A sad entry :(

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Like the first horror film you ever saw, the Toul Sleng Museum of Genocide is an experience you never forget.

Having bought my ticket I went to the nearest row in a U shaped block of institutional buildings. The scrappy pamphlet in my hand told me this place was once a school, before the Khmer Rouge commandeered it for their own use.

The first room I saw had stained walls, a tiled floor, 2 caged windows, and a dilapidated iron bed in the centre. On the far wall hung a large picture of that same room with the same fixtures, including the exact same iron bed, as it was during the regime: with a battered corpse spread dead and violated on its bare springs.

The sight was shocking in a way that truly justifies the word. My lunch rose quickly toward my chest and my neck went clammy.
a classroom used as a torture chamber
I then moved onto the next room where the same scene was repeated, and the next and the next and the next… Room after room was just like the first; bare walls, bare floor, ancient bed, framed photograph of a man defiled. The horror came not only in the similarities -which betrayed a chilling methodology- but also in the differences such as the detail on the iron bedsteads; one was plain bars, another had a curve and splayed lines like sunbeams, another with decorative ‘S’ patterns. The bodies of the dead men all lay differently too, each frozen in the individual moment when torture became slaughter.

I don’t know whether it is lack of funds, or perceptive design, that makes the exhibition work this way…but it’s more effective than I can brings words to.
It’s like walking through the front door to a scene of slaying, whist the murderer slips out by the back patio. Evil feels close by here.  Revulsion inside you pleads for it to end… to see something different. And yet your eyes stay open, hungry almost, as morbid fascination drives you on from room to room, where the carnage plays out with devastating regularity.

Going around Toul Sleng, I was uncomfortably aware of how I expected the museum to entertain me… I’d seen one type of carnage, now I expected to see another... ? I’ve seen pictures of corpses, surely now I’ll be shown the instruments of their torture? And what about interactivity… glossy displays, audio track, sound effects, reconstructions, things to touch, to smell, little boxes of carefully constructed text directing my emotions…? Somebody, I think it was Rupert Everett, once said ‘We are being entertained to within an inch of our lives’.
Being here, seeing this and feeling what I’m feeling, I realise this must be a sad truth.

Thankfully the museum held no such gimmicks and because of that the experience was as raw as fingernails on a blackboard. Painful, bare, horrific, unforgettable.

At some point I reached the final room of the torture wing and turned the corner into a new wing where photographs of slaughtered Cambodians were displayed in rows.  The pictures had been taken whilst the captives were alive and showed people with numbers strapped around their necks, staring blankly at an unseen photographer. What must he have felt? This man who took hundreds, no thousands, of pictures of his fellow Cambodians, only to see them sent to their deaths?? Did he enjoy his authority, did he hate it, could he sleep? It’s hard to comprehend.
Rules for prisoners

The photographs were so extensive they spanned all the space of at least four rooms. Everyone was imprisoned here, eternally captured in 2D black and white: men, women, children, teenagers, face after face after face….

Walking among their images I tried to understand the emotions of the departed and I was struck by the way that most seemed totally impassive. Are the Cambodian people so very dignified that they control their fear, or maybe they just were’nt aware of their dismal fate?  I don’t know which is closer to the truth, or which is better?

One photo hit me like a fist between the eyes. Among the endless images gazed out a young man: Placid and beautiful, he seemed to me to exemplify the tragedy of this terrible regime. He was so youthfully handsome that in another life, in another country, he’d be modelling Hugo Boss….
Genocide Museuum: gallows & ducking jars
I don’t know if it’s wrong that I was so absorbed by this particular face, knowing as I must that in the next wing I’d be looking over images of mass graves, and among the thousands of nondescript human skulls, one would be his; stripped of its mesmerizing power once stripped of its skin…

I still feel uneasy of the fact that I took a picture of his photograph. But I gaze on it often and every time I do I’m reminded of the fleeting nature of physical beauty: the continued dominance of evil regimes over innocents, and how very fragile and valuable our lives are.

Honestly, I really can’t write any more.

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a classroom used as a torture cham…
a classroom used as a torture cha…
Rules for prisoners
Rules for prisoners
Genocide Museuum: gallows & duckin…
Genocide Museuum: gallows & ducki…
Silver Pagoda @ the Royal Palace
Silver Pagoda @ the Royal Palace
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk