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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

——

Please note: You may find the story and images presented in this article deeply upsetting. Thus I wouldn’t blame you for sitting this one out. For those of you who do proceed, I’m guessing this is going to be as difficult to read as it was for me to write.

December 2015 & September 2020.

I never thought I would return to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Lord only knows once was enough. It was December 2015 when Wonderboy and I passed through these gates to see what remains of one of the world’s most horrifying prisons and torture centres.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

For anyone not familiar with Cambodia’s awful genocide years, let me boil it down to the basics. In 1975 the ruling Khmer Rouge Party, led by general secretary Pol Pot, began a campaign to transform the country into a socialist agrarian republic.

Pol Pot Cambodian dictator.

Pol Pot.

In order to develop a nation of subservient farmers, The Khmer Rouge began systematically persecuting and murdering anyone they saw as a threat to their vision. Teachers, scientists, artists, intellects… they all found themselves either immediately executed or forced into labour camps.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

S21 Torture centre and prison Phnom Penh Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. December 2015.

The Khmer Rouge built prisons, torture centres and execution sites all over the country. Tuol Sleng, also known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), was the largest. I knew I would never forget that afternoon with Wonderboy learning about what happened to the pour souls who came here.

The beautiful garden at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. September 2020.

As fate would have it, I found myself back in the Cambodian capital in September 2020. Sladja and I had three days at our disposal while we waited for our flight to Istanbul. She had never visited Tuol Sleng, nor indeed its equally depressing sister site, Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Hence we braced ourselves and set off for the complex one typically hot and humid afternoon.

Grisly sculpture Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

My second visit turned out to be even more haunting than the first. This time, with international tourism wiped out due to COVID-19, we found the place virtually empty. Visually the site was just as I remembered it. A cluster of large, bulky buildings framing a pretty garden with palm trees, benches and a well-kept lawn.

Cell Block A Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Just as it did the first time around, my self-guided visit began at Building A, a three-storied structure containing twenty cells. It’s especially depressing to think that the compound was home to Tuol Svay Pray High School when The Khmer Rouge claimed the place in March 1976.

Security Prison 21, Phnom Penh.

Former school classroom Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Take the stairs up to the third floor and you can still see several classrooms. In fact, they exist much as they did prior to The Khmer Rouge’s arrival. Indeed the guards didn’t get round to using every room in the compound.

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Having secured the school, Pol Pot’s men set about converting the classrooms as per their needs. They installed electrified barbed wire around the buildings and put iron bars across all the windows.

Torture room Building A Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

On Building A’s ground floor, Sladja and I wandered through a number of cells and torture chambers. They sit largely empty, save for the occasional piece of furniture and an archive photograph on the wall. Pictured above is Room 1, a torture chamber containing an original bed. The photograph on the wall is absolutely horrific, even with the worst of the visuals covered by a thick wedge of tape.

Grisly archive photograph Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

An accompanying label informs visitors that a Vietnamese photographer by the name of Hồ Văn Tây took the shot. He was one of the first journalists to document Tuol Sleng following the camp’s liberation by The People’s Army of Vietnam in January 1979. The victim, among the last inmates murdered by The Khmer Rouge, remains unknown to this day.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The gallows at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Across from Building A, in the garden, stands the grisly sight of The Gallows. Built as a school exercise apparatus, Tuol Sleng’s cadres swiftly adapted it into an instrument of torture. They hung prisoners upside down with their hands tied behind their backs. When they subsequently lost consciousness, the cadres pushed their victims’ faces into buckets of putrid water. This awoke them, enabling the interrogation to continue.

For the most part prisoners were accused of all manner of crimes against Cambodia. Moreover, they were forced into naming friends and family members as co-conspirators. Refusing to answer questions resulted in whipping. Crying out during whipping brought on extra punishment. There wasn’t so much as a slither of mercy.

Building B Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Building B, the largest of the structures, stands as the centre’s main exhibit. As we entered, I was struck all over again by the sea of faces. All full of anguish, confusion and hopelessness. Historians say around 20.000 people passed through S-21 between 1976 and 1979. At times, it feels like every one of them has been represented throughout the various halls.

