Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

This is more than just any ordinary museum. This was the scene of some of the most horrific abuses of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. So how should we feel?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

As one of the most prominent sites during the horrific Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia, the former prison known as S-21 has been turned into a museum that tells the story of the country's genocide.

Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum can be an emotional experience, so here are some things to help you prepare.

The small traffic jam is unusual for this suburban part of Phnom Penh. Tuk tuks jostle for space down a small road, trying to weave around each other and those parked on the side.

A larger tour bus blasts its horn and tries to impatiently push through. Motorbikes buzz amongst it all like little black flies.

And the reason for such traffic chaos? Tourists coming to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – an old school that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

During the era of the Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1979, thousands of people were held captive here, many of them interrogated and tortured.

Almost all the prisoners were eventually executed, either here or at the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

What is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum?

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh that tells the story of the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The exhibition is housed in a former prison where thousands of victims were held before being executed.

Why is it called S-21?

During the Khmer Rouge regime, the site of the current Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was used as a prison called Security Prison 21, which is why the building is sometimes referred to as S-21. Before it was converted into a prison, it was a school called Tuol Svay Prey High School.

What was the Khmer Rouge?

The Khmer Rouge was the regime led by Pol Pot that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and was responsible for the genocide in the country during that period. The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to turn Cambodia into a socialist country based around agriculture, and it killed about 2 million people who it believed were standing in the way.

These days, Cambodia is a beautiful country. It has one of the world’s most impressive heritage sites, Angkor Wat, as well as beautiful beaches and islands, and towns bursting with authentic culture.

Yet here at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, crowds of international tourists – young and old – are buying tickets to see one of the main locations of the most horrific period in the country’s history.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

I do understand why. I’ve also come out to see the museum, which includes many of the original prison rooms, as well as exhibitions about what went on here.

It’s an important part of the city (and the country’s) history and there’s no doubt it’s one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh, along with the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city.

I definitely recommend you visit yourself, even though it’s quite an emotionally draining experience, and learn more about what the museum represents.

To visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I would recommend this affordable guided tour that also includes the Killing Fields.

Yet, there is still something about the crowds of visitors that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable.

It feels like… genocide tourism? Is that a thing?

Is it ethical to visit the S21 Prison?

If you’re anything like me, you’re going to cycle through a range of emotions when you visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

One of the things that strikes me quite early on is how morbid it feels to walk through the classrooms of the school that was here before it became the Khmer Rouge’s Security Prison 21 (S-21).

In some rooms there are still blackboards up on the wall. Blackboards… that were once used by children… in the rooms where prisoners were abused!

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

The prison here was for people accused of political crimes but most of the detainees had committed minor or no offences against the Khmer Rouge. Such was Pol Pot’s paranoia, he felt it better to kill an innocent than let a guilty person go free.

And so the more I see, the more the horrors of what happened here start to affect me.

And the more they affect me, the more I start to question whether I should even be here.

This is the scene of a war crime – a site used for the unimaginable torture and murder of innocent civilians – and I’m walking through it with my camera and water bottle as though it’s just another temple or museum.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

But then I remember that, yes, it’s not a temple or a museum. It’s much more important than that.

And I’m not acting like it’s just any old tourist attraction. The fact I’m even thinking about this issue demonstrates that.

I can feel myself being more respectful than usual and there’s a different kind of contemplation to the way I look at and consider things.

In fact, I notice that all through the site there’s more silence than you might expect from a gathering of this many tourists. Even when there is conversation, it tends to be the kind of comments people make under their breath that gets caught in the throat at the first attempt.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

But is politeness enough to justify opening up to the public a site of such evilness and brutality?

Is it disrespectful to those who were killed and tortured here?

Does the traffic jam of tuk tuks out front make it seem like a sideshow?

They’re the questions I continue to ask myself as I walk down a row of tiny cells that a classroom has been divided into.

What do you see at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Many of the things you’ll see at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are just as they would’ve been in the late 1970s when the Khmer Rough was using these buildings as a prison.

Much of the exhibition, if you can call it that, is not a new manufactured display – but just a preservation of what was left here when the regime fell.

In many of the rooms, you’ll find small cells that have been installed along each side. Some are made from wood, with a small hatch in each door. Some are made roughly from bricks and don’t even go all the way to the ceiling.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

It’s notable that there was no great care to the construction as long as they did the job.

