Most people who visit Cambodia invariably end up at Angkor Wat. It’s understandable as Angkor is a popular bucket list destination most would like to see before they die. Phnom Penh on the other hand often gets passed over as a tourist destination either due to budget or the inherent perception that it has little to offer in terms of tourist sites to visit.
The city founded on the legend of Lady Penh is however rich in culture and picturesque in its own right. Having lived in Phnom Penh for an extended period of time, I’ve had the luxury of discovering many places worthy of a visit. City tours and photo tours are easily procured to take in the sights and sounds but personally I’m not much of a get-on-the-bus type tour person myself. Perferring to wander off on my own without a tour guide breathing down my neck, I tend to opt for a more leisurely pace that allows me to discover places on my own even when I’m strapped for time.
One such place located within the city is the S21 Toul Sleng Prison & Genocide Museum. For those who appreciate history, S21 was a school, Toul Svay Pray High School to be exact, that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture, interrogation and execution center at the height of their terror reign in 1976. Not a place for the faint hearted but nontheless an important must see historical site that has been preserved to some extent. It serves as a grim reminder of the atrocities humankind are capable of.
The building which is seemingly innocent looking from the outside has an eerie and sinister vibe once you get past the gates and enter the compound. It’s hard to describe the initial reaction or feeling you get when you enter the first classroom and see a metal bed with tools of torture neatly placed on the edge of the frame.
On the wall of this starkly furnished room is a photograph of a bloated corpse chained to the bed with what appears to be pools of blood underneath. The entire groundfloor block of classrooms are the same. If these walls could talk, the stories they’d tell would surely be chilling to the bone.
Out in the corridors, the atmosphere in and around the school is calm and quiet, a stark contrast to what it would have been like when it was packed with prisoners in tiny cramped cells built into classrooms on the second floor of the adjacent building. With barely enough room for one person, these tiny cells in themselves would have been enough to drive any normal person insane, akin to keeping an animal caged up in a hole. And the only view, if you had one, is of barbed wire reinforced balconies which I can only imagine further exacerbated the feeling of incarceration with no hope of escape, no hope for getting out alive. Adding to this hapless situation, inmates were held captive within earshot of what would surely have been grizzly sounds of friends or family being mutilated and murdered on the lower floor just a few feet below.
In the annexe block which is where the museum is housed, there are rooms filled with over 6,000 black & white photos of prisoners, artist illustrations of how men, women, children and even babies were hacked to death and a large display of torture tools and devices.
While the Khmer Rouge were notorious for executing scores of people at a time and burying them in mass graves, it’s oddly bizarre that at S21 each and every prisoner was photographed and meticulously tagged for execution. Many were political prisoners, persons deemed to be traitors and intellectuals, however countless were random people picked up for interrogation.
These are the most haunting portraits you are likely to see anywhere.
At the far end of the building in a small room sits a large glass enclosed display with busted skulls and broken bone fragments piled high. Placed on the floor is an alter where visitors offer a prayer and light a candle for those who suffered a fate most cruel. It’s estimated that 14,000 people entered S21, only 7 survived.
It’s almost too much to take in. Every sensibility you’ve ever known is blown away forever when you consider what happened here. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for extinguishing the light of over 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. In the wake of their reign, they left the country a massive graveyard. Pol Pot and his gang of war pigs were never, to the best of my knowledge, tried for war crimes but their legacy remains in the form of S21 and countless killing fields across the country.
Making my way out to the main gate, it starts to drizzle and through the trees in the courtyard I see several neatly arranged graves. Calling out to me as if to say, “Hey, you missed seeing us on your way in”, which I admit I did.
Here lie the tombs of the last few who perished at S21. They were found still shackled to their iron beds after the Khmer Rouge fled the city when Vietnamese led troops stormed Phnom Penh in 1979.
They are the lucky few to have gotten a proper burial and last rites of passage.