S-21 Prison & Genocide Museum
Remembering Cambodia’s Dark Past: A Trip to S-21 Prison
To fully understand the Cambodia of today, it is not enough to see the glory of Angkor Wat. Travelers must also venture into its dark, relatively recent past. That’s why TripGuru recommends a visit to Security Prison 21 (S-21 Prison), dubbed as “the place where people went in but never came out.”
Located in a suburban area of Phnom Penh, the placid appearance of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—as the prison is now known—belies its violent past. Once the Tuol Svay Prey High School, it was turned into a prison in 1975, and became the center of torture of Pol Pot’s regime. Anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners were housed in these school buildings wrapped in electrified barbed wire, crammed into classrooms-turned-makeshift-cells, from 1975 to 1978. Out of these thousands of men, women, and children incarcerated here, only 7 survived and lived to tell the world of the horrors committed inside. And it is a horror that was well-documented yet kept secret by the regime, with prisoners photographed before (and some after) they were executed.
Today, those photographs are displayed; rows and rows of black-and-white prints line the quiet walls of the museum. Almost all remain anonymous, as the photos were separated from the dossiers of forced confessions that the regime kept. Only a few have been identified. These include Hout Bophana, who was imprisoned because of her relationship with the Khmer Rouge soldier Ly Sitha, and is the subject of a 1996 documentary shown regularly at the museum. Meanwhile, other portions of the compound have been left to appear as they once were; some still have the iron beds where prisoners were chained and tortured. Self-paced audio tours and guides also available for those who wish to learn more about the site for an additional fee.
With its innocuous location in Phnom Penh, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is easily accessible. Simply hire a tuk-tuk from anywhere in the city; but be sure to haggle to get a good price. The museum is open from 7 am to 5:30 pm all days of the week, but is closed from 11:30 am to 2 pm for lunch break.