While horrifying, Phnom Penh is the best place for families to learn about the genocide that has shaped Cambodia’s history.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, one of my favorite countries in the world to visit. Phnom Penh is also the best place for families to learn about the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot, who executed a quarter of the Cambodian population, an astounding 1.7 million people. Some may argue that these violent and disturbing events are too much for kids. While not appropriate for very young children, I think that history is valuable, even unfathomable, unspeakable history. As we left the Killing Fields, my 13-year old son expressed his disgust that the world stood by for so long and did nothing to aid the Cambodian people. He also noted how these memorials remind future generations about the dangers of absolute power. For our family, this trip was a meaningful way to connect travel with a better understanding of the world that we live in.
KidTripster Tip: Before you arrive in Cambodia, watch the acclaimed, albeit long, movie, The Killing Fields (1984), with your older children.
Where to stay?
The Kabiki is a welcomed oasis in the heart of Phnom Penh. This boutique hotel sits in a lush grove of trees (planted by the owners) with a luxurious swimming pool and large cabanas. Sitting poolside, it’s impossible to hear the noisy, beeping tuk-tuks outside the gates over the squeals of delight from children splashing in the pool. The Superior Family Roomis huge with two double beds, plus a set of bunkbeds. The poolside breakfast is complimentary and includes French breads that I still can taste. All this for $90/night.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re booking in advance, ask for either an early bird discount or family rate. Once agreed upon, keep a record of your email correspondence.
What to do?
Tuol Sleng, or more commonly known as S-21, was a prison and torture center that housed people who had allegedly committed crimes against the Khmer Rouge. The exhibit isn't slick or high-tech nor should it be. It is real and raw and riveting. We missed the movie that plays twice a day (10 a.m. and 3 p.m.), but the photos tell the story. The astounding collection documents the torturous death of all but seven survivors of S-21. The Khmer Rouge did not discriminate, killing the very young and very old. You’ll walk through the cells, see the instruments of torture, and leave in utter disbelief. Cost: $6/person.
After spending an hour at S-21, negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh. Cost: about $18 roundtrip.
Toward the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, about 300 people were killed at Choeung Ek every day. Most of the mass graves have been excavated; the skulls and bones found are now displayed in a dramatic glass tower of remembrance. An audio tour is included in the price of admission. Listen to the entire tour; the victims’ stories are truly compelling. It's truly one of the best audio tours that I've ever heard. The most disturbing site: the Killing Tree, where guards would take babies and children by their feet and strike them against the tree until they died. Bracelets have been left in the children’s memory. Cost: Youth (under 12) Free; Adults $6.
KidTripster Tip: Plan to spend for about 1-1/2 hours here; skip the museum as the grounds and the audio tour tell the story.
Typically, you'll connect through Bangkok on your way to Phnom Penh.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t change your money at the airport. American dollars are actually the preferred currency in Cambodia and accepted everywhere.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels the world with her husband and two sons, who were deeply moved by the lessons of Phnom Penh.