The victims of Security Prison 21 Phnom Penh Cambodia

Inside Building B.

The majority of the photographs have no names or background info. Just a number the soldiers appointed them upon registration.

Photo gallery S-21 Prison and torture centre Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Somehow, this just adds to the sadness of it all. Who was the girl, pictured below? What crime could she possibly have committed against The Khmer Rouge? And what became of her? Unfortunately, the odds were not in her favour, because Tuol Sleng had only twelve known survivors.

Security Prison 21, Phnom Penh.

Young female victim Cambodian genocide

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Here and there, we discovered photographs of high profile prisoners. Take Kuy Thuon, for example, Cambodia’s Minister of Commerce at the time of his arrest. When The Khmer Rouge kicked off their genocide campaign, they made sure to clean out their own house first. Anyone whose face didn’t fit, or they felt had the potential to be disloyal, ended up in Tuol Sleng.

Photo gallery Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The precise nature of the charges against Kuy Thuon remains unclear. Nevertheless, the prison wardens bullied him into a 48 page confession and he was swallowed up in the first wave of executions.

Photo gallery S-21 Prison and torture centre Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Elsewhere, a giant photograph shows “the wife of Sek Seth”, a secretary of Region 25, southwest. I can only assume he was another discarded member of the party. She sits with a newborn baby in her arms. It’s an awful image that made me feel so utterly dejected I had to escape to a nearby window. And there I stood, gazing out across the peaceful garden until I’d composed myself.

The garden at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Building B is a tiring onslaught of photographs. Faces come and go as you negotiate the various halls. Some prisoners, I noticed, appear three to four times across the different galleries.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Inside Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Between the rows of photo boards, there are a number of sobering displays. One glass case presents items of prisoners clothes found piled up in 1979. It also features a pair of cadre uniforms.

Victims and cadres clothes S21 Prison Cambodia

Clothes and uniforms.

In another room, we came across a rusty parade of shackles. Most prisoners were fixed to the walls in their cell, while in larger holding rooms up to twenty people might be shackled to a long iron bar. There were no beds, with inmates simply sleeping on the floor, heads in the opposite direction to discourage communication.

Foot shackles Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Building C houses a number of long hallways packed with individual cells. Back in 2015 Wonderboy and I had passed through these halls alongside plenty of other visitors.

Building C Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

But this time it was just us, our footsteps echoing as we made our way. Some cells were open red brick creations, others came with heavy wooden doors that creak loudly when you open them for a peek inside.

Visit Phnom Penh Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Inside building C.

The cells are tiny, with barely enough room for its occupant to sit, let alone lie down. And this was just how the guards at Tuol Sleng wanted it.

Security Prison 21, Phnom Penh.

Tiny prison cell S-21 prison Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

In one cell block, we spied a wooden bar attached to the wall. Wardens used it to hang all the various keys needed to keep everything and everyone secure.

Wooden bar for hanging keys Tuol Sleng prison and torture centre

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

They say Tuol Sleng operated with a staff of around 1700, including office workers, interrogators, guards, drivers and night watchmen. A team of chefs meanwhile produced the rice porridge that prisoners received twice a day. There was also a group of farmers onsite who grew the vegetables that would feed the staff.

Kang Kek Iew comrade Duch Cambodian war criminal

Kang Kek Iew.

Director of operations was a man by the name of Kang Kek Iew, more commonly known as Comrade Duch. Eventually, after lengthy court proceedings, he became the first Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted of crimes against humanity.

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Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died in jail just a few weeks before Sladja and I visited. He was 77 and had been suffering from lung disease. Due to complications related to COVID-19, the Cambodian government opted to cremate him on the day of death, without any funeral or service. He was not mourned.

Instruments of torture S-21 Prison Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Building D hosts a terrifying collection of torture instruments, in addition to some local and international art depicting the harsh reality of daily life at S-21.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodian genocide artwork in Phnom Penh

Showering The Prisoners by Vann Nath.

This painting by a Cambodian artist shows the prisoners being showered by a cadre. This simply involved the guard poking a hose between the bars of an open window. One survivor reported weekly showers of this nature. Another claimed to only receive one during his three month ordeal.

