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Three Countries In Ten Days: The Dark Past Of Tuol Sleng

July 31st, 2009 by

In a previous article, I relayed our experiences when we visited the Killing Fields. We shared photos of the mass graves, the monument that held thousands of skulls, the land markings detailing the different sections of the land, and the harrowing story behind the reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

One land marking that was mentioned in that article was about the Truck Stop. The sign stated that:

“Here, was the place where a trucks transporting victims to be exterminated from Tuol Sleng Prison and other places in the country stopped. Trucks would arrive 2 or 3 times a month or every 3 weeks. Each truck held 20 to 30 frightened, blindfolded and silent prisoners.

When the trucks arrived, the victims were led directly to be executed at the ditches and pits or were sent to be detained in the darken and gloomy prison nearby.

After January 7, 1979, one truck remained but it was since been taken away.”

Yes, Tuol Sleng is another story altogether.


My partner and I asked our tuk tuk driver, Giva, to drive us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum for us to further explore Cambodia’s dark history. This museum is located within the city centre of Phnom Penh which means that it is quite far from the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. It is easy to get to this place from any hotel in Phnom Penh.

This area was originally a school, Chao Ponhea Yat High School, before it was converted into an infamous detention centre called the code Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge soldiers during the height of their dominance from 1975 until their downfall in 1979. The conversion from school to a strict penal complex was done on orders from Pol Pot (Sa Lut Sor) in April 17, 1975. Tuol Sleng actually means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.”

Buildings at Tuol Sleng

Five main buildings of the school were converted into Security Prision S-21 and were designed to be places for prisoner interrogation, detention, ruthless torture and murder after prisoners were forced to “confess” to allegations that they were innocent of. Documentations of all cold-blooded activities by the Khmer Rouge were held securely within the grounds of S-21. The site was further constructed to adapt to its new function as “reformatory” that little prison cells and torture chambers were built within the classrooms.  Windows were covered with steel bars and the complex was enclosed in high voltage barbed wires to prevent the prisoners from escaping and committing suicide.

Prison Cells of Tuol Sleng

For about four years starting from 1975, approximately 17, 000 people were sent to Tuol Sleng and were held captive. At a single time, about 1, 500 victims were held in prison and were tortured nonstop to force them to name relatives and other people who are committing crimes against the Pol Pot’s government. Those who were named were also brought to Tuol Sleng to experience the same time and are eventually executed. The first groups of people who suffered in the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers were high ranking government officials, monks, engineers, doctors, teachers, scholars and a lot of students.

Prisoners, from the time they arrive at Tuol Sleng, were immediately informed of the ten concentration camp rules that they were supposed to adhere to during the captivity. These ten rules are posted within the grounds of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and have been translated from the original Khmer version:

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Prisoners are also photographed and asked to give their background starting from their childhood until the day of their arrest. Then they are forced to remove their clothes and all their belongings are taken away from them. After this, prisoners are escorted to their cells and their feet were shackled to the floor. They slept on the cold floor and were not provided any blankets. No one was allowed to talk to anyone. Guards constantly checked if the shackles were loose and if the captives had in their possession items that they could use to commit suicide! Prisoners were also given four spoonfuls of rice porridge with soup vegetables twice daily. There were instances when they were forced to eat human feces and drink human urine. As for baths, these prisoners were hosed down once a week.

Photographs of Prisoners

Different kinds of tortures were inflicted upon the prisoners including being beaten and being electrocuted by metal rods. One kind of torture involved the use of a waterboard wherein the prisoner’s legs were shackled at the bottom of the board and their hands were restrained at the top part of the board. Water was poured over their face until they confessed to whatever crime they were accused of.

The bodies of those who were executed were buried near Tuol Sleng during the early years. Given the number of corpses that needed to be buried, the Khmer Rouge soldiers ran out of burial places. By 1979, soldiers started bringing captives to another extermination center called Choeung Ek. After execution, lifeless bodies were buried in mass graves that held hundreds of bodies.

When the Tuol Sleng penal complex was discovered in 1979 during the fall of Pol Pol, one Vietnamese photographer named Ho Van Tay documented Tuol Sleng. The found decaying bodies wherein a lot of them were still shackled to iron beds and stained with dried blood. All photos that were taken then are now on exhibit at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

It was an eerie and yet a humbling feeling to walk along the corridors of Tuol Sleng. There was so much tension in the air as if the walls were crying out for justice. So much blood was shed and so many lives were wasted. Nowadays, the place is open to the public so that everyone will be made aware of Cambodia’s dark history and it also serves as a plea for mankind not to allow something like this to ever happen again.

We left the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with a silent prayer in our hearts for all those people who suffered and those who were killed.

6 Responses to “Three Countries In Ten Days: The Dark Past Of Tuol Sleng”

  1. kay Says:

    Visitors of Cambodia must ind time to visit the Tuol Sleng museum
    & not just limit themselves to shopping, shopping, shopping during their trip. It is enriching to learn about Cambodia’s dark history and learn from it. This is a great read Kitci. Thank you for sharing this to the world!

  2. Hello world! « Asiatourtravel Says:

    [...] lot of visitors of Cambodia make it a point to visit both the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. These places are the closest anyone will ever get in understanding the countries and in turn [...]

  3. herbie samson Says:

    I didn’t have the muster to see all the rooms here. This is a must see place if you’re in Phnom Penh.

  4. Ikai Says:

    Five main buildings of the school was converted into Security Prision S-21 and were designed to be a places for prisoner interrogation, detention, ruthless torture and to murder after prisoners were forced to “confess” to allegations that they were innocent of. – Omg, this just sounded like a horror movie in the making.

  5. Kitci Wong Says:

    Thanks again Kay for finding the time to read my articles :) It is greatly appreciated.

  6. Kitci Wong Says:

    You’re right Herbie! A must visit indeed!

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