Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field

We need to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field to understand the dark history of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng Museum was formerly served as a detention and interrogation center, where terrible torture was carried out to force confession from the innocent people, before they were killed at Cheoung Ek Killing Field. We decided to visit both places together.

A little bit of history. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was previously schools (Tuol Sleng Primary School and Tuol Svay Prey High School), before Pol Pot came into power and turned it into Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1975. How horrible was that place? The statistics answered. Out of 10519 documented prisoners, only 7 came out alive. Some believed that S-21 held up to a total of 20000 prisoners.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was initially built as schools. Hanging on the wall, the blackboard once served as educational tool was then used to list the prison's rules and regulation by Khmer Rouge guards. This photo was taken at block A of the prison.

The classroom at the ground floor was partitioned into smaller interrogation room, with the prisoner chained on this metal bed. The interrogation was carried out with all the windows shut tightly that even the shout and cry couldn't escape.

Most of the early victims were the scholars, professionals, teachers, politicians, singers, artists, plus everyone with spectacles. These literates, or believed to be literates were declared as the enemy of the state. Pol Pot believed that they would threaten his ideal communism. The victims were later being extended to almost everyone else, including monks, priests, factory workers, and even Pol Pot's own people. We can learn more about Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) at Wikipedia. A brief overview is available at

The entrance of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located at the junction of Street 113 and Street 350. The entrance fee of the museum is USD3 per person. We need to pay another USD3 per person to hire a tour guide. The museum opens everyday from 8 am - 5 pm, including public holiday. The museum is divided into 4 blocks, named Block A, B, C, and D respectively. We arrived at the museum at around 12 noon, and spent about 1 hour and a half in the museum. From our experience, hiring a tour guide is essential in order to learn more about the background of the museum, as well as giving us deeper knowledge about the history and brutality of Pol Pot's regime.

Maly, our tour guide was 13 during the fallen of Phnom Penh. The city was emptied within only three days. She was sent to a remote area of Cambodia, and forced to work as labor with minimum ratio of food. She saw many people died and lost two of her family members. She survived the ordeal, and she told us many of her painful experience.

This shovel was found right inside the room. Different from most of the shovels we have, it hacked on flesh.

One of the bodies of last 14 victims found in the prison. This photo was originally taken by Vietnamese combat photographers, led by Ho Van Tay, after the combined force of Vietnamese and Kampuchean Front of National Salvation liberated Phnom Penh in 1979.

All 14 victims were buried right in front of block A.

Block B served as an exhibition hall, where we can find thousands of victim's photos, taken by the prison's guard to keep as record. Although some said that the soldiers of Khmer Rouge seldom involved in sexual violence, but the latest report from Cambodia Daily stated otherwise.

Block C displays the net of barb wires which once webbed all the blocks in the prison. The purpose, to prevent the prisoners from commit suicide by jumping off the building.

The classroom was partitioned to hold male prisoners. This photo was taken at Block C.

 Cells at Block C.

Block D showed many of the documentary photos of what Khmer Rouge had done, not only to the prisoners of S-21, but to whole Phnom Penh.

On the way from Block B to Block C, we met with one of the 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng.

 Photo on upper left reveals the usage of the wooden scaffold and the large ceramic vat on upper right. Shackles collected from the prison were the evidence of crime against humanity (lower left). Another equipment of torture with slanted platform.

Block B (left), Block C (middle, right behind the building with red roof) and Block D (far right) of the prison. This photo was taken from the third floor of Block A.

Block A of the prison from third floor of Block B.

Cheoung Ek Killing Field, or now called Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is quite far away from the city center. By tut-tut, it took us around 40 minutes of smoke and dust to reach the killing field from Tuol Sleng. It is the most well-known killing field in Cambodia under Pol Pot's regime. More than 300 were identified, and many more are yet to be found. It is believed that around 17,000 victims had been executed at Cheoung Ek, where 8895 bodies were exhumed from 86 of a total of 129 mass graveyards there. The rest of the graveyards left untouched.

This is the smoke and dust that we faced on our way to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Far from being comfortable, but close to being a local. Be sure that you have a mask ready if you wish to tut-tut your way to Choeung Ek during the dry season. Or else, rent a car or taxi might be a better idea.

We reached Cheoung Ek killing field around 3 pm and had spent about 2 hours there. The admission fee was USD3, with additional USD2 for the audio guide per person. The audio guide contains the narration of a Cambodian who had suffered and survived the brutality of Khmer Rouge's regime. The overwhelming information described how Cambodia fell into Pol Pot's hand, how he turned to be the enemy of humanity, the killing process, to the defeat of the fanatic dictator and finally, the building of the genocidal center. The podcast contains several testimonies from the survivors, as well as ex-executioners of Pol Pot's regime. Without the audio guide, the killing field is not more than a small memorial park in the middle the forest.  

None of the original buildings survived the crisis after Pol Pot's defeat. The villagers, who were short of food and shelters teared down the buildings in the killing field as the material for their own houses. What we could see from the field now is the Buddhist stupa. As a resting place for more than 5000 skulls and bones, the stupa commemorates the victims of the brutality.

The entrance of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.

The stupa with vivid roof top is the heart of the center. Served as the resting place for more than 5000 victims, the stupa is decorated with the sculptures of Garuda and Naga, two feuding characters in Buddhist mythology, a symbol of peace.

We were provided with audio guide, which we need to press the designated number to listen to the podcast. At this stop, we are required to press two to listen how the victims from Tuol Sleng Prison being brought by trucks to the killing field. The stop number 2 was once the parking place for the trucks.
Photo on the upper left shows the audio guide with earphone connected. Choeung Ek was once Chinese cemetery, which some of the graves can still be found within the field (lower left). The clothes and the pieces of bones are still emerging from the ground, especially during rainy season. These clothes (upper right) and bones (lower right) have been collected for display.

The chain marks the area with frequent emergence of human bones and clothes. The wooden structure at the back marked one of the excavated mass graveyards.

This is how the mass graveyard looks like in the wooden structure.

Different types of bands were hanging around the fence of the mass graveyards. This might be a symbol of blessing, prayer, or showing a connection between the living and the dead.

This tree is growing right behind the stupa, which once served as the place for the executioners to smash the children. That was the best way they could come out with to kill without bullets (cost saving).

Few steps away from the killing tree stands the magic tree. The tree however showed no pleasant tricks. It was the place where a loudspeaker was hang, to produce sound of political speeches and songs that was loud enough to cover screams and cries. That's why the neighboring dwellers didn't realize the presence of killing field till the fled of Khmer Rouge's army.

After a very long journey, we went back to our hotel for a rest. We paid our tut-tut driver USD15 for a day tour to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Genocide Center. One the following days, we visited several interesting places within the city area. Follow us to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum of Cambodia now.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh]
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.

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