Among friends, it’s an easy jab at me to joke about something Southeast Asia related. In the past few years, I’ve managed to travel around to quite a few countries of the geographic region. At 22, I feel fortunate to say that I’ve been able to see many of the places I’ve wanted to see within Southeast Asia. One such place, Phnom Penh, had been on my list to visit for a long time.
I’d been to Cambodia before, but only for a very short while, and only to see the Angkor temple complex. While the temples were varied and beautiful and historical and overgrown and crawling with tourists (but still surely worth a visit), I wanted to see something that wasn’t on most people’s bucket lists.
Tuol Sleng Prison.
Tuol Sleng Prison, commonly referred to in Cambodia as “S-21,” is a high school-turned-prison and torture center-turned-museum. I had spent a great deal of my undergrad grappling with issues of genocide and war and the subsequent reconstruction and capacity-building processes. This led me to a great deal of comparison between Timor-Leste and Cambodia.
I had first become aware of the history of Tuol Sleng after reading an article about an exhibition at MoMA of the Khmer Rouge’s prison photography, written by a professor of anthropology at RISD, Lindsay Cole French. The piece was haunting. I remember class discussion about it, 3 years ago now. I resolved to see the photography one day.
Last month, that day came. I set out for Tuol Sleng, ready to learn and reflect.
Housed in a former high school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a prison used to hold and torture prisoners of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979.
Of the 17,000 to 20,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng, only seven people survived.
Most prisoners where carted off to the Killing Fields of Choung-Ek, a few short kilometers outside the city. Choung-Ek was its own solemn visit.
Signage or restoration were sparse. The rooms were left more or less as they were found, with only necessary cleaning to be done before the museum was opened to the public.
Most rooms were bare, the shackles room and stored in one central location. In other rooms, instruments of torture lay in the places they were originally used.
Barbed wire, meant to keep prisoners from jumping to their deaths, was still strung up along the outside passageways.
Clothing from prisoners was displayed.
Like the perpetrators of torture and extermination before them, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous documentation. Part of the museum housed photographs of incoming prisoners. As I’m often moved by images, this was the most personally disturbing and memorable and valuable part of the museum.
The courtyard seemed bleak and pointless. There was no hiding its past as a place for hangings and torture.
The experience of visiting Tuol Sleng (and Choung-Ek) is a sobering one, but a necessary one.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip to Tuol Sleng was not the museum itself, but what was happening across the street.
It’s wedding season in Cambodia and these wedding tents are everywhere, everywhere. I found it interesting that a couple would choose to have their wedding right across from one of the most indelible reminders of genocide from modern history. Maybe this shows the resilience and healing of the Cambodian people.