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.