A Guide to Tuol Sleng Prison for Budget Travel in Cambodia
What a place Tuol Sleng is. It has a hospital-like odor and ammonia-like cover up. I guess both places are venues of death and that can never be hidden by any method or means.
The S-21 Genocide Museum is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tuol Sleng means (In Khmer Language] means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill".
This prison was once a school named Tuol Svay Prey High School. It was once filled with children and teenagers learning the ways of the world.
Then the ultra extremest Khmer Rouge Communist Government took over in 1975. They transformed the school into a chamber of suffering and death that lasted until the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Some books even purport that the very same teachers who taught at that school were tortured there. The Khmer Rough were quick to round up all 'intellectuals' like teachers and doctors and businessmen. Anyone who might pose a threat to the regime and the ultimate control they wanted.
The Khmer Rouge renamed Tuol Svay Prey High School to "Security Prison 21" (S-21). They stuck electrified barbed wire around the entire school to stop any prisoner escapes. The classrooms were cut into many tiny rooms to hold the prisoners. In the video below, you can see just how tiny they were. In the courtyard stands a wooden frame once used for gymnastics practice, converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture rack.
During the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979, the number of people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng varies from 17,000 to 20,000 human beings. One of the last prisoners to die was American Michael Scott Deeds, who was captured with his friend Chris De Lance while sailing from Thailand to Hawaii.
Inside Tuol Sleng are room after room of photos of the victims. There are still chains bolted to the ground, visible bloodstains on the walls and evidence of suffering everywhere. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center.
The place was used to obtain confessions through torture. Prisoners were tortured with electric shocks through the most treasured areas of their bodies and I saw some photos and metal tools that they heated and seared the skin of the prisoners.
The khmer Rouge needed their confessions to validate to the remaining population that they were correct all along about their assessment of the previous regime as corrupt.
Get There and See It:
Try to get to the Museum before 10am or 3pm as they run a 1 hour movie that recounts the experiences of one family that had a intimate encounter with Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge. It's worth seeing and gives personality and puts faces to the horror of Tuol Sleng.
You can see from the map above that it's a little over a kilometer from the Lakeside. Even less from the city center. They say you should not pay the motorbike drivers more than 2,000Riel (4,000Riel=$1USD) to get there from anywhere in the city. I paid 2,500 to get there and the same to get back to the Lakeside.
Why The Hell Even Go?:
It's depressing with all the Photos and torture devices about. And the smell and the quiet. But it just is such a part of the history of Cambodia.
School buses often pull up giving school children a tour through the site. At least it's an experience you won't forget and it may spark some empathy for the suffering of others and force you to appreciate what you have. I know it did that for me.
The rules of Tuol Sleng:
This is on a sign posted at the entrance of S-21. It is translated from Khmer language and is the first thing the prisoners saw as they entered the prison.
- 1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don't turn them away.
- 2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
- 3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- 4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
- 5. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
- 6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- 7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
- 8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
- 9. If you don't follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
- 10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Or you could just catch the S-21 Movie / Documentary before you go. Sparks the interest if you know a little background first.
Here's a video of the insides of Tuol Sleng. Turn up the volume or down if you please but it is a good preview for anyone planning on visiting this prison museum.
Here's a video tour through Tuol Sleng done up with some music with the Dead Kennedys. I don't advise watching it if you are feeling 'connected'.
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