Cambodia’s Genocide Museum & The Killing Fields

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Cambodia’s Genocide Museum

Cambodia has had a very dark history, none more so than the Pol Pot Regimes attempt to obliterate any citizen with education, skills or social standing. It is so hard to wrap your head around why someone would attack and kill their own citizens, especially in such a peace loving nation.

The Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the killing fields just outside the city tell you just how bad things got and how every decimated Cambodia was by this hideous time. If you are thinking of visiting the Genocide Museum and the Killing fields, this post will give you all the info you need to decide if this is for you.

It’s tough – I am not going to lie – but I feel its essential to learn and pay your respects to not just the lives that were lost but to honor the Cambodia that exists today.

Photos of numbered victims at Cambodia's Genocide Museum
Photos of numbered victims at Cambodia’s Genocide Museum

This was Christmas eve. We don’t celebrate Christmas, but I will always remember this particular Christmas. Its kind of hard to ever forget. It was the day we visited the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Between 1975 and 1979 I was between 9 and 13 years old. Things that concerned me was, which teacher I would get, would I make the 1st hockey team, did Peter Sullivan like me? Crap. Things that kids & teenagers think about. Normal stuff.

What is horrific to comprehend is that not far away over ½ of Cambodia’s population was tortured and killed by their own country men. Children were forced to work in rice fields for 16 hours a day, fed 1 cup of rice porridge and slowly but surely starved to death or died from disease.

Its incomprehensible that these kids were my age and this happened in my lifetime. So while the Pol Pot Regime has no direct relevance to me or my family, the timing of it means that it does and always will stay in my mind for the comparison of what I was doing at this time. 

About The Khmer Rouge

The story: (condensed of course)

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Pehn on April 17 1975. The people were at first ecstatic as they were all sure that the end of the civil war was a god send. BUT they had no idea of the carnage that would follow.

Initially they were systematically marched/driven/forced from their homes in the city by the KR, told that the Americans were coming to bomb the city, and that they were heading into the countryside for safety.

What seemed like a move to keep citizens safe was soon realised to have a much more sinister reason. Within hours, word got around that any person who was in the country’s military was being executed where they stood, so families were from the start trying to hide their own just to survive.

Before they were marched out of the city, they were told they could return in 3 days when the KR had restored the city and rendered it safe. Almost all would never see their homes again.

The KR’s plan was to return Cambodia to being a rural based country. Anyone who had any skills, any intellect or any prior military involvement was summarily tortured and executed. There was also a large portion of Cambodian minorities slaughtered in the name of national purity.

Teachers. Doctors. Historians. Professors. Professional People. Business People.

The Pol Pot regime was removed from power when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979. Most of the the Khmer Rouge then fled to Thailand but they did not stop fighting for their beliefs of how Cambodia should be. Eventually in the mid 1990’s the party dissolved and some of the higher serving officials were granted amnesty within the new Cambodian Government.

A few leaders were later jailed for live by a UN court for crimes against humanity, however a very small percentage of those responsible were ever held accountable.

The Genocide Museum

The prison (where the genocide museum is located) was a school before the KR turned into their death camp. For the entire 2 hours we were there, I could hear children laughing and was imagining them playing. Somehow as upset as I was, obviously my mind was trying to negate the images and stories that I was hearing. I just wanted to know that at one time, this building held happier times.

If as a Cambodian if you went through the prison, there was a very decent chance that you would not make it out alive. Every person was documented, photographed and then if there was any suspicion they were anything but a simple labourer, or farm worker, they were summarily executed.

Those that survived were forced into the country to work producing rice in the fields. The land was exceedingly over worked and couldn’t sustain this populous. The city people had no knowledge of farming at all. Disease was rampant and the soldiers worked their way through the workers, torturing anyone who wasn’t working hard enough, or they thought was against the cause – or because they just felt like it.

Everyone was photographed prior to being killed. I wondered if they knew a photograph meant certain death.

The rules board at the entrance to the Genocide Museum
The rules board at the entrance to the Genocide Museum
Skulls recovered at The Killing Fields
Skulls recovered at The Killing Fields

What was once a school became the “processing centre” for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

What were once classrooms became torture chambers often for people who were known to be no threat to the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

Can you believe these rules? Or the fact that even if you did your best to abide by them, chances were it would make no difference.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Opening Times and Tickets

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is open every day from 8am to 5pm.

Tickets are purchasable on site.

