Phnom Penh and Cambodian History

We woke up early and went on a final ride around Kep with our driver. Our bus came late so we talked with him for a while about other travels and our plans for the rest of the trip. We had gotten to know each other a bit over the last few days, so when we asked how much we owed him for all the driving, he charged us probably less than half of what we actually owed him. This was very kind and we appreciated it, but as we said goodbye before getting on the bus, I handed him extra money (what we really owed him)  and told him to keep it and thanked him for being so good to us. His eyes actually filled with tears and he gave me a huge hug. It’s amazing how $10 meant so much to him, the cost of a sandwich in America.


We had a 3-4 hour bus ride back to Phnom Penh. When we arrived, this old French woman who had been on the bus with us was overwhelmed by the chaos of the city, she asked to share our tuktuk. On the way to our hotel she explained that she had come in from Vietnam and had only been along the coast in smaller towns. It’s always impressive to see older people doing such adventurous trips, because they’re certainly not easy. She looked nervous after we left her at our hotel, I’m sure she found her way though. We grabbed lunch at this great cafe called Joma and there I met one of Emily’s Peace Corps friends, Alice. She’s super sweet and it was cool to learn a little about her and hear her experiences in the country.

After lunch, Emily and I spent the afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. This was a truly meaningful and important experience. I always feel it’s imperative to learn about the history of a place you visit. What we saw at both of these places was definitely shocking and upsetting. In 1977-1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge executed a genocide in Cambodia involving torture, starvation, forced labor, and millions of deaths.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be a high school before being turned into the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21).


At the museum, visitors can see photographs of all the victims of the prison – most looked terrified, others angry, some proud. Actually seeing the faces of those men and women, and even children, was so powerful and moving.


Many of the tiny cells remained built into the classrooms. Standing in the actual rooms where such horrific events took place was intense.



Not only Cambodian citizens were taken to this prison, a few hundred foreigners who remained in the country after the Khmer Rouge took over also are known to have been imprisoned and killed. Only 12 people out of an estimated 17,000 prisoners actually survived.

The balconies were covered in barbed wire so prisoners weren’t able to jump off and kill themselves. In this photo you can see the gallows where people were hung from upside down from their feet and dunked into the big vases below until they lost consciousness, another form of torture.


The Killing Fields are sites where over a million people were killed and buried during the genocide period in Cambodia. The place we visited is famous for having the skulls and bones of victims displayed incased in glass from floor to ceiling in a multiple story room. Information about gender, age, and likely cause of death is also available, making it much more real and intense.


This is the building where the bones are stored.


At the site, visitors are given headsets and can walk around the land learning about the history and what actually occurred in this peaceful looking place. What effected me most was probably this tree which was discovered to have pieces of brain and bone lodged and smeared onto it.


Babies were smashed against this tree, often in front of their mothers, and once dead just tossed away. As you walk around, there are signs to watch out for bone.


Bones and clothing of victims still appear even decades later especially when it rains. A reminder that makes it even more impossible to forget such a tragedy.

It was good to have a long tuktuk ride back into the main part of the city so we could mentally digest everything we had witnessed and learned. We got dropped off at the Independence Monument – a place where many people like to walk around and exercise because it has a lot of grass and sidewalk in such a crowded city.


We walked from there to the Peace Corps office, a very high security place. We had to walk past guards to enter this street where ambassadors and even the Cambodian Prince are known to live. I wasn’t allowed to go into the office because only volunteers are allowed. We then walked to dinner at this restaurant called Free Bird – a very western hip place. Walking in Phnom Penh is crazy because traffic is so busy, you just have to jump into the road if you need to cross and just hope you make it alive. We had dinner with Alice and it was a great night. When we got back to the room, I had to rinse off because I was covered in dust and dirt.

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