Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng

Today I woke up a bit before 6 (no alarm, wow I could not have imagined that a few months ago.. I was the snooze button queen), and began walking towards Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, the most notorious prison of the Khmer Rouge regime. Once a school, Pol Pot’s followers turned the buildings into an incarceration and torture center for men, women, and children accused of crimes against Angker.

According to my GoogleMaps route, walking from Okay Guesthouse to Tuol Sleng would take about half an hour. Along the way, I stopped and got breakfast (noodles and morning glory) at a seemingly popular roadside stall, where a bunch of cops were eating. Only 2000 riel for a huge portion, I sat at one of the little stools and attempted not to make a fool out of myself using chopsticks, as all the cops were attentively watching me eat (I’ve grown accustomed to being scrutinized and watched with curious fascination no matter what I’m doing). Halfway through, I found a little black worm in my noodles. I picked it out, unfazed, and flicked it into the trash underneath the table, finished eating, thanked the cook, and continued on my way.

I arrived to Tuol Sleng/s21 an hour before it opened, and the guards let me in anyway. In the whole complex, it was just me, a well dressed Khmer guy, and 2 monks, all of us in our mid 20s.

I am so very thankful to the guards for letting me in early, granting me an experience away from the tourists (at the very end people started showing up, talking loudly, taking pictures, changed everything).

Being alone in the cells, silence everywhere, I had time and space to really take it all in.

Blood spatters on the walls and smears on the floor. Writing scratched into the walls.. the misery, the tragedy was so obvious and so real, the people who had been tortured in those rooms, who had died.. Standing alone in the same rooms where so much had happened, touching the chains, the locks, the barbed wire.

In addition to the cells and torture chambers, there were rooms that held documentation, photographs of all the victims, I took hours looking at the faces, so many so young. Some were scared, some confused, some defiant. All individuals with lives and families, all innocent of the ‘crimes’ they were accused of.

The well dressed young man and I followed each other through most of the rooms, the tiny brick cells that transformed classrooms into prisons, an institution of learning into a dungeon of torture.

Sometimes I was crying, sometimes he was, and neither of us said anything.

For anyone that isn’t aware of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the horrible, unimaginable war crimes, torture, and genocide inflicted upon the Cambodian people, please look into it. I never knew the extent of the tragedy until I came here, and I feel ashamed, and disappointed that I didn’t study such a huge, horrific event in school. I really don’t know anything.









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