Dark Tourism: Visiting S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh

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Aside from the Killing Fields, the other major site of dark tourism in Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 prison. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

The S-21 prison in Phnom Penh was originally a high school, but it was converted into the notorious “Security 21” prison by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge arrested and executed anyone they saw as a threat, including people linked to the previous government, as well as educated people and intellectuals. Thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned, tortured, interrogated and slaughtered here. It is really very very horrifying.

The prison was discovered by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, and was opened as a historical museum in 1980. Today you can see inside and learn about the horrific and brutal things that happened under Pol Pot’s rule.

Photographs in S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Paintings by former inmate Vann Nath show the methods used to torture people into giving up the names of their family members. The Khmer Rouge liked to use water torture, suspending people by their feet into barrels of water or handcuffing them face down in a tank of water. If they gave up the names, their family members were arrested, tortured and killed too. A lot of the time people confessed to things they hadn’t done, just so that the torture would stop.

Water Torture Paintings at S-21 Prison

Of Tuol Sleng’s 20,000 inmates, only 7 survived.

On the walls you can read the survivors’ first-hand stories of what life was like in the prison.

The Khmer Rouge kept extensive documentation of the people they imprisoned here, and you can see galleries of black and white photos as you walk around. In one building you see rows and rows of tiny wooden cells, and in another, stark rooms with only a rusty bed frame and shackles at each end. I walked through these buildings very quickly, not wanting to pause for too long.

Cells at S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh

Photgraphs of inmates at S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh

A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum makes you feel angry and sad, and it’s impossible to understand why human beings would do this. There is neither rhyme nor reason to it. Like Auschwitz in Poland, it’s a very depressing place to visit, but as part of my travels I also feel it is an important part of understanding a country’s history and the world that we live in.

Remember though, there is more to Cambodia than its dark past, so make time to explore other parts of Phnom Penh and Cambodia. It’s a beautiful country, with amazing people.

Getting There

Address: Street 113, Boeng Keng Kang 3 Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Take a tuk tuk. Entry costs $2

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