Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, isn’t a major tourist hot spot. There aren’t an abundance of sightseeing things to do and the city itself isn’t as picturesque as Siem Reap. However, I feel strongly that it’s important to spend a few days in Phnom Penh to have a better understanding of Cambodia’s troubling history and bear witness to the horrific events that the Khmer people have endured. Here’s how to have a day of community-based tourism in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Sensitivity warning, I’ll cover state-sponsored genocide and human rights violations here as they were told to me by local Khmer people. Visiting Cambodia without learning about the Khmer Rouge is a prime example of Western privilege, in my opinion. No matter how much research and interviews I do, I’ll never be able to do this topic justice. I’m not a historian or expert in genocide. This is why you won’t see me writing articles about the Khmer Rouge for mainstream publications. I’m sharing with you what I learned directly from Khmer people as I believe it’s an essential part of understanding Cambodia and the somber recent history.
HOW TO GET TO PHNOM PENH
For travels within Cambodia, there’s truly no reason to fly. Short flights are terrible for the environment and there are multiple buses that depart from destinations across the country several times a day. You can book your bus ticket online in advance on Baolau or just buy a ticket for your next stop at the local bus station. I took a shared minivan bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Be sure to get travel insurance from World Nomads so you have coverage in the unlikely event of an accident.
PHNOM PENH RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TIPS: WHERE TO STAY
SPLURGE: JUNGLOO AT THE KABIKI
Jungloo is a new concept from the Cambodian hospitality group MAADS and is their answer to eco-friendly glamping. I stayed in the ‘jungle igloo’ structure that’s on the grounds of The Kabiki. It has no permanent foundation and can easily be moved without damaging the environment.
The aesthetically pleasing design is rooted in sustainability. Cambodian bamboo was used for the custom furniture created by social enterprise Bambusa Global Ventures which rehabilitates unmanaged resources of bamboo in rural Cambodia which in turn creates job opportunities for members of rural forest communities. Other decor elements include wood and rope features, reusable toiletry containers, and cloth laundry bags.
Jungloo intersects at the crossroads of sustainability and luxury. The glamping accommodation is built with locally sourced materials including a tented roof but still has modern comforts such as air conditioning, a waterfall shower with hot water from solar panels, and standard western flush toilet.
It wasn’t necessary to use the air conditioning as the tented roof was created with an innovative bioclimatic architecture that is self-cooling by reducing heat through various design aspects such as blackout fabric, heat insulation foam, and sun-radiation protection fabric. Wastewater is treated through a gravity flow bio-digestion septic tank system developed by social enterprise Wetlands Work! Ltd which has been deploying eco water treatment systems in many of Cambodia’s floating villages for a decade. The outdoor garden is complete with a private freshwater swimming pool and solar paneled evening lights on the lush terrace.
I was so incredibly comfortable when I stayed here that it was hard to leave the warm orange and tan glow of this eco-haven, even for a few hours! The bed was so cozy and the desk area was great for getting some work done although the WiFi was a bit spotty.
Check availability and prices of Jungloo at The Kabiki.
BUDGET: MAD MONKEY
After staying at the Mad Monkey Hostel in Siem Reap and learning about their community efforts I was eager to test out each of their properties. The socially sustainable hostel chain makes it easy to book responsible accommodation, even if you’re on a budget. Mad Monkey Phnom Penh is complete with epic street art murals, a swimming pool, and in house-bar. The bar is super loud so try to book a quiet dorm room or private in the Villa building as my room was shaking until it closed each night!
The Phnom Penh location was the original Mad Monkey and has been rooted in making a positive impact on the local community since day one. Local staff is employed in all levels of the operation from tuk-tuk drivers to management and receive above-market wages, paid time off, top-level hospitality training, free healthcare, and grants and interest-free loans furthering their education. Complimentary English lessons are provided.
