Phnom Penh: Inside Cambodia’s Dark Past.

7 Min. Read

In Phnom Penh,

the capital of Cambodia,

there exists a place called Tuol Sleng.

A security prison used by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979.

During these years, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisioned here and subjected to brutal interrogation, torture and execution by their captors.

By 1979, only 7 had survived the horrors of Tuol Sleng.

This is the story.

One of the young prisoners at Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng

Before Tuol Sleng became the murderous torture center it would become to be known as, the site was actually a secondary school for kids, which was then converted into a prison by the regime. The main objective at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was to obtain confessions from what the prisoners were criminally charged with by the state.

The other goal was to extract information on other opponents of the state through torture, with the prisoners giving a list of the names of close friends, family and colleagues. The people on these lists would then be brought in for interrogation, where the vicious cycle would start again.

The main opponents of the Khmer Rouge were firstly, any previous military or political leaders and anybody else suspected of having any kind of connection with the former government or any other foreign government. Along with these victims, other groups that were targeted included, business leaders, professionals and intellectuals of any kind.

This included doctors, lawyers, journalists and students.

In fact, just by wearing glasses alone or speaking French, was enough to get sent to prison.

Ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Chams, Christians and Buddhist monks were also rounded up and sent to labor camps or prisons to be tortured and killed.

The Cells of Tuol Sleng

“It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.”
motto of the Khmer Rouge

Upon arrival at the prison, all of the prisioners would be photographed and had to give a detailed autobiography to their captors. They would then be stripped down to their underwear and have all of their personal items confiscated.

They were then taken to their cells where they were either shackled against the wall or to the floor. Those that were escorted to the larger cells were shackled together with long iron bars. There, they slept on the floor with with no mats, no mosquito nets nor blankets.

During the day they were only fed some spoonfuls of rice porridge and a watery leaf soup and they would be given only the smallest amounts of water to drink. If they were caught drinking water without the guards permission they were then subjected to beatings.

Bed in Torture Room

Most prisoners of the state were brought in for interrogation after 2 or 3 days after their arrival and the majority of prisioners spent about 2 to 3 months at the prison. To extract confessions from the prisoners, along with additional information of “conspirators” against the regime, the staff at Tuol Sleng used many different forms of barbaric torture.

Along with the severe beatings and deplorable living conditions which caused many skin diseases, lice, rahes and ring worms, they were also subjected to electrical shocks, being cut with knives and searing hot metal instruments. Many were hung upside down and suffocated with plastic bags and others endured torture by waterboarding.

The Harsh Rules at S-21

Sometimes the prisioners were forced to eat feces and drink urine. Fingernails were pulled out and women prisioners endured sexual abuse and rape. Sleep deprivation and outright neglect was combined with the horrendous physical torture and live surgical operations with no anesthetic were also being performed.

All of this was being done by the state…

to it’s own people.

The iron shackles used to lock up the prisoners side by side

And here’s another terrifying fact…

Tuol Sleng was just 1 out of at LEAST 150 torture and execution centers throughout Cambodia and by January 1979 an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people had been executed by the ruthless regime.

A genocide was being carried out by the Khmer Rouge and this included, not only ethnic Cambodians, but also Chinese-Cambodians, Muslims and Vietnamese-Cambodians. Nearly a quarter of the nation’s population was exterminated.

Only after when the prisioners confessed to their alleged crime, were they routinely executed and buried on site at S-21. However, after only a year, when there was no more space to bury the victims, did the staff at S-21 decide to move their executions to spot near a pond called Choeung Ek, about 11 miles south from the capital.

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), Kampuchea being the name of Cambodia in the East, and in the 1960’s the Khmer Rouge army slowly built up in the jungles in eastern Cambodia. And with much support from North Vietnam, Pathet Lao and Communist China especially, the Khmer Rouge Army was able to overthrow the Khmer Republic in 1975 and captured Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot. A Cambodian revolutionary and politician. And in 1975, with much aid from Mao’s Communist China, he would begin to radically change Cambodia into a Socialist Agrarian Republic. Under his leadership, entire cities, most notably, Phnom Penh, were emptied out under the pretext that the United States was planning to bomb the city.

Pol Pot

Instead, entire familes were sent to the countryside, had to wear identical black garbs and forced to work in labor camps to produce rice for the nation. They had to build their own huts and were provided very little food and water. The prisoners were subjected to brutal slave labor, working 12 or more hours a day and when they could no longer work from weakness or sickness, they were exterminated without hesitation, many times having to dig their own graves. Many others died from diseases and starvation.

“To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
motto of the Khmer Rouge.

