Visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing fields was the one thing that stopped my sister and I from fighting on a visit to Cambodia in the early 2000s. I was only 9 or 10 years old at the time, but Tuol Sleng still remains as one of my most vivid memories from the 4 years I spent living in South East Asia.
This isn't the type of 'tourist attraction' that many parents want to take their children to. Some think their children won't be able to handle it, some think their children won't understand it, and some just don't want to expose their children to some of the horrific things detailed within.
Photo: Michael Gruijters (Nefelimhg) on Wikipedia Commons
Tuol Sleng was once a school, but during the rule of the Khmer Rouge it was converted into a prison and detention centre, also known as S21. It was a place of imprisonment and torture of thousands of Cambodians, as well as almost 500 Vietnamese and a small number of foreigners. Only 7 of the 17,000 prisoners survived.
With these figures in mind, you can imagine Tueol Sleng is a harrowing place to visit. It doesn't hit you straight away. You pay a couple of US dollars for a ticket, and a few more if you want a guide. There's a large outdoor area with grass, trees, footpaths, and benches. You might find solace here later, if you need a break from the buildings that surround it.
Then the other things start to stand out. The large gallows once used by school children to do their exercises. The graves of some of the prison's last victims. The board displaying the strict rules prisoners had to obey.
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don't turn them away. 7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting. 10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks with electric discharge.
You can choose to walk through the multi-story cell block alone, or with a guide. You will get more of a back story if you choose to walk around with a guide, and they will attempt to put the displays into context, but Tuol Sleng is difficult place to gain understanding. Choosing to walk alone may mean you miss out on some stories, but you may also find you appreciate being able to take it at your own pace.
Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (Wikimedia Commons)
Many cells are left as they were found when the prison was discovered by the Vietnamese. Some smaller cells still have scribbling and even stains on the walls, while larger cells contain nothing but rusty iron bedframes and chains.
While the empty beds and torture devices are chilling, nothing is as haunting as the faces that follow you through every room. The Khmer Rouge documented every prisoner as they entered Tuol Sleng, and their photos are a powerful reminder of just how many mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives all faced the terror of S21.
Visiting Tuol Sleng can be very emotionally draining, and you might want to plan your day with this in mind. It's not a place to visit because of morbid curiosity, just so that you can tick it off your list, but it's somewhere you go to try and make sense of the horrors that occurred in still quite recent history.
I visited Tuol Sleng for the second time when I was 21. My friend and I made our way through the prison, silent and with faces wet with tears. We weren't able to make it through the entire prison.
If you have visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, please feel free to share your thoughts or experiences below. If you would like to prepare yourself before visiting the museum, the Wikipedia article on Tuol Sleng is very thorough, but nothing is the same as experiencing the museum.
We visited there in 2007, we saw all of it in our group with our guide explaining where needed. I will never forget the faces looking out at us from the displays; somehow they were telling of the pain they suffered. Not one of our group could speak & there were tears in everyones eyes when we left.
i went in 2003. Such a sad sad place, which you can feel when you walk through it. Its also an important reminder of the pain and suffering war can cause, even against its own people. Very upsetting visit but i am grateful for the experience.
Was there in 2000. Unforgettable and harrowing, but I'm glad I went.. two comments; bizarrely the building is in a quiet and unassuming residential district, and it's hard to comprehend the juxtaposition of the historic horror with ordinary lives going on in the street outside. Secondly the documentation of the prisoners is a bureaucratic process which is now a record of terror, but at the time was a careful record of destruction justifying the actions of the regime. The banality of genocide.....