Friday 16th May – Phnom Penh: S21, the killing fields and an insane shopping mall

On the Friday the tuk tuk driver I had arranged to collect me in the morning failed to do so. This wasn’t a problem as it’s basically the low season here and they are all desperate for business so it was easy enough to find another. I think I explained the background behind S21 very briefly in a previous entry and am not going to elaborate to a great extent here, largely as I think I won’t do the subject justice. Here’s a very basic background but I would strongly advise reading about the subject, it’s very interesting, if harrowing, and one of these things I think we all have a duty to be aware of…:


S21 was the former Khmer Rouge prison which is known as Tuol Sleng in the Khmer language. The area is now open as a museum showing the atrocities that people went through. The place remains almost exactly as it did down to the visible holes where people were attached to torture equipment and blood stains on the walls. In the Khmer language Toul Sleng has an interesting meaning. When functioning as an adjective “sleng”means “supplying guilt” or “bearing posion”or “enemy of disease”. As a noun it means the two kinds of indigenous Khmer poisonous trees. So the literal translation of Tuol Sleng is poisonous hill or a place on a mound to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Tuol Sleng was reportedly established in 1976 (May). It was specifically designed for the interrogation and extermination of anti-Angkar elements. Prior to the Khmer Rouge adopting Tuol Sleng for their own purposes it was a high school. The area (600 by 400 metres) was enclosed by two folds of corrugated iron sheets, all covered with dense, electrified barbed wire, to prevent escapes. Houses surrounding the four school buildings were used for administration, interrogation and torture offices.


As you walk into the compound you are confronted by a group of large buildings. The first that you come to houses cells, relatively large ones but they are eerily empty yet with horrific reminders of what occurred inside them. The cells were horrible, particularly those in the later buildings which were tiny with barely enough room to lie down. There were pictures on the walls of the prisoners who were found dead in their respective cells. It was horrendous as I had expected but parts of it were more poignant and disturbing than I had imagined. There were thousands of mugshots, depicting those who came into S21 and were then executed. Amongst them were men, women and children. In some pictures women were holding their babies.


After S21 I went to the “killing fields” which, as the name suggests, is the place where those from S21 were taken to be executed. There were many mass graves but perhaps the most difficult part for me was a huge stupa which had been erected in memory of those killed. It also housed all of the recovered skulls from the victims, stacked one on top of the other. There was music playing which was supposed to mimic the voices of the deceased and, although it was entirely instrumental it went straight through me.


On the way back I asked my driver to take me to the supermarket which turned out to be this insane shopping mall. It was really strange, very Western but still very different. I really wanted to take pictures but there were big signs everywhere forbidding me from doing so!


It’s been a strange day but I am really glad that I did go to both places even if the images will stay in my head for some time. I have some photographs, although I didn’t think it appropriate to photograph some things. The pictures of the skulls have almost this symmetry like beauty to them but with the horrific paradox that each represents a tortured soul.

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