WW2. They were cut open and their organs were removed with no anaesthetic and some prisoners were attached to IV pumps and every last drop of their blood was removed to see how long they would take to die.

Much to my surprise some foreigners were also imprisoned at S21. One of these was New Zealander Kerry Hamill, who along with fellow sailors Canadian Stuart Glass and Englishman John Dewhirst, were captured by the Khmer Rouge when their boat sailed into Cambodian waters during a storm. Kerry’s confession is laced with humour and clues for his family. He wrote that Colonel Sanders (of the chicken fame) was one of his “superiors”, the home number in Whakatane was his CIA operative number and scattered through as members of the CIA are family friends – Colonel Perram was Miles Hamill’s gliding instructor, Captain Dodds was an old friend of Kerry’s from Whakatane. The public speaking instructor, “Mr S. Tarr”, was Esther (his mother), Kerry says. Kerry’s youngest brother remarks “He was sending a message to our mother. A message of love and hope. And it was as if whatever the final outcome, he would have the last say.”

When confessions had been collected, and sometimes straight from their homes, Cambodians were taken in jeeps in the dark of night to the killing fields. They were told that they were being relocated to new homes to prevent them from making any noise. They could never have imagined what atrocities lay ahead of them. When they arrived they were all marched into a dark barn. They could not see each other and were ordered to make no noise. Sometimes they were held in there for a day when the capacity of the fields were at their limit. The number of prisoners executed on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to over three hundred. When they were all in the barn, a light powered by generator was shone on them to verify prisoners against the guards lists making sure that no one had escaped on the way. Music was played at full volume to disguise what happened next. Prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that had been dug in advance. They were told to kneel at the edge of the pit before the were brutally killed with various tools; a cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else was around. Sometimes their throats were slit with the rough edges of palm leaves. Bullets were deemed too expensive and the sound may have aroused suspicion outwith the high walls. Babies were killed by having their heads smashed against trees after which they were thrown into a pit with their naked, dead mothers. The reason Pol Pot gave for killing children was this;

“To dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots.”

He believed that the children of those he killed would inevitably seek revenge on those who were responsible for their parents deaths so he removed this possibility entirely.

When you visit now you can still see fragments of bones in the ground. When the fields were first discovered skulls and large bones such as the femur were removed from the ground to be examined. The skulls are now housed in a memorial stupa with tags to show how each individual was killed. Every time it rains, new bones and clothes are brought to the surface of the ground. It has been decided to now leave these clothes and bones as they appear. It is haunting to look at.

3 million people were killed during this genocide. At the time the population of Cambodia was just 8 million (it is now 15.7 million). More than 1 in 4 people were killed in a 4 year period. Another of Pol Pot’s “mottos” was this

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake.”

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot escaped and did not die until 1998.

In 1997, the Cambodian government asked for the UN’s assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It was 9 years before judges were sworn in in 2006. 5 suspects were presented by the prosecution on July 18th 2007. On September 19, 2007 Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge and its most senior surviving member, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He faced Cambodian and foreign judges at the special genocide tribunal and was convicted on 7 August 2014 and received a life sentence. On July 26, 2010 Kang Kek Iew (aka Comrade Duch), director of the S-21 prison camp, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. His sentence was reduced to 19 years, as he had already spent 11 years in prison. On February 2, 2012, his sentence was extended to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

My reflections

One of the most shocking parts of this story for me was that no where else in the world knew this was happening. Dignitaries from many countries visited Cambodia during this time and had no idea what was happening just a few hours from them. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge disguised this genocide from the world and Pol Pot even represented Cambodia at a UN meeting.

What scares me most is knowing that this isn’t the only genocide to have happened in the world and it almost certainly won’t be the last. As you leave the killing fields, the audio guide says something along the lines of “Now you have learnt about the genocide here, it is your job to educate those you know about it and it is your responsibility to make sure it never happens again.” I think that’s what really left me stumped. A few days after, I was talking to my Dad on the phone and I was saying that I don’t understand how I as an individual can prevent something so atrocious from happening. I thought maybe you could be an aid worker but then you’re only really patching up the damage, you aren’t stopping the cause. If anyone has any ideas on how we as individuals can prevent genocide then I would love to hear them because right now I’m really struggling with my place in the world and my new found responsibility to prevent such things happening again.

I’m sorry that this post has been so long and potentially difficult to read. I hope that those of you who knew little or nothing about the Cambodian genocide have learnt from this post.

