This former prison outside Phnom Penh brings to light the brutality of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and honors the 17,000 people who lost their lives here.
Walk through Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum for a sobering reminder of the horrors that humanity is capable of committing. Although a visit here will leave you decidedly depressed, it is an important monument to the lives lost during the barbaric Khmer Rouge regime.
To appreciate the site, review Cambodia’s 20th-century history. In 1975, the forces of the socialist dictator Pol Pot occupied Tuol Svay Prey High School. They turned it into Security Prison 21, known as S-21, the most fearsome detention center in the country. Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed over 17,000 people here. Bodies of these innocent men, women and children lie in the nearby Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Field).
Today S-21 is a museum where these horrors are exposed and the lives lost are memorialized. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their brutality. Most prisoners were photographed, often before and after they were tortured. The museum displays these haunting photos, more horrifying for the knowledge that nearly all of these prisoners were later killed. At the height of its atrocities, Khmer Rouge in S-21 killed about 100 victims per day.
When Vietnamese forces liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, only seven S-21 prisoners remained alive. All of them had bartered their lives so the Khmer Rouge could take advantage of their skills, such as painting and photography.
Hire a guide to walk you through the exhibits and share the stories of the prisoners photographed. Slide presentations take place several times throughout the week. If possible, catch the morning or afternoon screening of Bophana. This documentary tells the true story of a local woman who falls in love with a local Khmer Rouge leader. The two are forced to pay for their crimes by imprisonment at S-21. This powerful film allows visitors to further understand the horrors that took place at the prison.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is open daily. Expect to pay a small admission fee, with a tour guide costing an additional fee.