Entry Fees:

  • Adult Tourists and non citizens: $5.00
  • Children between 10-18: $3.00
  • Cambodian Citizen: Free of charge

Guides for the Museum

Tour guides are available via the ticket booth at the entrance of the museum, however they also gather outside the gate. They are not always available inside so if you wish to learn as much as you can, be sure to organise your guide before you enter and agree on a firm price.

Audio guides are available for $1 to Cambodian citizens or $5 for tourists.

Genocide Museum Location

The Museum is centrally located in Phonm Penh on St 113 on the block between St 350 & St 320. Google Maps Location

The Killing Fields

Many of the day tours you get for visiting the Genocide Museum and the Killing fields all do the museum first and then take you out to the Killing fields. In my opinion this is the best way to do it. You end up following the path that the victims would have taken and everything has much more meaning by the time you get to the Killing Fields.

The war left Cambodia decimated and there is probably not one single family that is not heavily affected. Our guide started by telling us that he and his mother were captured and taken to the prison which is where they were processing people that had not escaped into the country straight away.

His mother was tortured and finally killed. He was 10 years old and sat with her trying to save her for days. He managed to steal some rice from the KR’s kitchen but couldn’t get her to eat it, so he ate some himself and then kept it for 3 days trying to get her to eat.

I guess in the mind of a 10 year old if he could get her to eat, she would possibly recover. She didn’t.

She was a teacher. Some crime!

We ventured out to the killing fields, which in perspective has the remains of a really a small percentage of the people that were killed under the KR, but it is where they took the bodies from the prison after they were killed.

Well that’s not exactly all. It’s also where they marched women and children that they had rounded up (some up to 8 months pregnant) and bludgeoned to death beside the mass grave they cast them into. It’s also where they decided that a bullet was too expensive and just started smashing peoples skulls in with waddys.

Years later our guide went to the killing fields to try to find his mothers body and managed to find the mass grave she was buried in, but in his words “there were so many bones, and he couldn’t know which ones were hers.”

The stories are horrendous. The damage to their country obscene. The fact that they have dragged themselves out of that hole is goddamn amazing. These are a resilient people.

To see it today, it is both serene and horrific. Hard to describe but harder to breathe when you are there.

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She’s always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.

The Killing Fields As A field of Butterflies

I wasn’t coping at all and started lagging behind. I just couldn’t stop the tears and finally walked over the the edge of one of the fields just trying to compose myself. Before long I realised Paige was standing next to me also with tears streaming down her face.

As we stood there the most remarkable thing happened. All at once thousands of butterflys rose up out of the grasses. Beautiful yellow butterflies and all at once. Logically I know the grasses were flowering and it was probably a change in wind direction. I know that’s actually the reason, but I liked to think that it was maybe the souls of the dead, flying around us, celebrating their wings.


Maybe they were just butterflies.

The killing fields, Cambodia
A cloud of butterflies over The Killing Fields

You cannot describe the atrocities. You cannot overcome the anger. You can’t begin to process the pain. I guess you just kind of shut down. One of the worst days of my life.

You can’t miss this. Every person on this planet needs to visit these places. I’m glad we had spent a few weeks in Cambodia first, as that made this reality even more shocking.

While that didn’t help us at the time, knowing the happy go lucky, easy to please, lovely Cambodian people made it so much harder to comprehend why a movement could destroy not only their own country, but their own people. That realisation though, makes you understand that anyone could be oppressed like this at any time – IF WE WERE TO ALLOW IT. It puts your whole outlook on life in perspective. These people were striving to better themselves and someone else, driven by fear made it their mission to change that.

Ring any bells??

Recommendations for The Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields:

These are my tips for visiting the museum and Killing Fields.

  • Get to the museum early so you are at the Killing Fields as early as possible in the morning if you can. You need it to be quiet.

  • Hat and Sunscreen – Phnom Penh can get really hot and still.

  • Tissues and lots of them. You’re going to need them.

  • Comfortable shoes. Its a big day, but I would recommend doing them both in the one day.

There are obviously quite a few tours available. This page on Viator will give you a range of choices or the options below are through Get Your Guide

After you visit these memorials its hard not to look at everyone over 40 and wonder how they were affected by Pol Pot’s regime. Just try to remember that while the Cambodians are lovely people, some still don’t like to talk about it. If you would like to ask just be respectful in how you do it. I found this great book in Phnom Penh while I was there and would really recommend it as a read.

When Slaves Become Masters

Tours of The Killing Fields and The Genocide Museum

Visiting The Genocide Museum & Killing Fields
Visiting The Genocide Museum & Killing Fields