Cambodia’s grim past….

We spent our first full day in Cambodia getting the background on the country’s grim history by visiting the K21 Toul Sleng Prison and the infamous Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh.  I visited them both before about 15 years ago, but I wanted to give Akhona a background to the recent history of Cambodia. The rule of the Khmer Rouge led to the genocide of around 1.7 million Cambodians in the 70’s, and the visit to the two memorials is a sobering experience. Entry cost $8 at Toul Sleng, and $6 at the Killing Fields, which includes a very thorough audio guide in English. Of course, it is an upsetting visit, but I think a necessary one if one hopes to understand Cambodians today.

As we were staying just over 1 km away from the notorious Tuol Sleng, we took a walk from our hotel through Phnom Penh’s side streets, stopping at a small local market to buy some water, apples and naartjies. Then we steeled ourselves for what was to come – the horrifying reality that was the Khmer Rouge….

I won’t go into the whole history of the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot as a lot has been written about this dark period of Cambodian history, other than to say that if you want a glimpse into the horror of man’s inhumanity to man then a visit is a must.

The entry cost includes an excellent audio commentary on a portable player which we found extremely informative. Set aside at least 2 hour for the visit as there is a lot to absorb…

I would suggest visiting this memorial first before heading out to the even more depressing Killing Fields as many of the inmates of Tuol Sleng were executed at the Killing Fields…It’s very eerie looking at the remains of skeletons later on in the day, knowing that many of them are those of the inmates whose photographs adorn the walls at Tuol Sleng.

A 20min tuk tuk ride away($12) is an example of one of the 300 “Killing Fields” dotted around Cambodia made famous by the dramatic feature film of the same name. Again the audio commentary is a must…

Allow yourself at least another 2 hrs for this visit, and longer if you wish to spend time in contemplation or prayer at the site. I found the experience very emotional, and had to stop myself from bursting into tears on several occasions, not least at the tree against which babies were smashed to death….now adorned with prayer bracelets. As sickening as the whole experience is, Akhona and I both wanted to visit these sites almost as a pilgrimage…

We will be spending a month in Cambodia, and getting to know some Cambodian’s on a very personal level, so understanding the tragic history of the country is vital to us…What has struck us so far is how at peace the people seem to be considering their violent history, but that may be as a result of their religion – or they may just not show their true emotions…

We look forward to visiting the incredible temples of Angkor in a few weeks time as a reminder that Cambodia also has a more positive distant past which also shaped its people…


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Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.

One thought on “Cambodia’s grim past….

  • 28/08/2017 at 9:14 pm

    Cambodia sounds like a place with a rich history. I look forward to hearing more about it from your posts..

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