The air clung to us like a second skin as the sun beat down on the concrete courtyard, the shade of a few trees providing scant relief from Cambodia’s relentless heat.
Hundreds of people wander through this haunted place, but no one speaks – it’s deathly quiet save for the constant drone of Phnom Penh’s traffic just outside the walls. Some faces are thoughtful, others grim as they listen to the tragedy and horror that took place beneath their feet not so long ago.
This is Tuol Sleng, and to laugh here is to disrespect the dead.
In writing this, I had hoped to process what I heard and saw that day.
In late 1975, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime gutted a school and converted it into one of the country’s most notorious prisons. Over 12,000 thousand people were tortured and killed here as infamous regime leader and madman Pol Pot attempted to carve the country into a classless, agrarian society.
Almost no one was safe. As part of his “revolution”, Pot and his evil right-hand man Comrade Duch targeted intellectuals, professionals, Buddhists, ethnic minorities or anyone suspected to have any connection to the former Cambodian government. His paranoia even extended to people who wore glasses or spoke more than one language.
He was the tyrannical engineer of a regime that culled about 25% of Cambodia’s population at the time – nearly two million men, women and children eradicated in order to bring the country back to “its mythical past” or “Year Zero”.
Tuol Sleng, once a school, is a grim embodiment of Pot’s ideology – a place of love and learning turned into a factory of death overseen by Comrade Duch. Those who didn’t die at the hands of their captors here were sent by the truckload to meet a horrific end in the notorious Killing Fields. They were executed en masse with a blow to the head using crude farming tools because using bullets was “too expensive”. The price of a human life.
Pol Pot’s brutal legacy still haunts Cambodia today. Its population is desperately poor in many areas. Rubbish and fetid water line the streets, and child prostitution is a disgusting reality. But if you want to learn more about the sword that created this festering wound, you’ll have to pay – in more ways than one.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, has been converted into a popular tourist attraction, with a well-written and engaging audio tour that recounts the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It affected us deeply and lingered long after we left the country. In writing this, I had hoped to process what I heard and saw that day.
Inside the torture chambers of S-21
I checked the temperature as we made our way into the first cell block – 34 degrees and nowhere near the height of summer. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for prisoners trapped in these stuffy rooms, terrified, confused, waiting to die.
The cell blocks are almost bare, with a rusty bed frame positioned in the middle of the room where prisoners were bound in iron shackles and tortured every day, some for up to six months. Guards were forced to torture false confessions from them, or face torture and execution themselves.
One of only 15 survivors, Chum Mey, famously told of how he had never even heard of the CIA, but after 10 days of being electrocuted, stabbed, beaten and having his nails pulled out, he was ready to confess that he was a CIA spy engaged in counter-revolutionary work against the Khmer Rouge.
Mey’s story is quite incredible. His skill as a mechanic ultimately saved his life when he was pulled from the grim ranks of prisoners and put to work repairing the typewriters guards used to record these false confessions.
“My life was spared when Seng, my interrogator, had a prisoner carry a typewriter to me and asked me whether I could fix it,” Mey wrote in his autobiography Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge.
“I said, ‘Brother! Wait, let me have a look’. After I fixed it, Seng put me to work as a mechanic and gave me food. This typewriter kept me alive until the Vietnamese and liberation troops came. Because of this typewriter, I have been able to tell millions of people of the bitter and most brutal operation of Tuol Sleng prison.”
His survival left him bewildered.
“It was such a rare chance that I survived when so many people were killed there. I think about it every night, how lucky I was to survive. Why did I survive?”
But others were not so lucky. When the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Vietnamese soldiers took control of the building and discovered the final victims still chained to the beds. Combat journalist Hồ Văn Tây took photographs of their nightmarish discoveries, which now hang on the walls in each room.
Heads partially severed, throats slit, faces smashed, bodies twisted and burnt. Darkness drips from these pictures, and few words can do justice in describing the oppressive feeling that envelops you while moving from room to room. Despite years of scrubbing, blood still stains the floors, walls, and in some rooms the ceilings too.
I kept thinking, “How the fuck was this reality?” This is the plotline for a twisted horror, born in the minds of authors and screenwriters, not something that actually happened to innocent people.
We left the first cell block and moved past the old gallows in the courtyard. Prisoners were bound and held upside down until they lost consciousness, then lowered into a jar of watery human excrement until they woke up and interrogations would resume. Some were made to drink this fetid water to prove they were “simple”, but Mey and others think it was just a twisted way for the guards to amuse themselves.
