Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

An integral part of understanding what happened

What we say: 4.5 stars

S-21 or Tuol Sleng was the Khmer Rouge’s primary interrogation and extermination centre, designed to purge anti-Khmer Rouge elements from the new society Pol Pot and his henchmen were hellbent on creating. Before the 1975-79 regime, the building was a school. Smaller interrogation centres were scattered across Cambodia, but S-21 was by far the largest and most important. All of the classrooms were converted either to tiny prison cells or interrogation rooms, while the upper balconies were covered in barbed wire so that prisoners could not kill themselves by throwing themselves off.

Like the Nazis before them, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, taking photos of every new arrival and painstakingly retaining detailed confessions made by prisoners. Many of these haunting photos are displayed in the museum.

The simple yet harrowing displays.

The simple yet harrowing displays.

Up to 16,000 people were interred, tortured and eventually executed here or at the nearby killing fields. Victims included Khmers, Vietnamese, Laotians, Thais, Indians, Brits, Pakistanis, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians. The vast majority of course were Khmer, and many were former Khmer Rouge themselves, victims of the regime’s systematic and paranoid internal purges. In most cases the torturers were children aged 10 to 15.

When the Vietnamese ousted the Pol Pot regime, they arrived in Phnom Penh far faster than expected and the authorities at S-21 barely had time to execute the last prisoners before fleeing. The first row of cells on the left as you enter the school have been left largely as found by the Vietnamese, including photos of the remains that were found in each cell. At the time, the Vietnamese kept S-21 largely as it was as a means to justify their invasion. The centre illustrated just how brutal the Khmer Rouge regime really was — the international community paid scant attention at the time.

Meticulous in their record keeping.

Meticulous in their record keeping.

Tuol Sleng is one of the most important historical monuments of the Khmer Rouge period yet it is amazing how few Khmers actually visit. With the ongoing work of DC-Cam (Documentation Cenre of Cambodia), an independent non-profit assisted by Yale University and led by US educated Khmer Rouge survivor Youk Chhang, this is slowly changing. While it makes for a rather grim couple of hours, a visit to S-21 is an integral part of understanding what happened during the Khmer Rouge period. The admission is $2 but further donations are much appreciated and encouraged.

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Street 113
Last updated: 9th August, 2015

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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