Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

There are Killing Fields across Cambodia, some still lost, but the most well-known and memorialized is Choeung Ek where more than 8,800 people were killed and buried in mass graves. S21, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is a former high school turned prison and torture center for perceived enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Both places are haunting, filled with horrific history that is eerily recent. While my parents were dating, nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population was killed under this regime. It’s so recent that at the Killing Fields, signage notified visitors not to pick up any bones or clothing that the ground reveals, as the caretakers will properly manage it.

Killing Fields Stupa
The Memorial Stupa at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum


Visiting these sites is important and difficult. There was a simple and important educational strategy that was perfectly suited the place and the knowledge sharing: audio-guides. I love a good audio guide as they provide so much animation and history in a self-guided tour. However, I didn’t realize how powerful a medium they could be until Cambodia.

view from S21
Second story view from S21

When I arrived at the Killing Fields, I wasn’t sure how I would react. Thankfully, the visit is thoughtfully designed to allow the visitor to experience it individually. The simple act of putting on the headphones invites each person to begin the journey through the memorial on their own. Each audio guide intertwines the history of the site with personal stories of strife, grief and, as you draw to the close, healing. Their voices fill the space.

The history and stories shared are difficult; each person has to take it in at their own pace. Everyone’s journey was their own, a solemn walk seeking to understand and mourn this period of history. Visitors from all of the world arrive by busloads, yet this audio guide ensures an appropriate, respectful quiet throughout the site. Those who do talk, do so quietly. And in our case, we left both sites in a heavy silence.

The Power of Stories

As we drove from the Killing Fields to S21, our driver asked us if it was hard on our head – his way of asking if it was difficult. We had been sitting in near-silence, quietly reflecting on all that we had just seen and heard. We shared our shock and out experience with him. Then, he shared his own.

He worked on his grandfather’s farm during the regime. He recalled a group of one or two hundred people digging a hole in a field as he was minding the cows. The hole they were digging was for themselves. As he shared this scarring memory with us, tears welled up. His story was so raw, it was a difficult reminder of how recent this history is. We offered the condolences we could, never being able to really understand, and turning again to silence to reflect again. Looking around the bustling streets, I could see people of his age and realized how they shared such a horrific past. The kind Cambodian welcome is even more powerful when you understand how much they’ve suffered, yet still share so much.

Memorial at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

If you’d like to learn more, D found a great resource in this journalist’s on-the-ground reports during and following the Khmer Rouge regime.  In addition, I picked up a copy of First They Killed My Father and read it in about 24 heart-breaking hours as it recalled life at that time from a child’s perspective. I’m happy to pass on my copy.

Phnom Penh Highlights

As I said, Phnom Penh and Cambodia are warm and welcoming. This recent horrific history is as important as the monumental Angkor Wat to understanding the beauty and the power of this nation. These sites allowed me to better explore Cambodia, and I look forward to returning one day. Of course, my visit wasn’t entirely solemn but filled with lively streets and the growth marks of a rapidly expanding Asian city. From our days in the capital, here are a few other highlights:

The boat ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was an adventure. The grey ledge is the walkway between the rooftop and inner seating. It’s as safe as it looks.
But there’s something to be said about the view.
Cambodian Royal Palace
The Cambodian Royal Palace was immaculate and lush and delightful to meander through.
Cambodian Royal Palace
Throne Hall at the Cambodian Royal Palace
Phnom Penh
The square outside the Royal Palace was bustling with life.
Phnom Penh streets
As with any city, the streets tell their own story.
The fruit! Oh, the fruit! Fresh mangoes with homemade heart waffles from Matt and Camille.
Impact Hub Phnom Penh
It was neat to see how an Impact Hub can be so unique, yet share an atmosphere a continent away.
And tuk-tuk is now my favourite form of transportation. 
View from a tuk-tuk in the middle of an intersection en route to the airport. In this scenario, traffic lights and traffic direction are cute suggestions. Also, please note the adorable kiddo.
Cambodian kiddo
This Cambodian kiddo speaks for all road users in a traffic jam.