Everything was for the state and the people were “Reeducated” by the party, also known at the time as “Angkar” or “The Organization.” The party’s ideology was the complete rejection of capitalism and to create a classless, self-sustaining communist state maintained by a rural agrarian economy.

The party abolished the use of money, free markets, religious practices, foreign clothing and traditional culture. All schools, universities, churches, mosques, temples, shops and government buildings were effectively shut down, with some of them turning into prisons like Tuol Sleng. There was no private or public transportation and absolutely no entertainment.

Cambodia would then become to be known as, Democratic Kampuchea.

A completely totalitarian and genocidal regime.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek was a killing field.

It was 1 out of the 20,000 mass graves sites that dotted Cambodia and in the following years, many adults, children and entire families would meet their horrible deaths here.

Due to the scarcity and cost of ammunition, the regime at Choeung Ek would execute the prisoners in other savage ways…

In order to save bullets, they resorted to beating and butchering the prisoners with pick axes, machetes and other iron tools. Small children and babies would be beaten to death against the trees, with the captors laughing, as they couldn’t show any sign of sympathy.

Not doing so would raise questions about the comrades loyalty and risk being thrown into prison himself.

Execution Tree at Choeung Ek

Toady, Choeung Ek is a collection of mass graves where almost 9,000 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and it is open to visitors that want to learn about Cambodia’s terrible past. In the center is a Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 human skulls, which serves as a memorial to the people that had lost their lives during the brutal regime.

The Khmer Rouge genocide against it’s own people finally ended several years later in 1979, when Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia and effectively dismantled the brutal government.

Pol Pot fled and died in 1998.

A Reflection

July 5th, 2019

As I walked through Tuol Sleng and explored the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, I learned in detail how the killings were carried out.

Learning about the atrocities that were inflicted to the Cambodian people horrified me and made me think of the other genocides committed by other countries in the past. It made me wonder why those nations took those steps. Why was it a solution?

And why do we, as human beings, keep committing genocide?

Being there at Tuol Sleng and walking through Choeung Ek made me shudder. It made me emotional and it even made me sick.

And it made me question human nature.

We all learned about horrific genocides in school.

Yet, here I was, physically learning about the barbaric crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

Peering into cells where people were locked up, beaten and starved to death.

I was standing in places where thousands of men, women and children were murdered…

It was something I had never experienced.

It was hard to fathom that, a nation had turned against it’s own people and they were not safe in the one country they were supposed to be safe in.

And to think…

That the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge ended only 40 years ago.

In memory to those who lost their lives during the Regime.

If you would like to learn more about Cambodia’s dark past and more about genocide in general, I encourage you to check out these resources down below.


End Genocide

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


First they Killed My Father by Loung Ung
Brother Number 1 by David P. Chandler


The Killing Fields directed by Roland Joffe.
First they Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie.

Tuol Sleng

Visiting Hours: 8 am to 5 pm.
Entry: Khmer – Free
Foreigner – $3 (10 years to 18) and $5 (18 years and over)

Choeung Ek

Visiting Hours: 8 am to 5:30pm
Entry: $3
Audio Guide: $3

Angkor Wat: How to Experience it like a Boss

10 Min. Read

By now I think its safe to assume that most people know about Angkor Wat and how magnificent it is.

From the countless number of stunning photos on the internet to its popularity from the successful Tomb Raider movie, it’s no wonder why it sees millions of visitors each year.

That being said,

Angkor Wat is definitely not to be missed if ever in Cambodia or even close to Cambodia.

I repeat.

Do NOT miss it.

It is awe-inspiring.

And rightfully so.

As the largest religious monument in the world, this Hindu-Buddhist temple complex is also one of the most beautiful of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

And that’s just ONE temple.

There are over 70 temples within the temple complex area alone and several hundred minor temples in the Cambodian countryside beyond.

Or maybe

this is your first time hearing about Angkor Wat.

And if that’s the case, don’t you worry.

Cause I’m going to painlessly hit you up with everything you’ll possibly need to know for your first visit to one of the worlds most marvelous structures.

Which is, quite honestly, up there with Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza.

We’ll cover some quick facts, some fresh tips, and a suggested itinerary to get you the most out of your visit.


Wat we waitin’ for?

(Only one joke like this. I promise).

Let’s dive right in.

Facts about Angkor Wat

  • Angkor Wat means “City of Temples.” Oooooooo.
  • It is the largest religious monument in the world.
  • The entire complex is 154 square miles (400 square kilometers).
  • It was built in the early 12th century and orginally was a Hindu temple before transitioning to a Buddhist temple.
  • Angkor Wat is on the Cambodian national flag. And on their beer, for that matter.
  • It took 30 years and 5 million tons of sandstone to create Angkor Wat!
  • It was abandoned and hidden for around 400 years. (This I found truly amazing.)

