Choeung Ek and Security Prison 21, A picture into Cambodia’s dark past

Warning: this blog post contains graphic photos taken of historic genocidal sites in Cambodia, as well as photos of some victims who perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which may be disturbing to some viewers. 

Visitor discretion is strongly advised.
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As travelers, we are more than tourists. We are truth seekers. 

Cambodia’s flag. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

It is not just a title; it is a responsibility.

While there are journeys we take to escape the sameness of our lives, arguably the more important journeys are to places where we hope–not to relax, but to absorb, to solemnly contemplate, and maybe to grasp a better understanding of human nature.

One of the young victims of the Khmer Rouge, on display at Security Prison 21. (S-21)
Photo of display by Charish Badzinski.

Even, and especially, the most horrific sides of it.  

S-21 Prison. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Among those places are Choeung Ek extermination center and S-21 Prison, also known as Tuol Sleng. Located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, these stand as monuments to some of Cambodia’s darkest days, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Under Pol Pot, a Cambodian Maoist Revolutionary and leader of the Khmer Rouge, massive Cambodian genocide ensued. While estimates of the number of those killed vary, UNICEF estimates more than 3 million people died. The Khmer Rouge showed no mercy toward women. They showed no mercy toward children. And they certainly showed no mercy toward men.

One of the victims found at S-21 in Cambodia.
Photo of museum display by Charish Badzinski.
Some rooms at S-21 are left as they were found when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown. Visitors
are allowed to view these rooms through prison bars.  Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Once a school, these grounds were turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Tuol Sleng, or Security Prison 21, (S-21) had been a school before the Khmer Rouge took it over and made it into a prison. Visitors are allowed to view the photos taken of each prisoner when they were admitted, photos which are almost more disturbing than the presence of actual human remains throughout both sites. To look into the scared eyes of hundreds of children caught on film who you know have suffered perhaps unimaginable torture and death touches on the saddest, darkest corner within.  

Prisoners were photographed as they were admitted to S-21, and their portraits
are on display at the prison museum. Many of the victims were children.
Photo by Charish Badzinski. 
Visitors can walk the grounds of the prison, and peer into rooms used for the torture of prisoners. While many prisoners were killed here, many more were sent to the extermination center known as Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, a former concentration camp nearby. 

The gate to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

Visitors first see the Tower of Skulls, which contains human remains from some of the victims of the genocide committed under Pol Pot. It is without a doubt, some of the saddest ground upon which you will ever set foot. 

The Tower of Skulls at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Travelers pay their respects to those who lost their lives under the Pol Pot regime.
Many leave flowers. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
The Tower of Skulls. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
Clothing from the victims at Choeung Ek. Many of the bodies unearthed in mass graves are nude.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
In the grounds behind the Tower of Skulls, solemn pathways lead visitors around mass grave after mass grave. Some of the victims have been unearthed. Many have not. 

One of many mass graves at Choeung Ek, where 166 bodies were found without heads.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
It has been reported that victims were first forced to dig their own graves. Because soldiers were told to save ammunition, instead of shooting victims, they bashed their heads against a tree. Many of the dead were buried decapitated. 


Many of the soldiers were young men from peasant families. 

Torn scraps of clothing from the victims at Choeung Ek gathers around tree roots.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
My guide struck up a conversation with a man who was visiting the site the day we were there. Through his interpretation, I learned he had been a guard at Choeung Ek, and he had killed prisoners–some of the very people whose unidentified bones and skulls litter the grounds to this day. 

Walking paths pass around mass graves at Choeung Ek in Cambodia.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

As he told his story to my guide, describing one incident in detail, he was stone-faced, seemingly numb, gazing out over the grounds which are now considered part of The Killing Fields.
A tree at Choeung Ek, against which executioners beat children to death.
Human bones are stacked to the right of the tree stump.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Visiting places like these makes you question whether knowing our history will indeed keep us safe from repeating it.

Mother and child, victims of the Cambodian genocide.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

If, as a traveler, I had gone to Cambodia seeking truth, I failed. 


I left Phnom Penh with a persistent sense of dread, one which still clings to me today. That this happened at all, and that it happened in my lifetime is unconscionable. Yet similar crimes against humanity are happening right now, and we are–I am–letting them happen. 


I left Cambodia with far more questions than answers. Why, in spite of knowing the crimes of our collective past, do we as humans continue to commit them: some by our own hands, some by our willing ignorance or apathy? 


I left with questions for the man who had helped in commission of these crimes–questions from a place of such deep horror, they could not then, and cannot now take form. 


And I left with questions for myself, why even now, I give myself permission to just turn away.
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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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