Your stay at Mad Monkey Phnom Penh will help the socially sustainable accommodation continue to fully-fund the rent, utilities, teacher’s salaries, and supplies at the Kampong Cham Cambodia Children’s Fund classroom. The property has also completed the ChildSafe business partner curriculum to educate travelers about human trafficking and other issues that at-risk children face.
Check availability and prices of Mad Monkey Phnom Penh.
URBAN ADVENTURES PHNOM PENH SECRETS TOUR
If you’re going to partake in dark tourism in Phnom Penh it’s crucial to go on a tour that is led by a local. The horrific sites of the Khmer Rouge genocide around Phnom Penh are operated by the government which still has ties to the genocide. The information that is included on the headsets doesn’t match up at all with the real stories I was told by survivors and kin of those who weren’t slain. To visit on your own without a local is disrespectful, exploitative, and supports the government’s control of casting a shadow over the real history of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Whenever you partake in dark tourism it’s crucial to do so in a way that supports the community and allows them to share their own unique stories directly.
One of my most trusted tour operators for sustainable experiences, Urban Adventures, operates a half-day Phnom Penh Secrets trip that visits the S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field. Because we had a local guide we were able to hear earnest firsthand reflections on the current politics and the very real fear Khmer people have about another genocide. I won’t use my guides name in order to protect her privacy as it was a huge risk for her to discuss her opinion with us openly.
This tour was one of the most harrowing and humbling experiences in my four years of full-time travel, much like my shocking visit to learn about the horrific history Auschwitz, Poland, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and what I’m emotionally preparing myself for my upcoming attempt to learn more about the Uruguayan military dictatorship and civilian torture. I was overcome with emotion and pain many times throughout the day and cried publicly with my guide when she got emotional telling me the details of her parents experienced during the regime. This horrible human rights crisis wasn’t long ago and is one of the worst examples of humanity I’ve learned about to date.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE KHMER ROUGE GENOCIDE
For four years in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge genocide killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Between 1-3 million people were killed by their fellow countrymen. Let that sink in.
My guide told me that today only 4% of Cambodians are over the age of 60. About half of the population is under 50, as the majority of Khmer Rouge genocide survivors were still children at the time. Most became orphans and never were reunited with any family members as people were dispersed across the country without a record of where they were going.
Dictator Pol Pot used genocide as an atrocious tool to create his delusional agrarian society under the guise of Angkar. During this period, education, free will, careers, and any trace of independence were outlawed and punishable by immediate death. Pol Pot was once a novice monk for 4 months, he hated it. Banning Buddhism and murdering monks were one of his first acts during the bloody regime.
On April 17, 1975, in Phnom Penh, under the false pretense that American fighter jets were going to bomb the city, the Khmer Rouge used fear-mongering tactics to round up citizens and march them to the countryside for what was meant to be a 3 day hiding period. People were stripped of their possessions, forced to separate from their families, made to have identical hair and clothing, had extreme food rations, and were sent to work as slaves in fields or as soldiers, even children. Similar to the eerie phrase from Auschwitz, ‘work will set you free’, many people died of starving and harsh working environments, which was a blessing compared to the grotesque torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge to destroy people. People died in the fields due to starvation and being overworked, or at the hand of their own people at the Killing Fields.
Read the first-hand account of a young girl who survived, Loung Ung. Her biographical historical tell-all, First They Killed My Father, is internationally renowned due to its eerie accuracy, considering she was only a 5-year-old girl at the time and was forced to become a Khmer Rouge soldier. All of the stories of the Khmer Rouge era that I heard during my two months in Cambodia paralleled the horrors she describes in her book. She worked with Angelina Jolie to turn her memoir into a gut-wrenching Netflix movie which I suggest you watch before visiting Cambodia.
S21 TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM
Our first introduction to Phnom Penh’s recent tragic history was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is housed in Security 21, a former high school that was occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers and used as a prison and torture center. The building was used to hold any civilians who were assumed to be against the Khmer Rouge’s mysterious leader, Angkar.
