A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 for short, is a deeply traumatic experience. Like the killing field, there are also 2 options available. We chose the same thing as we preferred immersing ourselves in a narrative.
If killing field is the place for executing prisoners, S-21 is the place for legalizing their deaths. First they forced the prisoners admit the delusional crimes which they never committed. And then made them point their fingers at their friends, families, relatives… After the gruesome process ended, most were then sent to Choeung Ek for mass executions. About 20,000 inmates were believed to have entered this living hell.
S21 Museum used to be an ordinary high school in downtown Phnom Penh. From the appearance, it still looks just like any other school with 5 buildings face a grass courtyard and green lawns. And it would still be until today if the Khmer Rouge didn’t appear and scattered the worst nightmare in human history. Classrooms were turned to torture and interrogation cells with metal bed frames. On the wall are the horrifying photographs of bodies chained to bed frames with wet blood underneath. Today we still can see the sheets with dried blood stains. It’s raw and horrifying as you can vividly recreate what’ve been done here. We have to admit that it does take some courage to step inside. Some will even make you feel sick to your stomach.
The Khmer Rouge kept personal records of each prisoner and these are on show in details. A photographic archive was carefully created and now presented in one building which is also the most haunting part of all. The purpose of it was to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been obeyed. Each of the portraits tells a horror story of shock, resignation, confusion, defiance. Each room focuses on each period from the very beginning to the final days of the regime. Slowly we made our way through rooms as hundreds of innocent Cambodian faces passed by.
There are two prisoners who survived Tuol Sleng through their skills and their stories were unraveled in the audio tape. From time to time, they can be found in the courtyard and open to talk to us as well.
The museum now serves as memorial to the monstrous crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It stands there to remind us all of that darkest page of human history. At the end of the day, there must be a lot of people with the same thought: “it could have been a movie scene.” But it wasn’t.
- Address: St 113, Phnom Penh
- Opening hours: 7am – 5pm
- Ticket price : 8USD for adults
- Transportation: Tuktuk