51: Cambodia > Phnom Penh > Tuol Sleng Horror Prison

Late morning, April 5, 2008

Leaving Choeung Ek, we are soon cruising along the edge of the southern suburbs of Phnom Penh. Waterlogged vegie plots make a soothing sight, but nothing soothing about our next destination, another Khmer Rouge masterpiece.

Southern part of Phnom Penh, on the way to Tuol Sleng

This is Tuol Sleng (which means ‘Poisonous Hill’), the most feared interrogation (read: torture) centre of the most dreaded secret service of the Khmer Rouge regime, the S-21. Operational Aug 1975 – Jan 1979.

Arriving Tuol Sleng

This is no ordinary place, not for the weak-hearted, so we enter the compound with a degree of trepidation.

No ordinary museum this

We duly pay our entrance fees and next to the ticket counter, a sordid intro. This is the place which supplied the bulk of the victims to Choeung Ek’s Killing Field.

Not a good start

To the left of the notice, a yard where wickedly bad things have happened.

Just like any school compound

It looks just like any high school compound, but even those harmless gymnastic bars near the coconut tree were instruments of torture. We head for the leftmost building – Block A.

The torture blocks

Next to the building, a small cemetery for the 14 tortured bodies found in the rooms of Block A by the Vietnamese army when they arrived Jan 7, 1979, to end the whole thing.

This is the much-dreaded Block A which housed the torture rooms.

Block A where the torture rooms were

People died in these rooms in horrible circumstances.

The notorious Block A

Aina dares not enter the rooms. Her mom just walks past briskly.

Aina along the once-dreaded corridor

I enter the rooms one by one, left exactly the way they were found by the Vietnamese army in January 1979. The poor inmate was shackled to the bed (minus mattress), and tortured to extract ‘information’ against the ‘angkar’, the organisation. The metal can on the bed is used as a latrine by the prisoner.

Torture room

Each room has a black & white picture of the bed as when it was first discovered by the Vietnamese in Jan 1979. Note the black, bloated mutilated corpse chained to the bed-frame. On the bed, see the latrine box and the shackle used to lock the prisoner.

Victim was chained to the metal bed frame and tortured

Some say you can still spot blood stains on the floor. Dare to spend a night in this room?

Dare to spend a night here?

I cross to Block B, and notice a bunch of visitors engrossed …

Visitors reading gruesome warnings

… reading the life-and-torture-and-death rules for the inmates of Tuol Sleng.

Yes, these rules

From Block B, I glance back at Block A, where the torture rooms were. Reminds me of my own boarding school (of the 70s too), but that’s another story.

Looking at torture rooms, note the frame to the left

Even the gymnastic poles next to the block have been creatively used by the Khmer Rouge guards.

The frame was a torture instrument

In Block B, the former classrooms were used as interrogation chambers, but now house exhibits, including mugshots of some of the 16,000 people believed to have been sent here 1975-79, including about 2,000 kids. See more photos HERE.

Inside Block C, an exhibition

Only 7 lucky people survived Tuol Sleng, everybody else murdered, including the innocent children in the pic above. Read the story of survivor Vann Nath, a painter, HERE.

About 20,000 people were sent here, only 7 survived

When the museum was first opened in 1980, Cambodians thronged to look for missing relatives and friends, and many found mugshots of their beloved ones here. Even now they still come looking.

Steel shackles to immobilise inmates.

Metal leg shackles to hold prisoners en masse

Most prisoners spent their time like this, ankles fixed to the steel shackles shown above. To relieve oneself, the guard would pass a metal can (used for storing bullets), seen stacked below the blackboard. Most of the guards were teenagers, kids!

Most prisoners lived like this

This is definitely not your typical museum.

Yes, gruesome museum indeed

Description of Block C.

The terrible Block C

These small cells are just big enough for one person.

Imagine spending your days in these small stinking cubicles, unless you are being interrogated and tortured. Many tried to commit suicide.

Classroom converted to small cells to hold prisoners

Eyewitness Vann Nath’s rendition of life in the cell. Note the containers for relieving oneself. Prisoners were slowly being starved – each day, everyone was fed just 4 spoonfuls of porridge and some watery soup.

Condition inside the small cell

Corridor outside the terror cells.

Corridor of the cells

We leave Block C and head for the last building, Block D.

That's Block D, the last one

More exhibits in Block D, such as pics of jubilant Phnom Penh folks welcoming the Khmer Rouge ‘liberators’ on Apr 17, 1975. Little did they know that several hours later, they’d be chased out of the city on foot, to start their living nightmares.

Pics of joyous unsuspecting Phnom Penh citizens welcoming the Khmer Rouge on 17 Apr 1975

Pics of Khmer Rouge leaders are also on display, but vandalised by enraged visitors.

Pics of Khmer Rouge leaders defaced

Looking down towards detention Block C, I wonder how it was like during the dark times.

Corridor at Block D

In the last room of Block D, there are displays of skulls, such as this bullet-ridden one.

Skull with a bullet hole

Looks like a high-calibre bullet.

Another bullet-ridden skull

Prayers are offered to the victims of Tuol Sleng. Many were murdered and buried here, but the bulk of the inmates were sent to Choeung Ek for execution. Rest-in-Peace, all.

A sombre memorial to the victims of Tuol Sleng, the S-21 interrogation and torture site

Vann Nath (one of the 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng), in his book “A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21”, writes about the brutality of Comrade Duch, the Chief Executioner of Tuol Sleng.

More on Comrade Duch’s atrocities HERE.

Comrade Duch in Feb 2008.

For the latest news on the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial, click HERE.