The women’s building has tiny brick cells hardly large enough to lay down. Some of the women were forced to clean the prison with their tongues. The outdoor hallway is covered in barbed wire as many women would jump to their death. Otherwise, they’d be raped during interrogation. Some women were forced to have sex with other prisoners in order to become pregnant. They’d have to work throughout their pregnancy and the day they gave birth their newborn would be smashed against a tree and they’d be sent back to the fields to work. This would break me too and I’d gladly choose suicide.
Many of the men held here were teachers, doctors, politicians who were initially held and tortured to see if they’d confess anything of worth before they were slaughtered. There was no proof needed to determine if someone was wealthy or well-educated. If someone had light skin or soft hands it meant they didn’t work in the fields so they were killed immediately or first questioned and tortured. If you spoke a foreign language, you were killed. Even people with glasses were killed as it was believed they must be educated.
Prisoners were not allowed to reflect before answering questions, cry while being beaten, or do so much as move a finger without being ordered to do so or else they’d be wiped with electric wire or shocked with electricity. Bullets were expensive and gunshots were loud and may alert nearby villagers about the reality of what was going on. Horrific torture methods and death tactics were used instead of such as pouring acid in the mouth, cutting off the bodies extremities, removing the stomach organs, and peeling the skin off of the body, starting at the face. It’s been said that some Khmer Rouge soldiers who guarded the prison were cannibals. Food was scarce, and they believed if they ate the lung and brains of a wise prisoner, they’d absorb their knowledge. My guide told me that Khmer Rouge financed itself by selling human gallbladders to China during this time.
The eerie rooms which they were held captive are spacious but baren. Small windows with bars let in natural light, I can’t help but hope that the warm glow was comforting for the poor souls who were killed here. The original bed frames are left in their rightful place with tiny box toilets and chains to restrain the prisoner. A word of warning, when you enter these rooms actual photographs are on the walls of the corpses that were discovered here as the Khmer Rouge quickly killed as many prisoners as possible when the regime ended. Blood stains are seen on the walls and the floors.
SURVIVORS OF THE TORTURE CENTER AND PRISON
Several survived the mass killing on January 10, 1979, including two young brothers who were 7 and 9 at the time, Norgn ChanPhal and Norgn Channy. They were only at the prison for a week and on the final day, they hid under a pile of clothing as chaos occurred around them. When they were liberated by Vietnamese soldiers that day they were orphans, as their parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge genocide. It’s not clear what happened to their 5 siblings.
Three of the survivors return daily to S21 to share their stories and the reality of what they faced. I cannot imagine how they’re able to return to the very spot where their hopes and dreams were stolen from them. One survivor was a young boy when he was freed. He came back to work as a janitor at the museum. His mother told him that she’d come back and he truly believed she would. She never did. But the possibility is what kept him alive.
Chum Mey is a former monk who was working as a mechanic to provide for his family and 4 children when the Khmer Rouge genocide began. During the mass exodus from Phnom Penh, he told a Khmer Rouge soldier he wanted to work for Angkar as a mechanic, which saved his life, temporarily. He was eventually moved to S21 after being told he was moving to Vietnam to work, but in reality, he became a prisoner of the group he’d worked for.
They removed his nails as they asked him if he was a spy for the CIA. He admitted to wrongdoings he had never done and lived off of 2 spoons of porridge a day and supplemented his meager food portions by eating cockroaches. He and his family survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. He tells his story every day in the very place that he was tortured.
Bou Meng was one of the survivors. He’s an artist and was kept alive specifically to paint for the Khmer Rouge, who he had worked for before he became a prisoner on May 21, 1977. They thought he was a spy for the CIA. He was beaten with a bamboo stick and electrocuted as he was interrogated. He survived by painting portraits of Pol Pot. His wife was terminated.
