Phnom Penh’s Chilling Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng (meaning “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”) is a museum that grimly chronicles the violence of the genocide undertaken by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.

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Although formerly a high school, Tuol Sleng has since been turned into a tourist attraction. The museum is comprehensively open to the public, and along with Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), just outside of Phnom Penh, it is included as a point of interest for those visiting Cambodia. Tuol Sleng also remains an important educational site as well as memorial for Cambodians, who always love to learn of their country’s dark history.

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The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Several rooms of the museum are now lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 17,000 prisoners who passed through the prison. Most prisoners were held there for up to three months, though several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer.

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Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. Then the prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets, and were forbidden to talk to each other.

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The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. It is said that some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods of torture for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds and holding prisoners’ heads under water, in what is now commonly known as the waterboarding technique.

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The site has four main buildings. Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered. Building B holds galleries of the abovementioned photographs. Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells for prisoners. Building D holds other memorabilia, including the gory instruments of torture. When you are visiting the museum here at Tuol Sleng, you will undoubtedly be taken aback by the emotion of it all.

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4 thoughts on “Phnom Penh’s Chilling Genocide Museum

  1. Difficult and heartbreaking though it is, I feel like this and the Killing Fields are essential places for visitors to go to really understand Cambodia. Even harder for the Khmer people, of course… my brother’s wife is Cambodian, and she’ll never know if the bones of anyone she loved lie in one of those mass graves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree it is essential. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge must be understood. Siem Reap is amazing for the temples, but just as important is a ride down south to see Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek.

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