It was also in building D that I learned about two particularly tragic stories. Huot Bophana, pictured below, was 25 years old when she arrived at Tuol Sleng. As a young woman in her early twenties, she worked as a rice seller and studied military law. She also gave birth to a baby boy after being raped by a soldier.

Huot Bophana Cambodian genocide victim

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Her deep love and marriage to a distant cousin led to her arrest and imprisonment. Bophana had written her husband dozens of love letters. This, The Khmer Rouge said, was proof of “illegal expressions of love over revolution”. Her story forms the basis of a book, Love in the time of The Khmer Rouge, as well as a film, Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy.

Kerry Hamill New Zealander Cambodian genocide victim

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodian soldiers caught New Zealander Kerry Hamill (bottom right) while sailing in Cambodian waters. It was a fatal mistake of wrong place at the wrong time when his yacht strayed off course. Consequently, he ended up in Tuol Sleng where The Khmer Rouge accused him of working as a CIA spy.

During his interrogation, Hamill responded to questions about who he was working for with answers such as ”Colonel Sanders!” This remained his defiant approach right to the bitter end. You can read more about Hamill’s story in this article from Post Magazine.

Security Prison 21, Phnom Penh.

Chum Mey's desk at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

As we exited the compound that day, I couldn’t help but notice the empty chair and desk in the main garden. In 2015 this is where Wonderboy and I met Chum Mey, one of Tuol Sleng’s twelve survivors. He had been greeting visitors and signing copies of his book, Survivor.

Chum Mey was a 48 year old motor mechanic when, in October 1978, The Khmer Rouge arrested him. Accusing him of working as a spy, they killed his wife and son before transferring him to Tuol Sleng.

Chum Mey Cambodian genocide survivor

Chum Mey.

According to the man himself, he survived because of his ability to repair sewing machines. A skill, he says, that made him useful to the cadres. Chum Mey is now 91 years old, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t manage to maintain his museum appearances during the pandemic.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum S-21 Security Prison

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Despite the obvious discomfort one feels when visiting Tuol Sleng, I certainly don’t regret either of my visits. Furthermore, I genuinely wanted to add this site to my archives and not shirk away from the grim details.

After all, I have written extensively about temples, cafes, restaurants and beaches. But to truly understand Cambodia and its people, you really do have to confront the country’s dark history. Thanks for seeing this journey through with me.

cambodian-flag-graphic

I’ve written a bunch of articles about Cambodia’s genocide years. You may also want to check out my pieces on:

Phnom Sampeau Killing Caves (Battambang)

The Abandoned Villas of Kep

Dy Proeung’s Miniature Replicas of Angkor (Siem Reap)

Wat Thmey Pagoda (Killing Fields Siem Reap)

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

For more info on my adventures in and around the Cambodian capital, have a leaf through my other reports from Phnom Penh

Like these? Then why not have a look at my articles from across Cambodia.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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48 Comments

  • Toonsarah

    I agree with you that no description of Cambodia today is complete without a look at its recent past, and I know from talking to our guide in Phnom Penh, Van, that its people feel the same way. They want us to understand what the country went through and the horrors they suffered.

    It must have been especially haunting to visit here during the pandemic and have it to yourselves. When we went in February last year visitor numbers were already down because no Chinese were travelling, and we came first thing in the morning, so we had Building A almost to ourselves at the start of our tour – I recall seeing just one other couple. I couldn’t bring myself to spend as much time in Building B as you did, nor to take photos there, but I’m pleased that you have – the prisoners deserve to have their story told. It’s a shame that Chum Mey has had to give up his visits, but understandable. I hope he’s OK but at 91 …

    June 8, 2021 - 9:57 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your considered thoughts Sarah. This wasn’t an easy article to write but I’m glad I did it.

      June 8, 2021 - 10:03 am Reply
  • Divi

    I wish the history teachers at school were as good as you! This post was quite deep. I never ever read anything like this, and this has me moved. I can’t seem to imagine how hard it must’ve been for you to pen down this post.

