Visiting Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

A Ghastly Reminder of 1970s Khmer Rouge Misrule

Room in Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
••• Torture chamber in Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image courtesy of Cormac McCreesh / Getty Images

Beware the tyrant enslaved to a single idea. It's a recurring theme in history, but we as a species seems doomed to return to it repeatedly under the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot… and others undoubtedly waiting in the wings.

The consequences of Pol Pot's “Year Zero” - his unswerving belief that Cambodia (“Kampuchea”) needed to be cleansed from royalists, intellectuals and other filth – can be seen in the space of an afternoon, visiting Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

“Cambodia has a tragic recent history of genocide, which took place from 1975-1979 and still effects the country today on many different levels,” explains Jennifer Ryder Joslin, an expat based in Phnom Penh and co-author (with partner Stevo) of the travel blog Two Can Travel. “The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is an important site to visit to have a deeper understanding of what the Cambodian people have been through.”

A School, then Torture Camp, then Genocide Memorial

Tuol Sleng is a former Khmer Rouge detention and torture camp. Today it's a museum, a ghastly reminder of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime.

It was once Tuol Svay Prey High School, before the complex's buildings were cleared for their new role in 1975. The complex was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21), barbed wire was added to the perimeter, and the windows were fortified with iron bars.

The four main buildings on Tuol Sleng stand around a couple of courtyards that may have been the school's playgrounds before its grisly transformation.

Building A was the main torture facility in Tuol Sleng; the Khmer Rouge did their ghastly work here till the very last minute, killing the last victims just ahead of the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979.

The 14 last victims were buried in a plot just outside Building A; you'll come across this cemetery just before entering.

Building B contained holding cells for prisoners, and currently houses a macabre photo gallery of prisoners who were photographed as they were admitted to the building. The Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of prisoners; their haunting photos can be seen here en masse, their sorrowful eyes gazing out at you as if to reproach you for living.

Building C served as Tuol Sleng's main prison barracks. The bottom floor housed the smallest cells, each holding a single prisoner chained to the floor. Women were confined to the second floor. The third floor were mass prison cells, holding large groups chained to long iron bars.

Across from this building stands the “gallows” in the courtyard, used by Khmer Rouge torturers to inflict a sadistic kind of water torture on prisoners.

Building D houses the late Cambodian artist Vann Nath's gruesome paintings, created from first-hand recollections of life (as it were) inside Tuol Sleng. Vann Nath was one of the handful of Tuol Sleng survivors, who were retained for their “usefulness”. Read his biography at the memorial site that bears his name.

The Horrors of Tuol Sleng

“Tuol Sleng is a heart wrenching look at the realities millions of Cambodians faced under the Khmer Rouge regime,” explains Jennifer Ryder Joslin. “It is a horrifying to see what humans are capable of doing to one another over ideals, yet important to see so that history might not be forgotten nor repeated.”

Suffice to say, an afternoon at Tuol Sleng will leave you feeling very, very, heavy indeed.

The horrible genius of the Khmer Rouge lay in their attention to detail. Prisoners were photographed and interrogated on their life details before being chained to their cells. This impersonal yet horrifying collection of data is presented to the visitor, room after room full of photographs of doomed men, women, and children, a glimpse of the estimated 20,000 prisoners who entered Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng's Many Victims

The prisoners were overwhelmingly Cambodian, although the prison did see its share of Americans, British, and Australians. The twisted ideology of the Khmer Rouge meant that anybody with an education, anybody who wasn't from around there, even anybody who wore glasses was suspect, and could (and often did) end up screaming their lives out in Tuol Sleng.

You'll also see a torture chamber, left in almost the same condition as they were found by the Vietnamese invaders who kicked the Khmer Rouge out in 1979. The torture devices are also present, with detailed explanations on how they were used.

The end result of these devices is also nearby - cases of skulls belonging to S-21's unfortunate victims. (Tuol Sleng's most grisly attraction, a "skull map" of Cambodia in 300-plus skulls, was dismantled in 2002.)

Choeung Ek: the Killing Fields

A visit to the “killing fields” outside Phnom Penh completes the grisly picture. Choeung Ek is often paired with Tuol Sleng in many itineraries – you can visit either place without seeing the other, but it doesn't feel right to leave out the place where so many Tuol Sleng prisoners spent their last moments.

The “Killing Fields” were the disposal units for the Khmer Rouge's million or so undesirables. Choeung Ek was the final destination for the vast majority of Tuol Sleng inmates; about 9,000 bodies still lie in mass graves within Choeung Ek.

A Buddhist stupa now looms above Choeung Ek, its acrylic-walled base filled by about 5,000 human skulls, the remains of inmates who were killed here. Many skulls bear signs of killing blows – to save on bullets, executioners at Choeung Ek used pickaxes or cart axles to execute their victims.

Tips for Tuol Sleng Visitors

Getting to Tuol Sleng. S-21 is in Tuol Svay Prey sub-district, about eleven miles south of the capital Phnom Penh. (Location on Google Maps)

“Tuol Sleng is easily reachable by tuk tuk or motorbike,” Ryder Joslin tells us. “There are also tourist buses going directly to the museum, however these are neither necessary nor recommended as you can go yourself and hire a guide on site if you would like to.” (Read about tuk-tuks in Cambodia.)

When to go. Consider Cambodia's tropical climate when planning a trip to Tuol Sleng. “Go early morning or in the late afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day as there is no air conditioning there,” advises Ryder Joslin.

Guides at Tuol Sleng are optional, but to my mind, completely necessary. Tuol Sleng is almost unremittingly grim, and you'll need someone to put all the death and pain in context. Guides cost an additional USD$6 on top of the USD$2 entrance fee for Tuol Sleng. (Read about money in Cambodia.)

Take it slow. “Take your time as you go through the museum to feel and grieve and mourn, whatever you need to do,” suggests Ryder Joslin. “It is such an intense experience, but one you will be glad you had to better understand Cambodia and what people and their families have been through.”

We owe many thanks to Jennifer Ryder Joslin for her valuable inputs. Do me a solid and visit her travel blog Two Can Travel, or check out the blog's Facebook page.