Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng

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Last Updated on August 15, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

Victims of Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng S21


When I emerged from Phnom Penh’s genocide museum, I didn’t want to utter a word. A feeling of mourning washed over me.

The museum was the most ghastly place in of all Cambodia… where unimaginable acts of torture history and bloodshed began. Country man killing country man. Death found no distinction between young or old, man or woman.  Even worse, it took place in a school.

Phnom Penh’s genocide museum: The largest torture chamber in Cambodian history

Cambodia has a very solemn and tragic side to its lovely Khmer face. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka Security Prison 21 or S21) was the notorious genocide camp from  1975-1979, where prisoners (mostly innocent victims) of the Khmer Rouge were interrogated, tortured and killed.

The museum grounds still shield the three dreadful school buildings, which were once converted into horrific persecution chambers of Pot Pol’s regime. Pot Pol, a Maoist revolutionary led the Khmer Rouge from 1968 until his death in 1998. He took over Cambodia in 1975 and  attempted to create an agrarian-based Communist society, pushing city dwelling families to the countryside to farm. Anyone who opposed this was seen as a traitor. The law:

“No Buddhism, money or education.”

Thus,  high-class intellectuals, businessmen, Buddhists and foreigners were often captured and brought to this security prison to be tortured and then executed.

Pol’s rule lasted from 1975-1979 and within that time approximately two million Khmer and foreign lives were lost to starvation, gross maltreatment, murder and hard labor.

Walking the school grounds of the museum, you’ll find buildings used as prisons, interrogation rooms and torture chambers.  “Building A” housed 20 rooms used to interrogate high officials. They were chained to the bed, reduced to torture tactics and starvation.  Building B & C held rooms converted into small isolated cells or mass detention facilities. Portrait photos of the Khmer Rouge, its victims and documentary paintings hang on display to take you back in time.

phnom penhs genocide museum grounds
phnom penhs genocide museum

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Inside Phnom Penh’s genocide museum: Prison cells

IMG 7087 Faces of the Khmer Rouge

Although the Khmer Rouge was led by Pol, Tuol Sleng genocide camp (or S21) was orchestrated under the hand of a man name ‘Dutch’. As the right hand of Pol, Dutch doled out orders to the Khmer Rouge soldiers to use torture tactics to deal with their captives.

Horrifically, the soldiers were composed mostly of teens and young adults, who were separated from their families and indoctrinated into the Rouge.  It’s chilling to stare into the photographed faces of these soldiers, to see them possess a peaceful confidence and raw innocence, upon initiation into this killing army. After entering however, they were taught cruel and barbarous tactics and were made to turn in friends and family.  It was at their hands that thousands suffered unimaginable atrocities.


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Khmer Rouge soldiers were mostly boys and girls in their teens.

The prisoners of Tuol Sleng genocide camp, S21

But more silencing in the genocide museum, are the photographs of the prisoners, whose looks of confusion, fear, shock, betrayal, sadness,.. tell of a tragic tale of undeserved  bloodshed.

Once you entered as a prisoner, you never left.

…And Dutch and the Khmer Rouge made certain of this. Various abusive tactics were used to grill prisoners and to get them to admit to crimes or offenses: holding heads underwater, knifing, electric shock treatments, suffocation with plastic bags, beatings, etc… Prisoners’ were tagged, their testimonies were transcribed, archived and their stay was documented until death. Each body had to be accounted for to ensure than none had escaped. The fear of rebellion was so great, that once a family member was an S21 captive, the entire family was captured and also exterminated. This form of genocide was to prevent family members from seeking revenge against the Pol’s revolution in the future.

Prisoners were held for 2-3 months until they were killed. Captives weren’t allowed to talk to each other or the guards and were given only four spoons of rice, twice a day and stayed in unhygienic conditions, receiving a bath hosing only 4 times a week.

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cambodian victimsPhnom Penh’s Genocide museum: Thousands of documented photos of S21 prisoners
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The prisoners of S21
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photo of a S21 victim; a child.
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phnom penhs genocide museum: Death Wall


Where does the Killing Fields come in?

Only after the body count grew beyond maximum capacity at S21, the persecuted were then taken to the Killing Fields for execution and mass burial.

Seeing wall-to-wall displays of S21’s prisoners (men, women and children), documented deaths and paintings of atrocities makes this a sorrowful tomb.  Of the 14000 that entered S21, only 7 people survived.

Phnom Penhs genocide museum: Paintings of torture. The artist was one of 4 people that made it out of the camp alive.
Killing fields skulls
Killing Fields skulls

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Visiting it will certainly jolt you harder than a visit to the Killing Fields; it’ll leave you winded for hours.

Getting to Phnom Penh’s genocide museum

A motordop or tuk-tuk drive will take you to s21 which is south of downtown. If you have the time, walking is also feasible but it stands a distance from the Royal Palace and National Museum along Phnom Penh’s tourist coastline.  The Killing Fields however, are on the outskirts of Phnom Phen and can be reached by taxi/driver or tour. There’s a one day budget tour from Capitol Guesthouse including these two sites as well as a few others.

Website Information:

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 (website here)

The Killing Fields Museum (site here)


Resources to learn more about this genocidal history :

Time article “A brief history of the Khmer Rouge” (here)
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembersir?source=bk&t=grrrltraveler 20&bm id=default&l=ktl&linkId=fd0a7066d359c5e3776b5ab50e6faa5f& cb=1502778414808” by Luong Ung


A visit to Phnom Penh’s genocide museum is  trip everyone should take to understand the Cambodia of the past and the culture it is today.

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