    June 8, 2021 - 10:40 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah that’s very kind of you to say. I’m glad you appreciated hearing this history despite the subject matter. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      June 8, 2021 - 11:57 am Reply
  • Alison

    Truly the most awful place on Earth. We visited in 2015 I believe and also found it very harrowing. We did see the last survivor and was amazed by his calmness. The Cambodian people are the nicest race I’ve ever come across. Although we were told by our taxi driver that many of the young people don’t believe this really happened! It was indeed a sobering visit.

    June 8, 2021 - 11:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for adding your thoughts Alison. The Cambodian people are lovely as you say and yes, probably the saddest site I have ever visited.

      June 8, 2021 - 12:27 pm Reply
      • Alison

        Well it was a great post and as you say must have been hard to write ..you expressed yourself well

        June 8, 2021 - 1:04 pm
  • wetanddustyroads

    A very difficult read (I had to skip a few sentences and pictures). I’m not sure (correction: I know) I will not be able to visit a place like this. Utterly sad … but thank you for telling the story 😢.

    June 8, 2021 - 12:06 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your contribution and indeed for battling through the article. Much appreciated.

      June 8, 2021 - 12:28 pm Reply
  • Lingo in Transit

    I think it’s always important to also learn about a country’s dark history. I remember being at the grounds and feeling sick from hearing about what happend. There’s an uncomfortable eeriness about the place.

    June 8, 2021 - 12:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and dropping a comment. I felt it was important to write an article that puts across the grimness of the place and to not shy away from what took place here. I am feeling encouraged by the comments that are coming through, thanks again.

      June 8, 2021 - 12:33 pm Reply
  • ThingsHelenLoves

    A sensitive topic, beautifully written. I find the beauty of the gardens and the fountains against the horror of what happened there almost too much to fathom. The picture of the mother and child really made me stop and think. I only have a little knowledge of Cambodia and its history, this post is very thought provoking. I’m going to read your other posts. Thank you for sharing, can’t have been the easiest experience to distil into a blog post.

    June 8, 2021 - 12:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you so much Helen. My next post, out on Thursday, covers Tuol Sleng’s sister site, Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Thankfully, my remaining Phnom Penh articles will be a much easier read. Really appreciate you reading and for the kind words.

      June 8, 2021 - 12:56 pm Reply
  • BACK ROADS AND OTHER STORIES

    What a history! Thanks for not shrinking away from it!

    June 8, 2021 - 1:45 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Thank you for sharing this Leighton. I am really keen to visit this museum when we visit Cambodia (hopefully in November, if not then next year). Your tackling of such a difficult and sensitive topic is great and I feel like I’ve learned something. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    June 8, 2021 - 2:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks so much Hannah. Would be very interested to read your own write up eventually.

      June 8, 2021 - 3:10 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    There are some truly sad and horrible places in this world, where the depravities of mere mortals are on display. As horrifying as they are to visit and explore, they must remain, so all will know what happens when maniacs seize power. Thanks for exploring this difficult place. Stay well. Allan

    June 8, 2021 - 3:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Allan, I am surprised and humbled by the responses so far. Somehow I thought there might be a critical response or two.

      June 8, 2021 - 3:11 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Very well written post on such a grim subject.
    I have yet to visit the 9/11 Memorial because I know it’ll be so tough mentally. Maybe this post will inspire me to push through that!

    June 8, 2021 - 3:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Lyssy. I’m sure the 9/11 memorial would be a tough one too. Thanks for reading!

      June 8, 2021 - 3:17 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Thank you for the post. I am sickened by visiting places like this, but, like you I can’t look away. It is so important that we understand these impossible to imagine places if we are to fight against their reemergence, which unfortunately seems still possible yet today. Being there when it was almost devoid of people had to have made it seem all the larger because of the emptiness, but then I am seldom very conscious of people as they are generally quiet. It’s hard to get out of your own thoughts or to get away from them.

    June 8, 2021 - 3:25 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Memo. Appreciate this very much.

      June 8, 2021 - 3:30 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    A harrowing story but I’m pleased you decided to post about the Genocide Museum to enable us to learn in more detail about the horrors inflicted. I’d like to visit Cambodia at some point when we can freely move around again. Marion

    June 8, 2021 - 3:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Marion. How lucky we are to have grown up in a place free of civil war, dictators and genocide. Hope you enjoy the week ahead.