Let’s Begin.

When to Visit

The best time to visit Angkor Wat and Cambodia in general, is anytime between November – Febuary. During this time, the weather will be a bit cooler with temperatures around 70-85 degrees Farenheit (21-30 degrees Celsius). March through June is generally very hot and humid, while the rainy monsoon season kicks in around July-Ocotber.

How to get to Siem Reap

Although Siem Reap is a very popular destination for people around the world wanting to visit the Angkor Wat temples, its airport, Siem Reap International isn’t exactly a major travel hub, especially for visitors coming from Europe or the Americas. Most likely you would have to fly to one of the major airports nearby, such as Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. From there you can fly to Siem Reap fairly cheaply, depending on the season. I would recommend checking out Skyscanner or Adioso for some of the best prices out there.

Where to Stay

When visiting Angkor Wat, you’ll be staying in Siem Reap, a city in northwestern Cambodia, which today has become a popular tourist destination because of the promixty to the Angkor Temples.

The city itself has an Old French Quarter and has colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the area, as well as around the Old Market. It also boasts many hotels, restaurants and resorts, all related to the growing tourism. The city also has a vibrant nightlife with many stores, massage parlors and nightclubs. I would definitely spend at least one night on the town to take advantage of what Siem Reap has to offer. And you can enjoy a lot, as Siem Reap isn’t terribly big.

I would recommend to find a place within the Psar Chaa area (Old Market) as it’s the livlier part of town with alot of bars, restaurants and markets.

The prices for hotels around this area can vary, but you can usually find homestay rooms for around $12-$15 per night. Which is not bad in my book.

For the hostels though…

A bed in a 4 person dorm is going to set you back a whole $2.
Which is one of the cheapest I’ve seen in Asia and great for budget travelers, but most hostels range from $3-$10 per night.

You can easily book accomadation through Agoda or Hostelworld.
Find one that looks good and book in advance, but even if you arrive without a reservation, you won’t have any problem finding a place to lay your head down.


Onederz Hostel – $8-$10/night (dorm). $26/night (room).
Lub d – $7-$10/night (dorm). $ 26-36/night (room).

Kannitha Boutique – $15-$20/night (room).

*Prices vary


There are many restaurants to choose from in Siem Reap, especially in the Psar Chaa area. A lot of them being family-run restaurants whipping up delicious Cambodian fare with the average price for dishes ranging around $2-$7. That being said, there are also a lot of European and Asian restaurants to be found, along with some interesting French-Khmer fusion restaurants.

But please…

Definitely try the national dish of Cambodia, Fish Amok. Which is steamed coconut fish in banana leaves with coconut milk and curry paste.

It’s Delicious.

Angkor Wat Opening Hours

The main temple, Angkor Wat, opens up at 5am. and closes at 5:30pm.

The other temples open up at 7:30am. and close at 5:30pm.

What to wear

Visitors must dress modestly when visiting the Temple complex and appropriate attire must be adhered to.

This being:

– Long pants to cover the knees.
-Shirts and/or scarf to cover the shoulders.
-No tank tops, shorts or any revealing clothing.


The currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel but interestingly enough, US dollars are accepted virtually everywhere. When withdrawing from ATM’S you will receive American dollars as well. Usually when purchasing food & other items, you will be paying in US dollars and the change that you receive in return will be the Cambodian Riel.

Stay saavy though and make sure you’re getting back the correct exchange (mistakes do happen). Currently the exchange rate for the US Dollar to Cambodian Riel is for 4,112.00 Cambodian Riel per $1, but definitely check out the exchange rate upon arrival.

Daily Costs

-Guesthouse Room – $5-10
-Local Meals and Street Food – $1-3
-Tuk-Tuk rides – $1-4

Getting Around

For the days that you’re visiting the temples, I would advise on getting a tuk-tuk driver for the entire day and he’ll take you to & from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat and around the temple grounds for about $25/day. If you don’t hire a driver for an entire day, which is totally fine, you’ll probably spend around that much anyways.

As for getting around Siem Reap, expect to pay about $1-$2 for a five minute ride and around $3 to take you across town. Not too bad at all.


I must say that I understand that every traveler/tourist has their own time restraints.

I really do.

Some travelers have all the time in the world to explore slowy.

While others may be doing a quick trip and have to get back to work or their regular routine.

