Christy and John's Travels travel blog

Phnom Penh skyline

Tuol Sleng prison - prisoner photos

Tuol Sleng prison - highschool converted to 're-education' center

Tuol Sleng survivor - one of only 7 survivors from 20,000+ inmates...

Phnom Penh royal palace complex - throne room

Our bus ride took a couple of hours longer than expected due to what we've come to understand are the standard frequent, random stops to pick up extra passengers. We arrived in Phnom Penh about 2pm and walked around for a couple of hours looking for a hotel - ending up back at the first one we had looked at, of course!

The capital city's population is ~1.5 million people and we were immediately struck by a more clear division of wealth here than we've seen in the other cities we've visited so far. This was highlighted by armed guards being visible in front of houses, hotels, etc. and by the many beggars we saw everywhere. We've come to learn there is quite a lot of corruption in this country which continues to recover from colonialism, civil war, and genocide. Much of the aid that gets poured in, does not seem to trickle down to those in need.

For both of us, our lasting memory from this city is going to be our visit to the infamous Tuong Sleng prison. Formerly a high-school, it was converted to a 're-education' center during the regime of Pol Pot (1975-79). Officially called Security Center-21 (S-21) it effectively operated as a torture, confession, and execution center during the years it was in operation. If inmates were not tortured to death or didn't die of starvation or disease at the center, they were quickly sent to the nearby killing fields to be bludgeoned, suffocated or, if they were "lucky", shot to death. It is estimated that between 20-25,000 people passed through this one center and of that number, there were only 7 survivors, 4 of whom are still alive today (more on that later).

What is truly horrifying is that during the course of this genocide, it's estimated 1.7 million died under this regime! This was nearly a third of Cambodia's population at the time.

Like many museums in this part of the world, there seems to be an obvious lack of funds for basic maintenance, with significant amounts of money designated to this kind of memorial probably making it only as far as the senior government officials in charge. However, in this case, the physical appearance of the buildings only served to highlight the terrible subject it was presenting. Initially, you pass through several classrooms which were used as cells and torture rooms. Each room has a single, rusty metal framed bed in the center. On the wall above the bed is a black and white photo of an inmate - dead or tortured, sprawled on the same bed. This repeats room after room, and the repetition slowly seemed to silence the visitors as they visited each successive room. On display in another building are hundreds of photos - the official mugshots of the inmates - lined up one after another.

There seemed little discrimination on the selection of the victims. Everyone was represented here - men, women, elderly and children were all brought here. The haunting thing is you know all of the people in the photos either died here or were killed in mass graves in the countryside which they shared with thousands of others. The pictures of children, possibly only 2-3 years old, with prison numbers around their necks and no idea what was happening, was the most difficult to comprehend. Further on, classrooms were divided up into smaller, one person cells divided by brick or wooden walls.

As I was walking by one group, I noticed an older man talking to a large group of tourists, and overheard someone saying that he was one of the 7 survivors. I could not get close to hear too much, and moved on to the next building. Later, I noticed he was standing outside and I approached him and introduced myself. He did not speak any English, but I asked if the cell he was standing outside had been his. He said yes and took my inside to show me his cell, number 22.

We went inside to his cell and he then gestured how he had been blindfolded, how his hands were tied behind his back with shackles around his ankles which were chained to a steel hook set in the concrete floor. Also, he mimed how he had to go to the bathroom in an old ammunition box and plastic bottle. It is impossible to know what memories this man holds onto and what he thinks or dreams about at night. I also wondered what his thoughts were on why so many that were involved with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge have never been brought to justice. This happened within my lifetime - only 30 years ago. That is what is so terrible. Why in many of our lifetimes has genocide repeated itself in different forms and in different countries so many times? Who are these crazy, evil people and why are they able to get and keep power over others? Incredibly sad and disturbing.

Aside from the prison, we also visited the Royal Palace, where the figurehead king lives today and the National Museum - which had some incredible Khmer art taken from Angkor and other places in Cambodia. After 3 days here, we headed by bus to Siem Reap - just a 6 hour trip.

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