The second building contains more detention cells, as well as the chilling artwork of other Tuol Sleng survivors Bou Meng and Vann Nath, the two men who were tasked with creating portraits of Pot during his rule as well as other propaganda imagery. After the regime fell, they put their living nightmares on canvas – harrowing scenes that depict their experiences in Tuol Sleng.
Nath battled with perpetual illness in the years following his release. He died of a heart attack at age 65 while criminal proceedings were being held against four senior members of the Khmer Rouge.
The final room contains the haunting photographs that were taken of each prisoner as they arrived at the prison, thousands of eyes wide with confusion and fear staring as you enter the building. Pure hypnotic terror.
S-21 was also used as a blood farm in Pot’s war. Since all legitimate doctors in Cambodia had been slaughtered, new medics were needed to tend to injured Khmer Rouge troops. Training lasted less than four months, and many of these new “doctors” were children. They practiced crude surgery on helpless inmates and forcibly took blood from them for later transfusion.
We passed an old woman with teary eyes speaking to a small group of tourists, giving an emotional account of what the guards used to do to prisoners. I don’t know who she was. It became overwhelming and my girlfriend had to leave the building. I numbly followed her back into the quadrangle and we stood in silence near an old memorial statue, both staring at nothing.
We eventually walked out of this former hell on earth of our own choosing, with no physical injuries, with each other, still breathing.
It’s a brutal, soul-draining experience, but an essential one. To the unaware traveller with rose-tinted glasses, it might be hard to see that Cambodia is still a deeply troubled country, or why the spectre of its evil past still lingers over the population today. Much like looking at the golden reflection of a sunset on the ocean’s surface, it’s easy to forget that a cold, ink-black darkness lurks below.
It’s why I think tourist attractions like Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are so important. To let these atrocities fade into history would almost be a crime in itself.
On a personal level, it’s a very grim reminder that life could be infinitely worse, and most of us are extremely lucky to live the comfortable lives we lead. It made me think about all the things I sometimes take for granted – the simple things that many Cambodians lost so violently.
I knew very little about this before taking the tour, and I’m still amazed that something like this happened so recently. I was born only seven years after the first bodies were found at Tuol Sleng.
But, of course, Cambodia is not only pain and darkness. It’s a place where at any given time, the air smells of incense and wood fire as you ride through the sprawling jungles of Siem Reap. The people are so friendly and accommodating that you sometimes feel like an asshole in comparison.
You’d be forgiven for feeling like Indiana Jones questing for some hidden treasure among the mighty ruins of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, while the bustling bars, markets and street life suck you in and threaten to never let go – all equating to an unforgettable south-east Asian adventure.
The Cambodian genocide is ingrained in its culture, and therefore cannot, and should not, be ignored. It’s part of the experience, and to look away is to only see a fractured part of a fractured whole.
Having lost their spouses and children to the Khmer Rouge, both Chum Mey and Bou Meng have remarried and now have new families. Meng (77) still sits at S-21, taking photos with visitors and signing copies of his book, and Mey (88) often visits too.
“Visiting every day brings me closer to the victims in those photographs,” he said in 2013. “I feel their presence here and our responsibility to tell the world what happened.”
Quick facts / tips:
Address: St 113, Phnom Penh, 12304
Cost: $5 without the audio tour, $8 with the audio tour (highly recommended). You can also pay a little more for a local guide, but these prices change.
- Arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat
- Pay the extra fee for the audio tour – it’s very much worth it
- Take your time – try to spend at least an hour there. Feel and experience everything
- Do the S-21 tour BEFORE visiting the Killing Fields
Timeline via the BBC:
1968 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge launches an insurgency aiming to return Cambodia to “Year Zero” and build an agrarian socialist utopia.
1973 – 1974 Khmer Rouge controls most of Cambodia – city-dwellers are forcibly moved to the countryside.
April 1975 Khmer Rouge captures the capital, Phnom Penh.
1976 The regime divides citizens into three categories, which determine their food rations. Urban residents, land owners, former army officers, bureaucrats and merchants fall into the “undeserved” category and face execution, starvation and hard labour. All religion and money is banned.
January 1979 Vietnamese armed forces and the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation capture Phnom Penh. Pol Pot flees.
15 April 1998 Pol Pot dies in Cambodia on the day it is announced that he will face an international tribunal. He is swiftly cremated, prompting suspicions of suicide.
2009 Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, is the first Khmer Rouge leader to face the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He is sentenced to 35 years in jail, later extended to life.
2014 Two more Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Kheiu Samphan, are sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.
November 2018 The tribunal also finds them guilty of genocide over the attempted extermination of the Cham and Vietnamese minorities.