Barbed wire still crosses the balconies of the building that holds many of the cells – although it seems unlikely a prisoner would be able to break the chains tying them to the ground in the cell to even get as far as the balcony.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

In the rooms on the top floor (the third), there are no cells. Here the prisoners lay on the ground in two lines with their feet pointing to the centre, where their legs were locked into place. You can still see the numbers on the wall, marking each position.

Some of the rooms in the museum’s other buildings have on display a collection of the rudimentary items that were used here – chains, bars, metal beds.

There are black and white photos of the prison and some of the other sites associated with the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide.

And then there is perhaps the most haunting part of the whole museum: row upon row of photos of people who were detained here… and ultimately killed.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

And maybe that’s why somewhere like the S21 prison is open to the public – to see those little details.

Perhaps it is to put images to the stories, faces to the statistics, emotions to the crimes.

Because it is emotional and you can’t help but feel angry, sad, confused, and much more. It’s not until you see it for yourself that you really think about what happened here and what it meant.

On the surface, this can look like gratuitous genocide tourism. And, it’s true, you do hear some tourists talking about their plan to come here like they’re organising a trip to the cinema. But those people will be just as affected by the visit as anyone else.

s21 prison, tuol sleng genocide museum, Phnom penh, cambodia

In the mix of recent world history, I feel like the millions of deaths committed by the Khmer Rouge do not get the recognition they deserve – this was South East Asia’s Holocaust. So perhaps this is the best way to educate, to spread the horror stories, and to learn from the past.

There’s so much beauty in Cambodia and there’s a rich culture and heritage that goes back many centuries that the people here are very proud of.

That they are so willing to be open about a few dark and painful years in that history says a lot – and we can all learn something from that.

Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

There is something a bit haunting about how normal the site seems from the outside. And, because it was originally just a suburban Phnom Penh high school, it’s fairly easy to reach from any part of the city.

Although there are buses that run nearby and it’s walkable from some areas, I would recommend getting a tuk tuk or Grab to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, because it should only cost a dollar or two.

The content of the exhibitions is quite confronting and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum itself suggests that visitors should be 14 years or older (although they won’t stop younger people from entering).

Most people will spend about an hour at the museum, although it can vary a bit depending on how much detail you want to go into.

There aren’t too many information signs, so you can just walk slowly through the different sections and take it in that way. Or, if you have a guide, it will probably take longer as you learn all about the history.

There are guides at the museum who can show you around, or you can organise a tour in advance.

I would actually suggest booking a tour that also includes visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, because it can be a bit trickier to organise transport to get out to that site.

killing fields near phnom penh. choeung ek genocidal centre, cambodia

If you’re short of time and want to make the most of your stay in the city, I would recommend this day-long guided tour that takes you to the most important sights in Phnom Penh, including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Alternatively, there are a few great private tours that will lead you through the museum as well as the Killing Fields:

A few more bits of useful information for visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum:

  • You will need to be appropriately dressed to enter the museum. This usually means shoulders and midriffs covered. Shorts will generally be fine if they’re a respectful length, but short skirts or shorts will be considered inappropriate.
  • The ground floors of all the buildings are accessible for wheelchairs, but the only access to upper floors is by stairs.
  • Using mobile phones in the exhibition buildings is prohibited.

Also, watch out for any scams where people try to sell you tickets in the city or around the museum. Official tickets are only sold at the entrance booth, so make sure you buy yours from there.

Where is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum?

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is in central Phnom Penh, near the National Olympic Stadium.
The official address is St.113, Boeung Keng Kang III, Boeung Keng KangPhnom Penh, Cambodia.
You can find it on a map here.

How do you get to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum?

Because it is in central Phnom Penh, it’s fairly easy to reach the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I would recommend using a tuk-tuk or a service like Grab, which should cost less than $2 one way from somewhere like the National Museum.
There are also buses that go near the museum – look for ones heading to Monivong/Road 360.
Or to walk from the National Museum would take about 40 minutes.

When is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum open?

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is open every day from 08:00 – 17:00

What is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum entrance fee?

Admission fee for Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum entrance fee costs $5 for a standard ticket and $3 for children between 10-18 years.

Tickets are only sold at the ticket booth at the entrance of the museum.

Are there tours to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum?

If you would like a guide to show you around (and organise the logistics), I would recommend this affordable group tour, which also includes the Killing Fields.
There’s also this interesting private tour where you’ll have your own guide for the trip to S-21 and the Killing Fields.

For more information, see the official website of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

If you’re looking for refreshments, there are a couple of places right across the road that I would recommend – noodle soup and similar dishes at a restaurant called Ven Kuy Teav Poipet, or a coffee shop called H2M Coffee Toul Sleng.

Because it’s in the centre of the city, you can easily combine a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with some of the other main sights in Phnom Penh, like the Royal Palace and the National Museum.

And, as I’ve already mentioned, be sure to also visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Seeing both of these sites on the same day can be a bit overwhelming, but they definitely complement each other and will give you a full understanding of the horrors that occurred here almost 50 years ago.


With accommodation quite reasonably priced, I think it’s worth finding somewhere nice to escape the rather hectic streets of Phnom Penh.


Social without being too loud, Onederz is in a great location and even has a rooftop pool!


For a cheap hotel, Saravoan Royal Palace is wonderfully quiet, modern, and centrally located.


A natural oasis in the city, Jungle Addition has large rooms, a swimming pool and garden, and a delicious breakfast.


In a grand historic building, Raffles Hotel Le Royal has everything you would expect from this iconic SE Asian name.

18 thoughts on “Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum”

  1. Great post, Michael, as always.

    I think genocide tourism is important, as long as its remains free of charge, and doesn’t become a profitable industry. Just like Auschwitz or the plantations in SE USA or Rwanda and others, these places are important to remind the world of what happened, and most importantly why it shouldn’t happen again. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books, but to actually be there, and almost feel what life was like back then, is an incredibly powerful way to deliver a message of piece and tolerance. For me, at least.

    • I agree completely. With every word you’ve written! It is an incredibly powerful way to teach people about tolerance – it’s the kind of thing that platitudes can’t achieve. You need to see and understand these horrors for yourself.

  2. I agree 100% with the comment above.

    I visited Germany though my University and did not get along with everyone on the trip but when we visited a camp everyone looked like they were going to cry and we did not fight for the rest of the day (even part of the next day). Everything we fought about seemed so stupid.

    There were even some buildings I (and others) could not go into because one person went in and told us it still smelt…terrible.

  3. I love the way you take photographs, Michael, but more importantly the manner in which you take them.

    You are not a shock-photographer, a opportunist or a collection of tourists giving it all smiles & the peace sign in a hall of 500-plus pictures of people murdered at the hands of pure villainy like I saw last year in Auschwitz I – yes, that really happened. You are a documenter. You are a journalist. You look to spread knowledge, not quick & easy satisfaction for others.

    If it wasn’t for posts such as this some people (including myself) may not have ever know the atrocities that have occurred out of view and thousands of miles away from our comfort zone of home.

    • Well, thank you so much. That’s a really kind comment and I truly appreciate it!
      But, more importantly, you really saw someone doing that at Auschwitz? Incredible! I don’t even know what would be going through someone’s brain to not think that would be inappropriate!

      • I think you can probably imagine how torn I was between giving them a dressing down and a brief description of what respect is & remaining quiet and respectful myself inside a building where many people lost their lives. It was tough.

        That and all of the graffiti from school kids scratched into the stone inside the few remaining huts really had me biting my lip.

  4. I think the more we know about history the better. In the case of places like The Killing Fields, Dachau, etc. it is important that we know about these things and remember them so it never happens again. A lot of what has happened in the past was because people either were not made aware or they knew and did nothing.

  5. I visited S21 and it was a chilling experience – especially the photographs of the prisoners. But I agree it is important to face up to history, in the (sometimes faint) hope that we will learn from it.

    • The photos really stick with you. Especially the faces of what look like children. Young people who should be at school being tortured and then killed by the people who are supposed to be protecting them. Gruesome.

    • I’m just so amazed at how little it is spoken about. I mean, millions of people were killed here by Pol Pot! If this had happened in Europe during World War 2, everyone on the planet would know all about it!

  6. It was difficult to visit Tuol Sleng and other sites of such pain and suffering in Cambodia, but so important. So different from learning the facts from a book or even a film, being there has a way of really moving you, of getting down to your core. Hopefully the more we educate ourselves and open our eyes to what happened, the better equipped we will be to prevent such horrors in the future.

    • I think books and movies can be an important part of learning about the history because they can paint the picture of what it was actually like at the time. But you’re right, seeing the sites for yourself brings a whole new level of understanding.

  7. This stuff is… challenging to see but important. Nothing wrong at all with these sites or even people (initIally) seeing a visit as just like any other tourist site. Most if not all will learn from the experience and come away from it more mature and wiser.


Leave a comment