Tuol Sleng

After lunch, we spent our afternoon reflecting on the terrible events of Cambodia’s recent past at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. When the Khmer Rouge were in power, this former high school was turned into S-21, one of Pol Pot’s secret prisons that were used to torture and interrogate anyone the regime felt like persecuting. In 1979 after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power it was turned into a genocide museum.

There are five buildings in the complex. The first two are cleaned up but mostly intact illustrations of the living conditions of the prisoners. The others house various exhibits about life in Cambodia throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. There’s also an hour-long movie that covers the life of a female Cambodian in her early twenties as she was captured, raped, released, re-captured, tortured, and finally killed in S-21.

It’s a sobering place, and provides vivid images of how scary and miserable insane dictatorships can be. There were the security regulations, with items such as:  “Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me,” “while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,” and, at the end of the list, “if you don’t follow all of the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.” Of the 17,000 or so that were imprisoned at S-21, only twelve survived.

While it was a pretty emotional visit, Tuol Sleng is at the top of my list of recommendations if you are visiting Phnom Penh. It’s provides a good mix of frank, scary history and optimism for the future, and helps you begin to understand the times that shaped the psyche of today’s Cambodians.

Tuol Sleng
Building A. The buildings surround a courtyard where the gallows were placed. Prisoners were tied and hung upside down until they passed out, at which point they were lowered, head-first into a filthy bucket of water.

Prison room
One of the typical prison rooms – no mattresses, and prisoners were latched down so they couldn’t walk around

Pictures of prisoners
The Khmer Rouge were surprisingly meticulous in their documentation of their secret prison program. Many Cambodians have used this display to identify missing relatives.

Great Leap Forward
The delusional Great Leap Forward

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