(And, darn, I stayed just across its gate!)
Arriving at the Phnom Penh International Airport, my friend Yudit and I jumped on a cab to the one of the Lonely Planet’s top pick hotels for Phnom Penh. We yet to find out what in front of us, and I mean it literally.
Bodhi Tree is a great guesthouse, offering a clean room, minimalist yet with Cambodian traditional touch. The staff spoke English very well. We got the last room available. After a little break and lunch, we headed off to the nearest tourism site, just across our hotel gate.
It was late afternoon but there were still some groups of tourists scattered at this museum. I thought it was merely a museum with the usual stuff I encountered in some other countries. But, I was a hundred percent wrong.
It was the most depressing place I’ve ever visited in my 28 years of life. In front of the buildings there were signs forbidding people to laugh. If I can borrow a little bit of JK Rowling’s imagination, I felt like surrounded by dementors, making me feel like I would never be happy again.
Tuol Sleng was originally a high school complex before Khmer Rouge Regime turned it into S-21 prison in 1975. Around 20,000 people detained in this prison with up to 1,500 prisoners at one time. They include activists from Lon Nol regime, doctors, engineers, teachers, whoever suspected to be against Khmer Rouge, including their family members, children, babies.
We were lucky to meet a Malaysian gentleman who hired a guide and invited us to join him. The guide explained how the torture happened. There are some torture devices, such as searing metals and electric shocks. Prisoners were often beaten to death, suffocated using plastic bag, hung, or cut with knives. Female were raped although it was against Khmer Rouge policy, and often time the perpetrators executed for raping. Crying babies were thrown into barb wires.
The guide explained how he lost his father and brother during the Pol Pot tenure. His mother secretly caught the frogs to feed him. The security guards would collect everything owned by the people.
One of the most notable thing in this museum is a skull map, consists of 300 human skulls depicting the map of Cambodia. The S-21 also kept an intensive documentation of all prisoners. After arriving at the prison, the guards took their photographs. The photographs of men, women, old people, children, are now showcased in the museum. It was extremely disheartening to see the faces of the people, who knew that they’d be tortured to death.
Among nearly 20,000 S-21 detainees, only seven known survivors. They were kept alive because they had some skills, such as painting or handy work.
The afternoon wore on, and it was getting even more depressing to witness cells with blood splatters, execution devices, skulls, because the Cambodian government kept it original. I would conclude it as the scariest places I’ve ever visited – I might be able to make a comparison if one day I’d visit KZ Nazi camp concentration.
At the hotel, we simply stripped off our clothes, including my belt and sandals, giving them to the bell boy for laundry. And only the next day we could smile again….(with all night thought that might be our room was also use to torture and kill innocent people)