I will leave you with the most haunting expression I heard whilst at the killing fields. I will never forget it and it has been playing repeatedly in my mind ever since. It was first said by Pol Pot and became a motto for the Khmer Rouge. I think it is the worst possible thing that one human being can say about another.

To keep you is no gain. To lose you is no loss.

Koh Ta Kiev -a laidback island located 1 hour offshore from Sihanoukville

Wanting nothing more than to do nothing for the next few days, I hopped on a boat leaving from Otres Beach for Koh Ta Kiev where I spent 4 nights and 4 days relaxing, eating, reading and exploring.

Wanting nothing more than to do nothing for the next few days, I hopped on a boat leaving from Otres Beach for Koh Ta Kiev. Koh Ta Kiev is 6.7 km² and currently has around 50 permanent inhabitants. The island is owned by the military but a 99-year lease was taken out by French company. Currently the island is mostly jungle with only 3 places to stay; Kactus, The Last Point and Ten103. This is all set to change in the future as the island is going to be developed by the French company. The time to visit is now!

The island is only accessible by boat and there is no infrastructure on the island meaning that there are only sand paths to get around. The Last Point and Ten103 are owned by the same person and once a day they send their boat -weather-permitting – to the mainland on Otres Beach to collect food, supplies and guests. There is no electricity on the island except for solar-power which powers the speakers throughout the day and 3 hours of generator power each night to turn on the bar lights and to charge electrical items. This means that 50kg of ice is brought to the island every day – 30kg for the bar and 20kg for the kitchen to keep the food cool.

I visited during quiet season. When I arrived there were already 7 guests there but 6 of them left the following day. No more guests arrived so my second night there it was just me, 3 members of staff, a couple that came on the boat with me and one guy who remained from the previous group. On the third day another group of 3 arrived so despite it being quiet season there were quite a few of us there.

The island has a fishing village that myself and a Dutch girl called Sharon explored one sunny day. It took us 45 minutes to walk each way. Once there we walked along the makeshift bridges to the floating pontoons and drank iced coffee whilst watching the locals go about their daily lives. Sharon even joined in with a game of volleyball!

The waters surrounding the island are home to bio-luminescent phytoplankton. On my second night we went skinny dipping with the plankton. I went swimming with them again on my third night and because the skies were completely overcast and the moonlight was gone the water completely lit up around you as you swam. It was the most incredible experience somewhat dampened by the fact that I got stung my a jellyfish.

We had bonfires at night and made banana splits in the fire and watched both sunrises and sunsets every day. Other than that I spent my time reading – I have now read 6 books since leaving for SE Asia – sleeping, snorkelling, writing my diary and just generally relaxing. I think this was exactly what I needed after not really stopping since my Easter.

I have returned from the island feeling rested and rejuvenated and ready to see what SE Asia will throw at me next! My next stop is Phnom Penh – the capital of Cambodia. Here I plan on visiting the Killing Fields and the S21 prison/museum. I imagine I will have a lot to say after visiting these places so be prepared for a long post next time.

Until then, I hope you are all keeping well.

Em xxx

Siem Reap – first stop in Cambodia. A party town located near the infamous Angkor Wat Temple.

I ended up staying a lot longer in Siem Reap than I had initially anticipated. The first couple of days I spent relaxing by pools and napping in air-conditioned dorm rooms while my body slowly became accustomed to the heat of Cambodia. I did manage to venture far enough out of my hostel to explore the many markets, both night and day, the ‘city’ had to offer. I also had some time to explore ‘Pub Street’ – famous for its 50c beers all day long. It’s not hard to see why it gets the reputation for a street in which you ‘dive in and crawl out’ – in fact there are bar crawls every evening.

My first night in Siem Reap I headed out to Pub Street with some boys from my dorm with the intention of having one or two beers. One or two beers turned into some cocktails, clubbing in ‘The Temple Club’, outdoor beer pong and me eating a spider much to the horror of the girls I was with!

The chosen spider

The streets surrounding Pub Street are filled with food and drink vendors who disappear for 10 minutes every night as the police arrive and who return as soon as the police have moved on. The street food is incredible (much tastier than the spider I ate) and extremely cheap. I even had some mango and passion fruit ice cream made for me right before my eyes. The streets are also lined with many of the fish food massages. Shirley, Raina and I had a go. At first we struggled to keep out feet in the water for more than 10 seconds at a time before the fish nibbling at our feet proved too ticklish. After we started competing with each other to see who could keep their feet in the longest time we ended up there for 40 minutes!

