A warm welcome in a warm country, but cruel memories

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Tuol Sleng

If there’s one place about Cambodia that will propably always remain in my memory, it won’t be Ankor Wat, it won’t be taking a boat over the Mekong, it won’t be the people being friendly, it will be Toul Sleng, aka S21, aka museum of genocide.

There’s really no other place in Cambodia that left that big an impression on me. To be honest, I really had a hard evening after visiting this place.

The formal school is now a museum about the cruelty that took place in there years ago. Cruelty commited under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. What originally used to be a school for children, changed into a prison where extreme rules were explained to be the security of regulations.

Tuol Sleng
The first part of the trip true what became this horrible place takes us in some rooms where just one bed is placed, and on the bed, there is either an extremely thin matras covered in restants of blood, torture machines, or a combination of both. On the walls hangs one single picture of the old days, showing craving people on the beds, or people bading in blood after the horrible torture. As if people would start laughing looking at this, sometimes around the buildings you get to see a traffic sign that forbids everybody to laugh at this museum. Adding this detail to the walls made the whole atmosphere in there even more grabbing my troat.

The second building took me to some prison cells. The first and second floor of the building were reserved for the isolation. Almost as expected, the people were locked up in inhumanly small cells, with their legs attached to the floor by chains.

Tuol Sleng
The difference between the ground- and the first floor was the fabric of the cells. On the ground floor cement was used, and at the first floor the cells were made out of wood. I didn’t go any further into why this was, because to me the experience of just seeing those cells was cruel enough, and I didn’t even think about why those differences in fabric.

The top floor of this second building was reserved for the imprisonment in group. This room is used as a room filled with anecdotes, these days. Anecdotes from relatives of former prisoners of Tuol Sleng. Anecdotes that tell stories about how people chose to join the Khmer Rouge, seeing it as their only way out of the miserable life they had, but in the end they ended up tortured and murdered in this “what once used to be a school for innocent children”.

Tuol Sleng

At 10am and 3pm, a documentary is shown in the tv-room. A documentary that tells the story of two lovers living, and suffering apart under the Khmer Rouge regime, told by letters they wrote eachother that were found later. The most chocking part in the documentary, to me, was actually the part where they take a former guard back to the prison, together with an ex-prisoner. Both of them show a lot of respect for eachother, I think, but when I saw the guard telling a story how he didn’t kill any people on the Killing Fields (which is a different story, but with the same bases), but just hit them on the head, so someone else could kill them, with a smile on his face…I was astonished.

The former prisoner is a painter who made paintings showing the cruelty that took place in S21.

Tuol Sleng
Cruelty that he himself didn’t suffer under all of it, but some of them he heared about. The guard admitted that the actual scenes took place the way the man painted them. The paintings are there to see at the third building of the school/museum/prison. Under each painting stands the torture machine shown in it. It really makes everything coming even closer. Other rooms in the building are reserved for foto exhibitions . Photo exhibitions that don’t only show the people that were imprisoned, but also some of the leading characters in the prison. Pictures that are ruined by people carving in it, writing on it, one obscene text over another. It’s a hard decision to make if this is to justify.

Not being a person that visits museums often, and most of the time I get out faster as I get in, this place really made me walk around for over three hours, but its impression sticked with me until this day on. The regulation that you couldn’t scream during electrification or lashes even made the biggest impression on me. I don’t know why, but the cruelty of the whole place is in that one sentence, to me.

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Tuol Sleng
Tuol Sleng
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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk