Looking Back: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

| December 28, 2009 | 8 Comments
killingfields Looking Back: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Choung Ek Killing Field

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh (June 26, 2002) — In an old high school in the middle of Phnom Penh stand the remains of S-21, coloured delicately in moss and mildew. Ranges of makeshift cells—collapsing wood and mortar walls bisecting old classrooms—lay one against the other, empty and swept out. This prison was hastily built after the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh and it’s been left as it was soon after they abandoned it. Cells everywhere with their empty horror enclosing the hollowed out shells of genocide—bare iron beds and car batteries and spades. In the courtyard large urns overflow with rainwater and settled in their bottoms like silt lay drowned out confessions. Blood stains colour the floors and in glaring juxtaposition, the remains of half-finished algebra lessons fade in coloured chalk on the walls.

In yet another building once housing an administration office (there seems like there are hundreds, but in reality four or five) where the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their immeasurable brutality, the numbered photos of prisoners hang from all four walls. Their eyes, behind a grime of dots, form star-maps of fear, confusion, and despair. And in each photo the prisoners carry with them their deaths, like tents, to be pitched in the Killing Fields.

We’ve started a new category on our blog called ‘Looking Back’ that will include an occasional entry from our journals that date back to 2001 when we first began writing about living and travelling abroad. We’ll present these paired with a photo in the form of a verbal postcard. Together, these postcards provide an (in)formal and often (in)coherent narrative of the trips we’ve taken!

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Category: Looking Back

About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (8)

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  1. Akila says:

    We will be in Cambodia in the next two months and I don’t know how this place will make us feel. Aside from the gruesomeness of the situation, is it really appropriate for us to be visiting the tomb and gravesites of so many people as a tourist attraction? I don’t know.

    • Daniel says:

      Hi Akila! Thanks for the comment. I know where you are coming from, because I was in the same mindset as well. However, I’m very glad that I went. In my opinion, the musuem puts to good use education and scholarship, and the end result is that it can be both broadly appealing (a strange word choice, I concede, but one that has the connotation of ‘universal’ appeal and intellectually serious. I believe that it genuinely illuminates this historical horror, deconstructs the interpretative process, and in the end moves its visitors to action. Was it an enjoyable experience? No. Was I happy that I went? Absolutely.

    • Hey Akila! :)

      Like you and Daniel, Tim and I were hesitant to go to S-21 when we were in Cambodia too. If the distinction helps, we didn’t see it as a tourist attraction, but rather as a museum. I know the two – museum and tourist attraction – are often one in the same. But S-21 is very respectful and tasteful in its presentation, and its focus is on raising awareness and education…so for us it felt like a museum (if that makes any sense).

      We’d been in Phnom Penh for about 9 days before we knew we couldn’t avoid visiting S-21 any longer. We were really not looking forward to going. But for us, it felt like visiting S-21 and understanding more about what happened was an appropriate way to honor the past and the country we were traveling in. And as it turned out, it was one of the most powerful experiences we’ve had during our travels.

      (We saw S-21 first and then opted against visiting the killing fields. We were just too emotionally overwhelmed by our time at S-21.)

      If it helps with your decision, I wrote a bit more about our time at S-21 in this entry.

      I hope you enjoy your time in Cambodia! It remains our most favorite country in the world. :)

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Jessica. Just read your post. I liked, especially, your mention of teaching English to several classes of Cambodian students in the small town of Kratie. An amazing juxtaposition that is very forward looking. Great post.

  2. Gourmantic says:

    As a photograph it’s quite effective. I feel moved just looking at it but I don’t think I’d want to see it in person.

    • Daniel says:

      Seeing it in person causes a complex emotional reaction. The location itself threatens to both simplify the complex weave of this part of Cambodian history and to complicate visitors’ reactions to the enormity of the horror. But it’s empty rooms and dusty corridors function as a memorial to loss. The exhibition itself complements the layout of the school’s corridors and classrooms, whch are hung with a gallery of the missing that commemorates those that were put to death. It’s a sobering place.

  3. Abigail says:

    There seems to be a ‘package’ of S-21 and Killing Fields touted by the tuk-tuk drivers, but I really did find that the hours spent here were more than enough.

    It is emotionally draining and difficult to deal with but also an important learning experience for anyone spending time in Cambodia.

    After the visit, I found an increased sense of respect and awe for the Khmers I met every day. It’s difficult to look at the old lady in the market or asking for money and not think about what she’s been through in her life. It also brings a new understanding and apprecation for the sense of fun and readiness to laugh that Khmers seem to share. There’s a steely determination underneath that today is to be enjoyed and the future will be better.

    S-21 isn’t a fun day out, but it will deepen your experience of this wonderful country.

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