A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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The Face of Evil


One week before we arrived in Phnom Penh, a trial that many Cambodians had been waiting three decades for finally began.

Kaing Guek Eav, a 66-year-old former math teacher, supervised the brutal torture of 17,000 men, women and children at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21.

There he would extract “confessions” from prisoners before sending them to the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields for execution.

In 1975, Khmer Rouge “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot turned the former Toul Svay Prey High School into the Khmer Rouge’s main detention center. Today, Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are the most visited sites in Phnom Pehn.


At Tuol Sleng, school classrooms were turned into torture chambers.  As you walk through the buildings, many of the instruments of torture are still in place – and the faces of those killed stare out at you.


From Tuol Sleng, it is a thirty-minute drive to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where the prisoners were executed.


As you enter the site, a looming tower displays the skulls of 8,000 victims. Elsewhere you can still see the mass graves where the executions took place. Prison guards were ordered not to waste bullets, so many of the victims were killed with blunt instruments.


Pol Pot took power in Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam War.  The U.S. bombing of Cambodia, ordered by President Richard Nixon, had turned the people against Lon Nol, Cambodia’s U.S.-supported Prime Minister.

A civil war followed, and Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge to power.

Pol Pot devised a plan to turn the country into an agrarian utopia.  Literacy, arts, music and religion were all abolished.  Any person deemed educated was executed. An estimated 1.7 million people were murdered between 1975 and 1979.

In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia.  In early January 1979, the Khmer Rouge fell, and Pol Pot escaped to the border area near Thailand, where he lived until his death in 1998.

Walking through Toul Sleng prison and the Killing Fields is a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity – but perhaps what is most frightening is the completely banal face of evil.


The trial of Kaing Guek Eav is on-going.

Pol Pot’s “Brother No 2” Nuon Chea, along with former foreign minister Ieng Sary, social minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan, are expected to be tried as a group next year for war crimes and crimes against humanity.


1 Doug Spiro { 03.27.09 at 10:22 am }

What a world. As I sit here on the other side of the globe, worrying about my next meeting, I am reminded of how important it is to not forget what happened and to hope the victims of the Khmer Rouge have found some peace.

2 ST { 03.27.09 at 3:47 pm }


Once again . . . . thank you. Powerful photographs and understated reportage.

3 Warren McBride { 03.27.09 at 7:05 pm }

Two very difficult places to photograph. You did them justice.

4 pam { 03.27.09 at 7:50 pm }

My skin was not thick enough for Cambodia, I feel to pieces at the Killing Fields and I couldn’t make it past the first room at Toul Sleng. Dunno if this happened to you, but just at the edge of earshot at the memorial at the Killing Fields, I heard what must have been a grade school, kids playing, laughing. It was the weirdest thing. And inside, a guy taking pictures of his girlfriend in front of piles and piles of skulls. It tore me apart.

I don’t usually post diversionary links in comments, but given that you were just there, I thought you might find reading my post about those places worth a look.


What a heart breaking place. But it’s so important to learn the story of what happened there. Thanks for bringing more of it to light.

5 Urban Mom { 03.30.09 at 12:16 am }

Just found your blog via your sister. The U-Dad & I would love to take the two U-Kids around the world someday. Looking forward to exploring your website further.
Safe travels,

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