Backpacking in Cambodia: Tuol Sleng – S21 Concentration Camp, Phnom Penh

Backpacking in Cambodia: Tuol Sleng – S21 Concentration Camp, Phnom Penh

Concentration Camps, Killing Fields, Battlefields, Prison Cells etc. all these places conjure up sad horrific images of course. But the fact remains, as humans we must love and respect each other. We must rise above regimes of mass murder, political violence, torture and genocide. BUT we must NOT forget the past. It’s important therefore not to brush these past horrors aside, and in the way that Cambodia does, allow tourists and strangers in to see what actually happened mostly so that they can understand the pain suffered by this nation. How horrific things really were. How inhuman the Khmer Rouge were to their fellow Cambodians. The word Genocide is used a lot, and can be classified as a deliberate attempt to maim, starve and murder groups of persons based on a race, religion or belief. Mass murder and deletion of a type of people. Just pure evil. Think of the destruction of the Jews and Polish by Adolf Hitler as the main example. But many other examples exist. In Rwanda, in Russia, in Bosnia (the former Yugoslavia), in Sudan and in Iraq. I also thought on both sides of the fence to a lesser extent of what has happened in Northern Ireland (Protestants and Catholics). But for now, I was in Phnom Penh in Cambodia and I walked into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Commonly referred to as the S-21. Don’t believe the euphemisms, it’s a concentration camp, it’s a death camp.


The entrance sign is on a small corner of a crossroads without traffic lights. This concentration camp was actually in a very central location in Phnom Penh hardly shy of traffic or everyday commuters.


Boards of information on arrival and we all picked up a guide. Basically the place was split into four main buildings and the garden. The buildings being named Building A, Building B, Building C and Building D. They deserve no other names. The entrance fee was payable in US Dollars or Cambodian Riels. It was $2 US Dollars or 8,000 Cambodian Riels. You picked up your A4 page guide on the way in.


Colours portray an image in your mind. Here, bleak colours such as dirty white, grey, faded brown and murky orange adorn the walls and floors of Tuol Sleng. There were four of us doing the tour. Helen and Anthony (both from Cork), Mickey (from Bury in England) and myself. We went our separate ways once through the gates and wandered around on your own. It was the sort of place you didn’t want to talk much, not even to your mates.


The first room in Building A. Each room has been left the way it was when the bodies were found by the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea (UFNSK) on January 7th 1979. Aside from cleaning and the removal of the bodies. All the items such as hammers, sickles, hooks, chains etc. have also been left. These were the items of torture used by Pol Pot’s men.


The punishments and torture that the victims were subjected to. Inside the museum everything was written in three languages: Khmer, French and English.


These rooms are from Building A. The first building on the left as you enter the S21. Building A was used for detaining cadres who were accused of leading the uprising against the Pol Pot revolution. Their cells were surprisingly large, and each furnished with a bed, a blanket, a cushion and a mat. Plus an iron bucket or plastic container for getting rid of body waste. 


Each cell had a window, and it faced right out onto the main street. I initially found this astonishing and wondered why Pol Pot had chosen this location, as surely the torturing would have been heard by the neighbourhoods nearby, particularly at night. However there was a small courtyard between Building A and the main street, and all windows were paneled with glass as well as iron bars and wooden doors. The colours were drab and non descript. It was in 1979 that 14 bodies were found in Building A. They were unrecogniseable. They had been left to die. Starved, mutilated and tortured, all inside separate lonely cells. The cells were roughly 6 by 4 metres in size.


This is the view looking inward (not out towards the street) to the rest of the S21 Office. More torture equipment was found in these outdoor gardens. Incidentally the entire building complex and the walls around it, used to be used for schools and education. First of all it was Tuol Sleng Primary School, then it became Tuol Svay Prey High School. It makes perfect sense actually as all they needed to do was turn the classrooms into cells, adding brickwork, barbed wire and all the torturing equipment they needed. Plus from the outside, it is possible that it looked like a school. Therefore prisoners on arrival may have actually believed they were going inside to be educated in some way in the hope that Pol Pot would not be punishing them any more than taking them away from the families. The truth really hurts when you see this place.


The corridor on the first floor of Building A. Again these rooms housed prisoners and various items of torture.


The above photo is what I mean about the proximity to the main street. The S21 is situated on the corner of Street 113 and Street 320. However when Pol Pot made his plans to turn this building in “Security Office 21” everything was changing in Cambodia. Pol Pot (real name is Sa Lut Sor) gave orders to turn the building into the concentration camp on April 17th 1975. Its main purpose was the detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and killing following confession from the detainees. Everything was documented, though the authenticity of the prisoner’s names may not be entirely correct, and indeed many were unidentifiable following their discovery inside.


Oddly for the day, and by total coincidence I was wearing my most drab attire. A yellow baseball cap had replaced my lost blue hat. A boring white, brown, grey and orange short sleeved shirt was preferred to a Glentoran, Northern Ireland or Bournemouth football shirt. And my grey shorts couldn’t have been any more dull. I fitted in for the day. That’s me standing on the balcony in Building A. A bit disturbed by it all but very eager to hear the full story and witness everything on show in this “museum”.


I got a photo taken in one of the torture cells too. On the wall behind me you can see a large photo of the victim who was locked up in that cell. The UFNSK took photos of every room and victim when they entered in 1979 and as a sad reminder each cell contains the photo of the dead victim from that day on the wall. Sad and disturbing, but unfortunately as most of the bodies were un-named and unidentifiable, this is the closest that these humans will ever get to having their own grave. Their lives so cruelly taken from them by Pol Pot.


The use of the word classroom is also ironic. Once an actual classroom, once an actual school. This is now a museum and some of the classrooms have been turned into real information displays on the history of not just S21, but the entire horrific killing campaigns of Pol Pot and “Democratic Kampuchea”.


Each building has its name and information board above the entrance. I actually went into every room in Building A, which is three stories high and was converted into cells in 1977 – 1978 by Pol Pot.


The outdoor interrogation ‘room’, known as “The Gallows” was not really a room. Prisoners were hanged upside down on a rope, dipping their heads into dirty jars of water and interrogating the victims as soon as they were conscious enough to speak.


Said jars of water and where the ropes were hung from. Area known as “The Gallows”.


Some old photos in Building B. Building B contained an exhibit about the Pol Pot regime. Cheers on the streets of Phnom Penh above following the return to a “normal” properly Democratic Cambodia.


The evil man himself. Now dead of course. Sa Lut Sor. Known to the world as Pol Pot.


Every photo in this room was a victim. Among them women, children and OAPs. Exact figures are not known, but it is estimated that in S21 alone, over 20,000 Cambodians were murdered over a three year period. The research into prisoner records of S21 gave the following information on prisoner quantities from April 1975 until June 1978 (it would be almost certain that very few came out alive):
1975 – 154 prisoners
1976 – 2,250 prisoners
1977 – 2,350 prisoners
1978 – 5,765 prisoners
However these figures do not include children killed by the Khmer Rouge. Each individual imprisonment lasted between 2 to 4 months or political prisoners were held for between 6 to 7 months. Its probable that all these victims were either killed inside or simply transferred at night by truck to Choeng Ek. Another disturbing place – the “Killing Fields” as they are commonly known. On the same day I visited both places.


Horrific images of the dead bodies found in Tuol Sleng.


Mass murder, genocide, the horrors of what happened to prisoners at S21.


A corridor at building B.


Building C, also three storeys, is on the left hand side behind Building B. The bottom floor was divided into small individual cells. The top two floors were crowded communal cells.


Barbed wire still remains all around the building. Here pictured at the entrance to Building C.


Building C next, the barbed wire was apparently to “prevent suicides”.


The cells in Building C were small, poky and very dirty.


It just looked horrendous. Building C. 


They were clearly running out of room to house prisoners by the end, as these brick cells had been custom built, and very badly and quickly by the looks of things. Also on the ground floor of Building C.


A better view than a prisoner would have got of the outside world. From Building C. Suicide wire.


Sad to see this man smiling. Little would he have known what was ahead. All prisoners were photographed by Pol Pot’s men on arrival at S21.


Thank King Lion. Another innocent victim.


A horrific portrayal of what really happened here.


More torture item inside Building C. Hammers, shovels, anything sharp that maims the body. Gruesome. Sick. Plain evil.


At Tuol Sleng some of the heads were chopped off and put in a room of their own. Perhaps to scare prisoners, perhaps just for the sake of it. But definitely because these killers had absolutely no respect for their fellow humans. A room full of dead heads. Mind you, this was a photo, the heads had since been removed. Most of them can be seen at Choeng Ek Killing Fields, which I also visited.


Old photos of Tuol Sleng.


One of many cracked skulls on display. The methods of torture and killing had no bounds.


A map of Cambodia with skulls and bones all around. No exaggeration of the traumatic regime in the 1970s.


Some skulls have been kept in a cabinet at Tuol Sleng. I think these were in Building D.


A “no smiling or laughing” sign. Of course you wouldn’t anyway. You can only feel sorrow, sadness and emptiness walking around.


In the museum a timeline shows Cambodian history. It’s not the simplest thing to understand. Even post- Pol Pot era has seen 3 different regimes and systems. From 1979 to 1989 it was The People’s Republic of Kampuchea. 1989 saw the world change forever with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This also saw Cambodia become the “State of Cambodia” in a world slowly changing and leaving communism and totalitarian systems behind. However in 1993, the country became a Kingdom. It is now officially the Kingdom of Cambodia. Better known as simply Cambodia, but also can be referred to as Kampuchea.


There was a souvenir shop including these common T-shirts with “Same same” written on them. It’s a bit of a joke of a Cambodians attempt at English.


If you want to read up on Cambodian history, there are hundreds of books for sale, as well as videos and DVDs. I bought the below book, called the Killing Fields.
My book “The Killing Fields” which was also a hit film.


Building D.


In front of Building C.


Again in front of mostly Building C, with the building on the right being Building D.


It was a hot day and I stopped to buy some postcards, stamps and a Lychee Fanta at the wee vendor inside.


Buildings C and D. From its history as a school, you could clearly see the change in appearance of S21, not an easy place on the eye or the mind. The buildings have been left in pretty much the state they were found in back in 1979.


Later on that day there would be a speech from an actual victim and survivor at Tuol Sleng. We had hung around for a couple of hours but were off to The Killing Fields by that time.


This is an eerie photo I took of the former entrance and barbed wire against a grey sky.


The Leaders of Democratic Kampuchea betweenn 1975 and 1979, the era when Pol Pot issued his commands, killing millions.


One of the former entrances. Now closed with blood red doors.


More information.


Light a stick, say a prayer, leave a note.



Building A once again.
The entrance to the museum from the corner of the main road. Even just looking at it, you can almost sense horror, torture and death. Its run down, delapitated, ugly and historic. The dramas within will put the happiest human in an odd frame of mind. Outside as we walked out, we knew we had been in an eerie, odd place. It felt OK to have seen it.
Where – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum/ Office S – 21/ Concentration Camp, Street 113, Sangkat Beoung Keng Kang III, Khan Charmkarmorn, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of CAMBODIA
Telephone – (+855) 023 216 045
Transport Used – Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk
Strange Currencies – Cambodian Riels, US Dollars
Key Song – 
My Videos –

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