Backpacker, Cambodia, Travel

Shocking visit to the S21 Prison, Cambodia…

Cambodia was always on our list of must see countries, due to the completely different culture to England. Also because of our desire to visit the S21 Prison and Killing Fields to pay our respects. 

At first glance, the prison seems like 5 ordinary run down buildings surrounded by plants and trees, but for those of you that don’t know, the S21 Prison (now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide) is the place where 14,000 cambodian civilians were tortured, interrogated and murdered by the hands of a monster called Pol Potts, accused of supporting former and foreign governments. Of the 14,000 people who entered the prison, only 7 survived. 7!!! We met 2 of these survivors when we visited. 

The prison consists of 5 buildings, that have electric barbed wire across the front making it impossible to escape from. The rooms were divided into tiny cells to hold prisoners. Each room has a single bed with shackles where victims were tortured. The floor is stained red with blood and a canvas now sits on the wall in each room showing a real photograph of the horrors that once happened there.

Portraits of the victims are spread across a couple of rooms, men, women, children, babies, elderly, no one was spared. Black and white photos of the morbid faces of these unknowing victims. Photographs of decomposing skeleton thin dead bodies show the horrific truth of the mass murders at the hands of Pol Potts. The victims ate tiny spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup. Often they had to eat faeces and drink urine.

One room had shackles on the floor, where the prisoners would lie in a line with their heads in alternating directions.  The prisoners were tortured to give names of family or friends who in turn would be arrested and tortured. The torturing included ripping off fingernails, electric shocks, pouring boiling hot water over their faces, hanging and sometimes even rape. Killing wasn’t the aim here, as they needed the victims to ‘confess’. Which meant the torturing happened again and again. 

We then entered a room which displayed hundreds of human skulls all lined up in a display case. Both adult and childrens skulls are displayed here, showcasing again, the reality of the genocide war.

Outside stand ‘The Gallows’, a place where interrogators tied prisoners hands behind their backs and hung them upside down until they lost conciousness. They would then dunk their heads into a big pot of smelly water used as fertilizer to bring them back before repeating time and time again. 

The two survivors we met only survived because they had skills that were useful to Pol Potts. Bou Meng was an artist, and he often painted Pol Potts portrait. And Chum May survived as he could fix machinery. Both were at the prison selling their books about the time they spent in the prison, and to talk about the horrors that happened. 

We did a headphone tour of the prison when we visited, and stood in silence for around 3 hours whilst we listened in horror to the stories of the prison, along with the stories told by survivors and confessions that were found. Every single person walking the prison was silent, exchanging the odd look of horror as they experienced even more torment at the stories. 

The S21 prison was finally discovered in 1979, when Vietnamese journalist Hรด Vรขn Tรขy followed the stench of rotting corpses to the prison. He documented what he found to the world. 

This brought the harsh reality that the prison was at large only a measly 40 years ago!!! My parents were alive then! To think something so shocking could happen so recently in todays world! And the brutal fact that something similar could and probably will happen anytime again! That is why the Genocide museum exists as a tourist ‘attraction’ today. To spread to the world what happened 40 years ago and to hopefully prevent anything like that happening again!

Visiting the prison is an emotional day. A hugely emotional day. The guides advise you to step outside into the fresh air of the gardens if the stories get too much. Which many people did. I’d advise taking plenty of water and a possibly even a fan with you. But I would definately advise going to visit the genocide museum, along with ‘The Killing Fields‘, as they are both a huge part of Cambodian history, and the more people that hear about it, hopefully the more likely it will be prevented from happening again! 


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