If there is only one site-seeing spot you choose to visit in Phnom Penh, it must be the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It is not a place to take children and it may disturb many adults, but it is imperative if you want to understand the history of the country under the leadership of Pol Pot. It is a necessary education in the horrors that haunt many Cambodians.
A one-legged beggar stands outside the gates of Tuol Sleng as I arrive. He holds himself up with a walking stick. A man without hands sits nearby with a plastic collection bowl perched in his crossed legs. These men are just a sprinkling of landmine victims across Cambodia who have lost limbs and suffered burns, a stark reminder of Cambodia’s brutal history during the Khmer Rouge regime, and the bloody wars that left the country and its people ravaged.
Inside the metal gates of Tuol Sleng stands three buildings sitting in an L-shape around grass grounds. This site, which was once a school, would have echoed with excited shrieks of children and busy chatter. In the 70s Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers converted it to Security Prison 21 (S-21), and it would have bellowed with screams of tortured men and women. Today it is eerily quiet.
Walking through the buildings I witness bloodstains seeped into the tile floors from decades ago. Rusty chains and handcuffs hang from old metal-framed beds. A wooden waterboard stands where prisoners were shackled and tortured. Black and white headshots of torture victims are lined up staring at me with raw fear in their eyes. There are even photos of children amongst the rows and rows of murder victims. A glass case is filled with a mountain of soiled clothes, the only remnants of the victims’ lives. One room is lined with small, shoddy brickwork cells. Another houses a cabinet of human skulls.
Between the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979, at least one in four Cambodians died from starvation, overwork from forced slave labour, and executions; all in the name of an agrarian ideal. The country and its people were shattered by years of civil war, and dark shadows of that history are still visible today. Tuol Sleng is one of those dark shadows.