Exploring Cambodia’s dark past in Phnom Phenh


Cambodian family on their way to a temple.

All I could see as we descended over Phnom Penh was the mighty Mekong River snaking its way across the countryside for miles. There were buildings littered along its banks and the rest of the surrounding countryside looked like it was completely flooded. My first thought was a huge natural disaster struck the town but I soon realised that it was thousands and thousands of rice paddies covering every piece of open land.


The drive from the airport to my accommodation was a bit disappointing. I knew I was in a very poor country but I was at least expecting to see some interesting things along the road. The city looked like most South East Asian cities, busy, dirty and crowded, but it lacked the charm most places similar to this usually have.

After driving for about 20mins to my hotel, I started to mentally prepare myself for the worst. I have stayed in some really creepy places in my life, it always makes for a good story, but I felt that today’s hotel has the potential to be the worst. I was pleasantly surprised when we got there though. The place was called The Little Garden Boutique Hotel and I think it might have been the nicest building in Phnom Penh. It was a small hotel with just a couple of rooms, but the staff were very friendly and the rooms were clean and beautiful. I would recommend this place to anyone who wants to go to Phnom Penh.

Early the next morning I got up to go explore the rich history of Phnom Phenh. Maybe you know about the Cambodian Genocide, but before I came here I was completely oblivious to all the horrific ordeals Cambodians faced in the past.

In 1968 the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) formed and its followers were referred to as the Red Khmers or The Khmer Rouge. They eventually became the ruling party in 1975, which was led by the radical Pol Pot.

During his 4-year rule, Pol Pot was responsible for the loss of approximately 2 million lives through the combined result of political executions, starvation and forced labour.

My first stop was the Killing Fields just outside the city. This was only one of the many locations where thousands of people were murdered left right and center and buried in mass graves. Even children weren’t spared by this terrible massacre. Some were taken by their feet and smashed to death against the “Killing tree”. Pol Pot believed that he had to kill these children to prevent them from taking revenge on him in the future for murdering their parents. It was very unsettling to learn about all this.

“To kill the grass you must also remove the root” – Pol Pot


After the killing fields I went to the S21 prison where they forced the prisoners to sign false statements about how they “betrayed” their country. They were tortured until they admit to the made-up statements. Once they signed the statements they were promised to get a “second chance” but were just sent to the killing fields to be murdered.

“It is better to kill an innocent by accident than let a traitor go by accident” – Pol Pot

After all this depressing information, I spent the rest of the day on the banks of the Mekong River with a newfound respect and appreciation for this city. After all the things they went through as a country they still managed to pick themselves up, start over and rebuild their lives. Even though there are still many wounds that will take years to heal, the city is blossoming and I feel glad that I could be here to see it.


Travelers placing bracelets all over the killing fields to pay their respects to the millions who died.


One response to “Exploring Cambodia’s dark past in Phnom Phenh

  1. Pingback: The majestic temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. | Here to Stray·

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