Beware the tyrant enslaved to a single idea. It is a recurring theme in history, but we as a species seem doomed to return to it repeatedly under the stature of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot… and others who are undoubtedly waiting in the wings.
The aftermath of Pol Pot’s ‘Year Zero’, his unshakable belief that Cambodia (‘Kampuchea’) needed to be cleansed of royalists, intellectuals, and other types of dirt, can be seen in the space of one afternoon by visiting the Museum of Tuol Sleng Genocide of Phnom Penh and Choeung Ek Killing Fields .
“Cambodia has a recent tragic history of genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979 and still affects the country today on many different levels,” explains Jennifer Ryder Joslin, a Phnom Penh-based expatriate and co-author (with her partner Stevo) of the travel blog Two Can Travel. “The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is an important site to visit to gain a deeper understanding of what the Cambodian people have been through.”
- Into the Dark: Tuol Sleng is a notable dark tourism stop in Southeast Asia, but it’s not the only one. Read about other dark sightseeing spots in the region.
A school, then a torture camp, then a genocide monument
Tuol Sleng is a former Khmer Rouge detention and torture camp. Today it is a museum, a horrible reminder of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime.
It was once Tuol Svay Prey High School , before the complex’s buildings were cleared for their new role in 1975. The complex was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21), barbed wire was added to the perimeter and windows they were fortified with iron. bars.
The four main buildings in Tuol Sleng are located around a couple of courtyards that may have been the schoolyards before their eerie transformation.
Building A was the main torture facility in Tuol Sleng; the Khmer Rouge did their gruesome work here until the last minute, killing the last victims just before the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979. The last 14 victims were buried in a plot outside Building A; you will come across this graveyard just before entering.
Building B contained holding cells for prisoners, and currently houses a macabre photo gallery of prisoners who were photographed while entering the building. The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of prisoners; her haunting photos can be seen here en masse, her sad eyes staring at you as if blaming you for living.
Building C served as the main barracks for the Tuol Sleng Prison. The lower floor housed the smaller cells, each with a single prisoner chained to the floor. The women were confined to the second floor. The third floor were massive prison cells, with large groups chained to long iron bars.
In front of this building is the “gallows” in the courtyard, used by the Khmer Rouge torturers to inflict a sadistic type of water torture on the prisoners.
Building D houses the gruesome paintings by the late Cambodian artist Vann Nath, created from memories of first-hand life (so to speak) within Tuol Sleng. Vann Nath was one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng, who were retained for their ‘usefulness’. Read his biography at the memorial site named after him.
The Horrors of Tuol Sleng
“Tuol Sleng is a heartbreaking look at the realities faced by millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime,” explains Jennifer Ryder Joslin. “It is horrible to see what humans are capable of doing to each other by ideals, but it is important to see it so that history is not forgotten or repeated.”
Suffice to say, an afternoon at Tuol Sleng will make you feel very, very heavy.
The hideous genius of the Khmer Rouge was in their attention to detail. The prisoners were photographed and interrogated about the details of their lives before being chained to their cells. This impersonal but horrific collection of data presents the visitor, room after room filled with photographs of convicted men, women and children, a glimpse of the roughly 20,000 prisoners who entered Tuol Sleng.
The many victims of Tuol Sleng
The prisoners were overwhelmingly Cambodian, although the prison saw its share of Americans, British and Australians. The twisted ideology of the Khmer Rouge meant that anyone with an education, anyone not from there, even anyone wearing glasses was a suspect and could (and often did) end up screaming their lives at Tuol Sleng.
You will also see a torture chamber, which was left in almost the same condition as it was found by the Vietnamese invaders who expelled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The torture devices are also present, with detailed explanations on how they were used.
The end result of these devices is also close: cases of skulls belonging to the unfortunate victims of the S-21. (Tuol Sleng’s creepiest attraction, a “skull map” of Cambodia in more than 300 skulls, was dismantled in 2002).
Choeung Ek: The Killing Fields
A visit to the “killing fields” outside of Phnom Penh completes the eerie picture. Choeung Ek is often paired with Tuol Sleng on many itineraries – you can visit any place without seeing the other, but it doesn’t feel good to leave out the place where so many Tuol Sleng prisoners spent their last moments.
The “Killing Fields” were the units of elimination of the millions of undesirables of the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek was the final destination for the vast majority of Tuol Sleng inmates; Around 9,000 bodies still lie in mass graves inside Choeung Ek.
A Buddhist stupa now looms over Choeung Ek, its acrylic-walled base filled with some 5,000 human skulls, the remains of the inmates who were killed here. Many skulls bear signs of murderous blows: To save on bullets, Choeung Ek’s executioners used pickaxes or cart axles to execute their victims.
Tips for Tuol Sleng Visitors
Get to Tuol Sleng. S-21 is in the Tuol Svay Prey sub-district, about eleven miles south of the capital, Phnom Penh. (Location on Google Maps)
“Tuol Sleng is easily accessible by tuk tuk or motorcycle,” Ryder Joslin tells us. “There are also tour buses that go directly to the museum, however these are not necessary or recommended as you can go yourself and hire a guide on site if you wish.” (Read about tuk-tuks in Cambodia).
When to go. Consider Cambodia’s tropical climate when planning a trip to Tuol Sleng. “Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day as there is no air conditioning there,” advises Ryder Joslin.
The guides at Tuol Sleng are optional, but completely necessary in my opinion. Tuol Sleng is almost tirelessly grim, and you’ll need someone to put all the death and pain in context. Guides cost an additional $ 6 on top of the $ 2 entrance fee for Tuol Sleng. (Read about money in Cambodia).
Take it easy. “Take your time as you walk through the museum to feel, cry and cry, whatever you need to do,” suggests Ryder Joslin. “It is such an intense experience, but you will be glad you had to better understand Cambodia and what the people and their families have been through.”
We owe many thanks to Jennifer Ryder Joslin for her valuable contributions. Do me a favor and visit their Two Can Travel travel blog, or visit the blog’s Facebook page.