But remember that sometimes, delays, accidents, new plans & emergencies do happpen.

And as a long-term world traveler, I am all too familiar with this.

I myself have had to cut certain trips short.

Maybe because of the date of a certain festival in another place was pending and I didn’t time it right.

Or my visa was about to expire.

Or perhaps my dumbass crashed in Laos on the way back from some waterfalls, therefore I couldn’t fully enjoy Luang Prabang and had to cut my experience there short.

Read & Laugh here:

Luang Prabang: Kuang Si Falls and Unfortunate Events

That being said, to come all the way to Cambodia and to see Angkor Wat for “A day” is unadvisable,.

Angkor Wat is simply too big, too historical, too interesting and too magical.

Therefore, if there is anything you can take away from this post it’s this:

Give Yourself Plenty Of Time.

I mean it.

There is much to see.

And although unlikely,
anything can happen while you are traveling, whether near or far.

You know…

The things I mentioned above.

Angkor Wat “Boss” Itinerary

Firstly, I would recommend that you purchase your ticket online in advance, especially if you want to catch the main temple at sunrise to get those sweet beautiful shots that you keep seeing on Pintrest. (Be aware that there will be a lot of tourists there doing the same exact thing).

But if you feelin’ like a rebel and don’t buy your ticket in advance, you can buy your admission pass or “Angkor Pass” at the main entrance on the main road to Angkor Wat. And that’s actually what I did.

Prices for Angkor Wat

  • 1-day pass: $37
  • 3-day pass: $62
  • 7-day pass: $72

*As of this moment: With the 1-day pass you have two days to use it. With the 3-day pass you have ten days and with the 7-day you have 30 days.

ok, so for all you jetsetters out there that have only one day to spare to see this magnificent place in our world; here is a good One-Day Itinerary to fullfill all of your Temple Oriented Desires (TOD).

One-Day Itinerary

  • Watch the Sunrise over Angkor Wat and explore the grounds
  • Visit the large trees and root system taking over at Ta Prohm
  • Stop for a quiet lunch
  • Visit the giant carved faces at the Banyon Temple
  • Visit the peaceful Preah Khan

And what I would recommend…

Three-Day Itinerary

Day 1

  • Watch the Sunrise over Angkor Wat and explore the grounds
  • Angkor Thom
  • Break for lunch
  • Pre Rup Temple
  • Ta Som Temple

Day 2

  • Ta Prohm Temple
  • Banyon Temple
  • Break for lunch
  • Preah Khan
  • Banteay Srei

Day 3

  • Neak Pean
  • East Mebon Temple
  • Break for lunch
  • Bakong
  • Preah Ko

Or… No Temples at all. (Explanation down below.)

A word on this Itinerary

Believe me when I say that three days of straight up temples is


I’m for real.

It’s called Temple Fatigue.

And trust me, unless you’re a budding archaeologist or extreme temple nerd, you’ll be pretty tired of seeing temples all day that you’ll want to run AWAY from Angkor Wat by the end of your second day.

This is why I also say that, you’d want to give yourself plenty of time to see this spectacular place and to do it as relaxed and as stress-free as possible. To see the temples at your own leisure and not rushed is key and essential for you to maximize the most enjoyment out of your experience while there.

Therefore, I would even say that if you buy the 3-day pass, go and explore the Temples for the first two days and give yourself a break on the third.

Trust me.

Siem Reap is wonderful in of itself, so go and enjoy the city.
Grab some drinks on a chic rooftop bar. Get a relaxing massage in one of the towns many parlors. Eat a tarantula. (True.) Explore the Old Market for Cambodian delicacies and traditional craft. Or party the night away bar-hopping around with the locals through Siem Reaps’ crazy nightlife.

Anything but Temples.

And for the following day,
if you have the time and are up for it,
explore slowly through any other temples that you may have missed.

I personally stayed in Siem Reap for more than a week, as I also spent alot of time exploring the city itself and doing other activities. But quite honestly, I think a good 4 full days is a good amount of time to enjoy Angkor Wat and the city of Siem Reap.


Keep in mind that these itineraries presented here are merely what I’m suggesting. Feel free to use them more as an outline for you to plan your trip. I highly encourage you to do some research, see what temples you would be interested in seeing and make a plan similar to what is provided here.

We made it.


Alright guys and girls, that concludes everything you may need to know about planning your trip to Angkor Wat!

I hope you guys enjoyed the read and if you have any questions or comments or just want to say hi, I’d love to hear from you!

Also, for additional information on tourism in Cambodia check out:

Now book that flight to Cambodia and see for yourself!

(When everything gets back to normal that is).