My first morning in Phnom Penh, I stopped by the hotel concierge for tips — after all, I came to Asia not knowing I would even end up in Cambodia, so I came with no plans and no guidebook.
“Would you like to do the happiness tour or the sadness tour?” he asked me. The “happiness tour,” he explained, involved shopping. The “sadness tour,” of which he spoke so plainly, was really the Khmer Rouge tour. I admittedly only had a cursory knowledge of the Khmer Rouge years before visiting Cambodia, so I jumped on it.
The first stop on the tour brought me to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the school-turned-prison where Pol Pot and his regime killed held, tortured, and killed everyone from city dwellers to intellectuals to kids.
The simple “museum” seemed more like an untouched relic from its 1975-1979 reign of terror, with implements of torture available to touch and feel:
Photos throughout the museum reminded of us those lost here. Of an estimated 17,000 people who were detained, fewer than a dozen came out alive.
From the prison, we headed out into the countryside, past endless miles of factories where labels like Gap and J. Crew are stiched, to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. One of countless Khmer Rouge killing fields throughout the country, this one-time orchard was beautiful and utterly depressing.
The memorial tower, the only bit of “formality” on what is otherwise acres and acres of seemingly unspoiled greenery. The tower is filled with the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims:
A couple of the many simple, horrifying placards on the site:
With teeth and bits of clothing rising to the ground’s surface after heavy rains, you could feel the recency of the genocide. In that sense, there was no comparing the experience of visiting the Khmer Rouge sites versus visiting Holocaust sites. The two feel very different, perhaps because Cambodia’s darkest years occurred almost during my own lifetime. Also, in every encounter, the people of Phnom Penh were absolutely willing to talk freely and frankly about those years.
A gorgeous site, where unbelievable atrocities occurred:
More photos of my Khmer Rouge tour