After weeks in rural Bali and Siem Reap and reading about Phnom Penh in several travel guides, I was super excited at the prospect of soon being back in a “big” city (read: the possibility of actual sidewalks and maybe even an American coffee chain!!).

As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh has long been an important center for regional trade however, after arriving, I was once again reminded of the important lesson of relativity. A “big” city in my travel-jaded mind may not be quite in line with the standard “big” sized cities of SE Asia (in other words, I had no luck in scouting out a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf). Furthermore, I soon learned that even after more than thirty years since the major devastation suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Phnom Penh is still only a shade of the thriving city it once was.

Everywhere in Phnom Penh there are constant reminders of the horror the country suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979. Following Cambodia’s unwilling involvement in the American-Vietnam War in the late 1960s, (unavoidable after the U.S. launched air strikes along the Cambodian countryside to scourge out guerrilla Viet Cong soldiers in hiding), there was universal anti-American sentiment among the Cambodian people by the time the U.S. eventually withdrew its troops in 1974.

When the Cambodian communist leader Pol Pot, head of the infamous Khmer Rouge party and inspired by the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-Tung, took control of the country in 1975 (and subsequently renamed it ‘Democratic Kampuchea’), the Cambodian people were eager for change. But what happened next at the hands of the tyrannical ruler no one could have predicted.

In what can only be described as a completely delusional vision to return the Cambodian economic system to the once highly functioning agricultural-based infrastructure it was centuries prior, Pol Pot ordered the total evacuation of all metropolitan urban areas within a day of taking power, forcing all urban citizens, young, sick, and old, to abandon their homes and possessions and march to labor camps in the rural countryside to live and work as rice farmers. In a matter of hours Phnom Penh was completely deserted. Overnight the country had fallen into a communist totalitarian state lead by a dictator who ruled through terror.

At the time few outsiders knew what horrors were taking place within Cambodia because the country’s borders were completely closed down with only controlled access allowed to certain foreign diplomats. Millions of Cambodians (and a number of Thais and Vietnamese) were killed over the next four years under the reign of the Khmer Rouge: workers were denied proper living conditions including food, clean water, and medical treatment, and were worked to death to harvest rice crops that would later be exported to China.

The Khmer Rouge regime was full of distrust and paranoia; valuing hard work over education, during its reign almost all Cambodian intellectuals, including doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers, most just ordinary citizens, were executed by the hands of Pol Pot’s henchmen, many just young uneducated teenagers themselves, all for fear of opposition to the party’s governance, real or imaginary.

Formal education was prohibited, so all public schools and temples were turned into prisons, stables and warehouses. It’s estimated that between 2 to 3 million Cambodians died during this time, a number approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of the entire country’s population. The civil and American-Vietnam wars decimated Cambodian infrastructure. It became, and still is, one of the world’s poorest nations, with a mainly agrarian economy and a literacy rate of about 35%.

While I visited a half dozen sites within my four days in Phnom Penh, I’m only going to share with you the two that were the most important to me. Please be warned, the information and pictures I show below can be quite intense.

One of the most well know sites within Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng, or the Museum of Genocide. This former high school was converted into the most secret prison of the country’s 196 prisons, referred to as S-21, shortly after the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After Pol Pot took rule, all displaced Cambodian citizens were assigned a specific zone in which to relocate; S-21 was the prison in which nearby Phnom Penh locals were held if they exhibited any signs of opposition (again, real or imagined). The rest of the prisoners were former Khmer Rouge soldiers falsely accused of acts of treason such as spying for the American CIA or Soviet KGB.

More than 20,000 victims were killed here. Using extreme methods of torture, the Khmer Rouge used any means necessary to force prisoners, who generally had no knowledge of the crimes they were being accused of, to admit involvement in treason or opposition to Pol Pot’s government. Oftentimes innocent prisoners would plead their guilt just to avoid further torture. Afterwards they’d be taken to the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields for execution.

With amazingly detailed records kept by the Khmer Rouge including photographs of every individual that passed through the prison walls, to this day visitors come to Tuol Sleng seeking out information on missing relatives that disappeared decades ago during the Khmer Rouge regime. There is an entire room showing headshots of the scared, confused, and angry faces of prisoners, ranging from young children to grandparents, on the first day they arrived at the prison.

Displays within the museum include classroom-turned-prison-cells appearing just as they were found when the Vietnamese invaded and drove off the fleeing Khmer Rouge. Blood stains and splatters can be seen everywhere, as well as the makeshift torture devices used to obtain confessions of guilt. Most haunting are the extremely vivid paintings in a separate gallery, created by one of the sole survivors of the camp who had been spared from death when hand selected by guards to paint portraits of Pol Pot. Scenes beyond your wildest nightmares are displayed in his paintings, all captured from his living memories and repainted for visitors to witness.

The entire museum can be overwhelming, so be prepared.

For a couple dollars I hired a guide at the prison entrance to walk me through the former school grounds. It was especially interesting to hear his perspective and the stories of his parents, who lived in the countryside at the time and were therefore able to escape being round up for displacement to the labor camps. He explained that at one point, the Khmer Rouge attempted to recruit his father but as luck would have it, his father was suffering from malaria and was unable to join the movement.