      June 8, 2021 - 3:36 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    I felt that you handled writing about such a horrific place with great tact and compassion. Visiting this place is important, not only because it is part of understanding Cambodia, but also because we need to remember the people who suffered there and honor them even though we do not know them.

    June 8, 2021 - 3:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Aw thanks so much. I’m genuinely humbled by the reactions to this piece. Thanks for reading this shitty chapter of world history. Hopefully we learn and we move on. Though sadly there seems to be evidence that such horrors continue to take place, albeit on a smaller and more discreet scale. Thanks again.

      June 8, 2021 - 3:43 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    We didn’t visit either of these museums when we were in Cambodia for no other reason than I didn’t think I would have been able to take it. Reading your post makes me continue to ask the same question when I hear or read about or see this and other atrocities – what is wrong with people that they can do this to others, and that they can include an entire regime/governement in their torture. Thanks for posting this, Maggie

    June 8, 2021 - 11:14 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Maggie, I appreciate your comment and of course understand it when people hesitate to see these sights. I have just this moment commented on your Bangkok article, we must have been writing at exactly the same time.

      June 8, 2021 - 11:21 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    It was a little more busy when I visited the torture centre. But all the visitors were silent in front of the horror that is easy to imagine in a place that seems to have been left only the day before by the torturers.

    June 9, 2021 - 1:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread!

      June 9, 2021 - 8:26 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Visiting such sites of horrific acts in human history really makes you reconsider the idea of travel as just being about fun and games. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum definitely has plenty of dark history to really humble you; it’s unbelievable just how far Cambodia has come in terms of its past, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts from your visit to this museum.

    June 9, 2021 - 5:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca. You’re right, travelling and indeed travel writing shouldn’t strictly be the territory of temples, restaurants, parks, beaches etc. Thanks for your thoughts!

      June 9, 2021 - 8:30 am Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    There are some harrowing places around the globe, like this, recording the worst of humanity’s brutality. We’ve visited Auschwitz and former KGB prisons in the Baltic states, but your description of this one makes it sound even more harrowing than those examples. Had the pandemic not intervened, we would have seen Cambodia’s history first hand by now. Great article.

    June 9, 2021 - 8:23 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Phil. I’ve seen Auschwitz too and in terms of the visitor’s experience this felt more harrowing. I think there was much more detail on hand about the awful conditions and ruthless torture. Where are the KGB prisons you visited?

      June 9, 2021 - 8:36 am Reply
      • thehungrytravellers.blog

        I think it was in Tartu, which we visited by train from Tallinn

        June 9, 2021 - 8:40 am
  • InsideMySlingBag

    That was a really lengthy and nice post Leighton! Some things I have no words to express but I like how you captured it all.

    June 9, 2021 - 11:21 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      June 9, 2021 - 11:22 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    I got goosebumps reading about your visit to this museum. It’s shocking the things we can do to other people.

    June 9, 2021 - 12:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for battling through this article and for taking the time to comment.

      June 9, 2021 - 12:59 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    This is one of the most horrific places on earth. I was there years ago and couldn’t stay in the museum very long. I sat outside crying and was glad I was at least there to pay my respects. Likewise, I couldn’t read through this entire article, but commend you for writing about it and sharing the details so others can understand what happened there.

    June 13, 2021 - 10:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment Ruth and for your honesty. It does indeed lay claim to being the most horrific place on Earth.

      June 13, 2021 - 10:11 pm Reply
  • Henry Lewis

    Visiting Tuol Sleng was a powerful experience, to say the least. Let it be a warning to all that humans have the capacity to cause such horrors.

    June 14, 2021 - 12:37 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading Henry and leaving your thoughts.

      June 14, 2021 - 12:39 am Reply
  • Gilda Baxter

    Thank you for writing this article. It is a difficult place to visit, but I think it is so important to acknowledge their suffering and ensure it will never happen again. We visited in February 2020, visitors numbers were already dwindling. I am yet to write about our visit.

    June 18, 2021 - 4:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hi Gilda, thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. I of course concur with your sentiments about documenting these kinds of travel experiences and look forward to reading your own account.

      June 18, 2021 - 4:25 pm Reply

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