Of course the main reason that anyone visits Siem Reap is to go and see Angkor Wat and the rest of the UNESCO world heritage site. With so many different temples to explore I bought a 3-day pass but ended up only visiting on 2 days. The first day I got up at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to actually see the sun rise but being up this early meant that we had the morning to explore the temples before the heat became too unbearable.

Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.

Angkor Archaeological Park Day 1 – The Small Ciruit

The first temple I saw was probably the most famous – Angkor Wat. The largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat is a temple unlike any I have ever seen before. Spreading over 3 levels, at the top of which you get incredible views of the surrounding area. It was built in the early 12th century under the reign of King Suryavarman II as a capital city which was surrounded by a 2oom wide moat.

The next temple we visited was Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is the most recent capital of the Khmer empire built in the 13th century under the reign of King Jayavarman VII.

Our next stop was Bayon. The Bayon is decorated with 1.2km of bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. It was built as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII.
Preah Ngok is one of the smallest temples I have seen. It is more a stone gazebo than a temple as it has no walls. It houses a 5m tall Buddha. I was blessed by a monk here and some old ladies also blessed me and gave me some bracelets to wear.

Baphuon was built under the reign of King Udayadityavarman II in the 11th century. This temple is still being restored after it was taken apart by archaeologists. The archaeologists had meticulously recorded every stone but unfortunately their records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

The Terrace of Elephants was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. It is 300m long and 3m high. This was one of my favourite sites – purely due to my love of elephants! There were also so many butterflies flying round making the whole place even more magical.

Ta Keo is a grand temple mountain built by King Jayavarman V in the 10th century.

Ta Nei is a rarely visited temple built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. The main structure is partly intact and is broken down in some parts. Much like Ta Prohm the temple is surrounded by jungle which is slowly encroaching on the stone making you feel like Indiana Jones as you weaving your way through dangling branches and huge tree roots.

Ta Prohm is almost instantaneously recognisable from the Lara Croft film – Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm is a Buddhist monastery built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in honour of his mother. This complex has been partially restored but huge strangler fig and silk cotton trees have been left behind.

Our last stop of the day was Banteay Kdei. It was also built in the 12th century and is very similar in style to Ta Prohm.

We returned to our hostel absolutely exhausted and ready for a dip in the pool and a well deserved nap.


Angkor Archaeological Park Day 2 – The Large Ciruit

Our second was a lot longer but we started much later. We visited 6 temples in total. We started at Preah Khan which is a huge Buddhist monastery complex which once housed 1000 monks. It was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in honour of his father. It served as the temporary residence of the King whilst his royal palace was under construction at Angkor Thom.


Our next stop was Neak Pean which was built in the late 12th Century by Jayavarman VII. This is one of the most unique Buddhist temples in Angkor. It was originally located on an island in the middle of a great man-made baray (lake). The baray dried up a long time ago and is now just forest.

East Mebon  was a temple mountain built in the late 10th Century by King Rajendravarman II, and dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents. Originally East Mebon sat on an island in the middle of the vast East Baray. The East Baray was an artificial lake/reservoir that measured 7km by 2km. In ancient times you would have used a boat to get out to the temple but now the Baray has dried up and is accessible by tuk tuk.

Ta Som is a relatively small monastic complex, a little like Ta Prohm. It has a simple design of three concentric enclosures, with the outer enclosure wall measuring 240 meters by 200 meters. Ta Som was built in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII. Its original name when built was Gaurasrigajaratna, meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”.

We actually visited Pre Rup twice in one day. We had a good look around the temple at about 1pm. We then headed to the furthest temple, had something to eat and came back to Pre Rup at 5.30pm for sun set. This massive temple-mountain was built in the late 10th Century by King Rajendravarman II to be his State temple. Although similar in style to East Mebon, Pre Rup is architecturally and artistically superior.

The last temple of the afternoon was Banteay Srei, the “Lady Temple” which was not commissioned by a king but by a Brahman in the late 10th century. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and is thought to have been built only by women as the carvings are thought to be too delicate to have been done by a man!

We then headed back to Pre Rup for sunset which was absolutely spectacular despite the vast numbers of people on the top level of the temple who had come to see it. This was actually my favourite moment of the day as as the sun set the stones of the temple lit up orange and looked absolutely incredible.

 I have absolutely loved Siem Reap and exploring Angkor Wat. It has been a fantastic place to start exploring Cambodia. I am now headed to Sihanoukville – a city by the sea – on a night bus. Once there I’ll be picking an island to visit.

I’ll be in touch soon.

Em xx