After visiting the Tuol Sleng Prison I recommend continuing on to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. Located approximately 45 minutes outside of the downtown area by tuk-tuk, Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. This too is a difficult site to visit but absolutely necessary to understand Cambodia’s recent history and the situation in which the country finds itself today. Bring tissues.

The plot of land here was originally a Chinese cemetery before being selected by the Khmer Rouge as the execution grounds for prisoners of the S-21 prison. As the number of killings grew within Tuol Sleng, it was no longer possible to contain the remains within the prison grounds so an area had to be found outside of the city. Below is an example of a mass grave discovered within the fields holding the remains of over 450 people. Decades after the Khmer Rouge fled, some of the atrocities committed here are only starting to become known to the outside world.

The fields now are in effect a huge memorial site; after entering you’re provided with an audio guide and map directing you through a self-guided tour of the site. The guide is super informative providing background information on the man who was Pol Pot, the coming of age of the Khmer Rouge regime, and first-hand recordings from people who had interactions with the Killing Fields back in the 1970s, including truck drivers and neighbors. It’s heartbreaking and horrific to realize that, if you unknowingly step off the marked path, you might unwittingly step onto the remains of a burial. While there has been extensive work done to exhume the bodies long ago buried, every year remnants of clothing, teeth and bones continue to come to the earth’s surface after the rainy season.

I won’t go into the gory details of the various stories and sites explained within the area; you really have to be present to witness the scene with your own eyes to fully grasp the absolute horrors that passed there. One thing in particular that I just couldn’t comprehend despite reading and hearing about it firsthand, was that outsiders, even nearby neighbors, had no idea what was occurring within the site. The officers would apparently blast patriotic communist music from loud speakers hanging in the tree pictured below in order to cover the screams of the prisoners being killed late at night. Just that small bit of horror can indicate the extent of the atrocities that you hear of while visiting.

Despite the total overload of tragedy and shock seen throughout the sites of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, the primary goal of these places isn’t to sensationalize the events that occurred but instead to share what took place with current and future generations in order to prevent the same types of atrocities from happening again.

The memorial stupa shown above and below, cataloging 17 stories of human skulls discovered within the Choeung Ek site, still acts as a living monument with visitors coming daily to light incense and pray for those lost under the Khmer Rouge regime. The Cambodian people now find themselves in a very delicate position; on one hand they want to remember the past and honor the victims that are forever lost, but on the other they must look forward to the future and focus on the rebuilding of their once great country.

As I mentioned earlier, during my five days in Phnom Penh I visited multiple sites including the famous Central and Russian Markets, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. However having visited the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields on my first day of site seeing, I inevitably found myself under a cloud the remainder of my time in Phnom Penh. It was hard to simply be in the moment and enjoy the sights in front of me while inwardly envisioning the scenes and stories I’d seen and heard days earlier.

And then there were the constant socio-economic reminders of the implications of being a tourist to consider.

My ten days in Cambodia were super challenging at times; different than the obstacles I faced in China (ex. super rude locals and the almost complete absence of the English language), the struggle I faced in Cambodia was my continual yet unsuccessful attempts at finding some semblance of peace between the poor state of the country’s present-day economy, including the poor living conditions of its people, in stark contrast to my über-privileged existence there as a tourist.

I understand that tourism is a HUGE part of the Cambodian economy, worth $2 billion a year and accounting for 20% of the Cambodian economy. With that being said, from my experience it’s extremely hard being a budget-conscious tourist in a country like Cambodia, because despite a backpacker’s best interest to haggle for the lowest price when securing a ride or purchasing a souvenir for family, at the end of the day I am 100% aware that the $3 I’m haggling over will mean a lot more to a tuk-tuk driver’s family than to me, only intending to put it towards my daily caffeine fix. It got wearisome feeling constantly guilty, without any clear solution to the problem. For example one night, after being approached by a young girl selling postcards, I was all too happy to give her a couple dollars believing I was in a small way helping her out… only in hindsight (with postcards in hand) I realized I’d actually done just the opposite by essentially supporting child labor, thereby encouraging her to continue working rather than attending school!

Not to mention the politics of tuk-tuk drivers, one of the hardest things I tried to wrap my head around over my week and a half of travel. Every year thousands of rural Cambodians flock to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap hoping to gain employment in the tourist industry and strike it rich… only to arrive to an extremely competitive and volatile industry. With so much competition they’re forced to undersell their own services, barely (if at all) making a profit after managing their own operating expenses, but without an education or technical training in alternative fields they’re left without any other job opportunities. So here I am wanting to help, but instead feel only guilt after realizing my presence here only feeds the growing tourism machine that exploits local labor and denies Cambodians any incentive to pursue higher education!

So much to consider and after ten days I left with no clearer answers than when I arrived. I will say this though, something I alluded to in my previous Siem Reap post: if you visit Cambodia, you will be thrilled, at times your heart may break, but after all is said and done you will without a doubt leave a better person. My days in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh had more of an impact on me than any other place I’ve visited so far, and I know my experience there is one I’ll never forget.

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie