Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The small traffic jam is unusual for this 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 the old school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison.
Thousands of people were held captive, interrogated, tortured, starved and killed here. It is one of the most horrifying pieces of evidence of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of policies and its leader, Pol Pot.
And now it is one of the most popular sights in Phnom Penh.
Welcome to Cambodia’s genocide tourism.
It feels morbid to walk through the classrooms of the school, called Security Prison 21 during the time of the Khmer Rouge and now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
In some rooms there are still blackboards up on the wall; in some there are photos of the prisoners; and in many there are still the instruments of torture.
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 the morbidity of what I’m doing gets to me here. This is the scene of a war crime – a site used for unimaginable horrors on innocent civilians – and I’m walking through it with my camera and water bottle as though it’s just another temple or museum.
But it’s much more important than that.
But then again, I guess I’m not acting just like it’s any old tourist attraction. I can feel that I’m being more respectful than usual and there’s a thoughtfulness 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.
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 ask myself as I walk down the row of tiny wooden cells a classroom has been divided into.
In some other rooms there are similarly-sized cells made roughly from bricks. Barbed wire still crosses the balconies of this building – 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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re interested in a tour to hear more about the site, I would recommend one of these:
Where should you stay in Phnom Penh?
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Share Hostel which is clean and quiet.
For something cheap but trendy, Patio Hotel and Urban Resort is a great place.
For good value luxury, you should try the Plantation Urban Resort with a pool in the middle of the city.
And if you want to splurge for somewhere special and unique, have a look at the Mane La Residence.
18 thoughts on “Genocide Tourism”
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.
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.
I can imagine all the bickering just seemed so silly in comparison. It really gets down into your soul, visiting somewhere like this. The key, I guess, is to then use that for good.
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.
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.
I think you’re right – information is the most powerful weapon here. Not just being able to broadcast atrocities but to learn from the mistakes of the past.
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.
Very well-written and moving post, Michael. I’m a big believer in using online presence as a means to spread awareness about issues such as this. Thank you for sharing.
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!
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.
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.
I think you’re spot on. If you go somewhere like this and come away without a new perspective or a deeper understanding, then there’s something wrong with you!
Nice post, I’ve never read about genocide before. You wrote such an interesting story.