Cambodia. It’s a truly unique country for a variety of reasons – half of its total population is 15 years and younger, it’s in the midst of recovery from the heart wrenching events from recent past, and the country is in a liminal space – where it’s undergoing a period of transition; and the effects can be glimpsed in the architecture and the people all around.
It’s a great place to be and to visit, so join this journey to discover how to spend your time Cambodia and be fully immersed in it – absorbing the culture, the history, their hope and kindness.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields
The exterior of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Source
It’s exceedingly difficult to term this as a mere tourist attraction given the nature of events that occurred not too long ago in the trajectory of human history. However, I personally believe that these places are incredibly important places to visit to accurately frame your travelling and impression of Cambodia – given that much of their current circumstance and recent history stem from the events that happened during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Therefore, I’ll recommend going to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields before anywhere else to truly understand Cambodia in greater detail.
The History Behind the Killing Fields
In 1976, as part of their oppressive regime, the Khmer Rouge renamed Tuol Svay Pray High School to Tuol Sleng Prison (translated, ominously, into ‘Poisonous Hill’) – turning a place of learning to a place of brutal torture and massacre. Over the course of the regime, over 20,000 prisoners and inmates (though exact figures are unclear) were killed. Out of 20,000, only 7 survived. A mere seven.
Journey Through the Painful Past
The prison in Phnom Penh has since been turned into a museum, serving as a reminder of the atrocities that happened to the Cambodians as the world sat by and watched.
The tour was about SGD $8 with your own tour guide – and it’s really an excellent way to walk through each poignant location while hearing – in rather gruesome detail – what happened exactly. And here are a few of the places within the museums that stuck sordidly with me.
The victims at Tuol Sleng, photographed and recorded prior to their imprisonment. Source
Located in one of the classrooms, this photo gallery features monochromatic photographs of the would-be victims of the torture at Tuol Sleng. The fact that it was in monochrome – a lack of colour, a lack of life – felt like an ominous foreshadow of their soon-to-be fate.
Many of the people that we consider the most vulnerable – the elderly and young children – were staring with emotive eyes out of their portraits, causing one to ponder upon the utter irrationality of their deaths.
A torture device found in one of the interrogation rooms. Source
In Tuol Sleng, the classrooms were divided into even smaller cells for the prisoners. Other classrooms were turned into interrogation rooms such as the one above. The people to be interrogated were chained to the metal platform and torture until they confessed to their allegations, which were often false.
After confessing to their make-believe sins, they were taken – by the truckload – to the Killing Fields in Siem Reap. The most famous of the hundreds of killing fields in Cambodia is Choeung Ek, which was where I headed to after Tuol Sleng. The atmosphere here was strangely serene yet foreboding – the interweaving of both ambiences made for an immensely emotional tour around the field.
You can get an audio tour for around SGD$7 and it’s available in tons of languages. The narrator goes into graphic detail of the events that occurred here, as well as personal stories of the survivors and even a chilling reenactment of the screams of those coerced to their premature deaths.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Street 113, Phnom Penh
Phone: +855 23 30 0698
Operating Hours: 7am–11:30am, 2pm–5:30pm
The Killing Tree
The Killing Tree. Source
Seeing the Killing Tree was perhaps the most heartbreaking thing of all. Because bullets were considered too expensive, the Khmer Rouge resorted to other means of killing. For young children and babies, it was throwing them and smashing them against this tree. All but gone, the tree is the only one that remains ‘til this day.
I headed to Battambang the next day, and it was a serene place of slowness and calm. The best way to explore Battambang and its backlands is most definitely using a bicycle that can be easily and cheaply rented for about SGD$2 to SGD$5 – so just hop on and cycle on!
The Bamboo Train Ride Source
There would be bike tours if you’re into that, but I preferred to go my own route – and a nifty GPS – as I headed to the main attractions of Battambang, the Bamboo Train Ride (a tad touristy but still incredibly novel!).
The Bamboo Train Ride is basically a train with no destination – it’s a bumpy ride along a 12km track with plenty of things to see and hear on the way. It’s the perfect way check out the greenery and unwind in the relative quiet in the area – a welcome change from the hustle in Singapore.
Other places worth visiting in Battambang include the myriad of temples and French mansions (Cambodia used to be a French colony!) hidden deep within the forest. I’d suggest renting a tuktuk for a day, because the driver can show you around the area and you’ll get a better understanding of Cambodian culture as well.
I also headed to the pinnacle of Khmer brilliance – the Angkor Wat. Angkor offers the remnants of the Khmer Empire – incredibly impressive remnants, that is. The temples at Angkor were built by a succession of Khmer Kings between the 7th and 13th century, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What’s most impressive and rather fun is that you can step ON the ruins as you climb (because you’re allowed to walk everywhere) – no mean feat given how they receive over 2 million visitors annually! It’s also difficult to describe the absolute sense of awe and wonder I felt when I was walking around the Angkor – because it is truly amazing how the vast array of magnificent temples were built in a time that lacked all the technology and tools we’re used to.
While you’re there – relax, take a slow walk around the temples and marvel at the ancient creations of remarkable details so intricate and thoughtful. I guarantee you will be truly amazed many times over.