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We spent 2 days in Phnong Penh, and it's hard to imagine 2 more different experiences! We spent the afternoon that we arrived visiting the Royal Palace, and generally having a look around. The palace is beautiful and extravagent, and the grounds are huge: visiting there is peaceful and relaxing.

The next day, tho, we explored some of Cambodia's frighteningly recent past, and visited the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum. We had already learnt a little about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot - Tara had done some reading, and we'd seen pictures, but it really didn't prepare us for the reality that screams at you from the sites. We went first to the Killing Field, which was one of hundreds across Cambodia. We were shown around by a guide who was a child during the Khmer Rouge's regime: he considered himself lucky because his family were farmers so he lived - but very sad for his uncles and other family members who did not. After paying respect to the monument filled with 9000 skulls found in the mass graves there, we walked around to see the pits which were the mass graves, the tree against which babies and young children were beaten to death, and the places where tools and victims were stored. We had to walk carefully because it had rained heavily in the night, and human teeth and clothes had come up through the ground, as they do every time there's heavy rain.

From there, we went to the S21 museum.

Here's some brief information about the Khmer Rouge and what happened here: this happened so recently, and yet we knew so little about it...

The Khmer Rouge took over power in Cambodia in 1975 and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. They were in power for 4 years. Following their leader, Pol Pot, they imposed an extreme social experiment on Cambodian society: the whole population was forced to work in collective farms or forced labor projects. Phnom Penh was emptied in hours, and stayed so for years. Approximately 1-2 million people died as a direct result of the regime, through execution, torture, starvation and forced labour - that's nearly a quarter of the population killed in just 4 years. The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of "involvement in free-market activities". Suspected capitalists included professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments. If you wore glasses or could speak a foreign language you were executed. Children were separated from their parents and brainwashed to socialism as well as taught torture methods with animals. They were considered a "dictatorial instrument of the party" and were given leadership in torture and executions. In 1979, after four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power by the invading Socialist Republic of Vietnam - it was replaced by moderate, pro-Vietnamese Communists. It survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement operating in western Cambodia from bases in Thailand. In 1996, following a peace agreement, Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. He died on 15 April, 1998; he was never put on trial.

Tuol Sleng (S21): The five buildings of this former school were converted into a prison and interrogation centre in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge took power. They renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000-20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. The prisoners were selected from all around the country, and included former Khmer Rouge members and soldiers, accused of betraying the party or revolution. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination centre. The vast majority of the victims were Cambodian, but foreigners were also imprisoned, including Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, Pakistanis, Britons, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians: the non-Cambodians who hadn't been evacuated or expelled from the country were seen as a security risk. In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army, and In 1980, it was reopened as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

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