Bou Meng sells his memoir at the museum and meets with travelers every day. I couldn’t manage to ask him a single question as I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I just shook his hand and cried and he looked at me with such empathy I felt like such a fool. I should have been strong for him.
Read Meng’s account of what happened to him in his book: Bou Meng: A Survivor From Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, Justice for the Future Not Just for the Victims by Huy Vannak
The mug shots of the S21 prisoners that were taken before they were interrogated and tortured left me feeling ill. Some faces show such resilience, others utter fear, or stern anger. I cannot even begin to imagine what these poor people suffered and feel as if we as a society failed to protect them. We must honor them by learning about the horror they faced and ban together to prevent it from ever happening again. These are only a few of the millions of stories of those who perished and survived the Khmer Rouge genocide.
CHOEUNG EK MEMORIAL AT THE KILLING FIELDS
Many of these prisoners were killed at the nearby extermination camp or Killing Fields where the Choeung Ek Memorial stands today. As we approached the area the memorial looked like an oddly tall pagoda—it’s 17 stories. It’s massive as it holds over 8,000 human skulls and countless bones, which is just a fraction of the number of people who were killed here. It’s believed the fatality of this specific location is around 20,000 lives. This is just one of 300 killing fields in Cambodia. I also visited one in Battambang but wasn’t emotionally ready to visit the one in Siem Reap.
The surrounding gardens appear to be tranquil with rolling green hills. The hills aren’t natural, they’re burial mounds that have formed due to the mass amount of bodies discarded there. There are at least 129 mass graves. 50 or so still hold human remains. Many tourists come here and wander around as they please while they listen to the government-curated headphone tour. They walk off the dirt path. They don’t look down.
If they’d look down, they’d see they’re walking on mass graves and stepping on human teeth, bones, and fabric scraps. It had rained recently. Whenever it rains the grotesque reality of the Killing Fields comes into plain sight as the ground rejects the remains of those who were brutally killed here. Local villagers come to collect the remains occasionally and add them to the temple. They don’t have the funds or tools to properly dig up the victims so they wait for the ground to unearth them. At this point, I squatted on the ground and sobbed. I counted over 125 teeth around me.
The majority of the skulls that have been laid to rest in the memorial pagoda were found in the lily pond. Khmer Rouge soldiers would execute prisoners by beheading them with the sharp edge of the razor palm, a slow and painful death. Horrific as it may seem, what made me crumble was learning the meaning behind a gigantic tree that’s decorated in Buddhist prayer and friendship bracelets.
This is the tree Khmer Rouge soldiers would use to kill babies and children by slamming them against the hardwood. Usually, they’d so so in front of their mothers, who would then be raped and killed after witnessing the horrific murder of their kin.
Many tourists think that the government’s willingness to let Khmer Rouge sites be turned into tourist attractions show that these dark days are behind the country, but many locals told me that instead the history is used as fearmongering to remind the people how bad things could be. Khmer youth are trying to leave the country in order to earn money overseas as career, education, housing, health, and nutrition access is meek in Cambodia.
Every single Cambodian person you walk past has a story about the Khmer Rouge genocide. My guide’s mother was about 7 and forced to stand like a scarecrow in the field. If she moved, she’d be shot dead. Her friend’s corpse was left next to her as a reminder. Her father made fishing nets and was told he’d be killed if he ate so much as the fin of a fish. Neither ever saw their siblings, parents, aunts, or uncles again.
I can’t grasp how the Khmer people have been able to move on from this horror. Many survivors I spoke with told me it was finding their way back to their Buddhist beliefs that gave them the courage to go on. Cambodians want to move forward. Some have even told me they forgive the Khmer Rouge. Even those who never found any of their loved ones after the genocide. They don’t wish to carry the hatred that was inflicted upon them into the future. I have so much admiration for these people and their sheer will to survive.
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I was hosted at Mad Monkey, Jungloo and the Urban Adventures tour. All opinions and photos are my own. This article contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.