Our driver from the day before was supposed to pick us up and bring us to the S-21 Prison before leaving for our flight to Vientiane, Laos, but since he was busy, he just referred a friend of his to take us there. We had breakfast there on Velkommen, which actually doubles also as a restaurant bar, packed all our stuff and checked out early and waited for the driver to pick us up. Since we were on a time crunch that day (our flight to Vientiane was scheduled to leave at 5PM), we decided to check out early and bring all our stuff with us to save some time instead of going back there again.
Velkommen Guesthouse is conveniently located in the Phnom Penh city center and is pretty much accessible to many touristy areas there. Our first stop was Wat Phnom, which was actually just a few minutes’ walk from the guesthouse. We could’ve just easily explored it earlier ourselves, but with the pressure of having such a limited time to roam around (add the fact that there’s just too many people crowding in Phnom Penh), stopping by along the way to S-21 was a good idea.
Wat Phnom is a hilltop sanctuary from which the capital city got its name, is one of the principal pleasure spots for the inhabitants of Phnom Penh. There weren’t that many tourists there at all when we got there, and the place was not that big so we were able to circle the place for around 30 minutes. Nothing’s much to say about this place, really. Maybe it’s because of the fact that I am just too tired of seeing all these temples ever since I left Siem Reap. The only difference was that this temple and its designs were colored salmon pink.
We returned back to our driver and since we still have some time, we decided to go to the Central Market to do some shopping (one of my favorite moments in Cambodia). Psar Thmei, or The Central Market, is a large market constructed in 1937 in the shape of a dome with four arms branching out into vast hallways with countless stalls of goods. The four wings of this gigantic yellow dome are teeming with stalls that sell goods ranging from gold and silver, antique coins, money exchange, men’s and women’s apparel, clocks, books, flowers, food, fabrics, shoes, souvenirs, luggage, and countless other products. I was able to buy myself a bunch of T-shirts (they were really cheap and the quality’s really good) and some ref magnets.
After that we then went ahead to our last stop, the highlight for that day, which was the S-21 Prison (also known as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum). Originally the Tuol Svay High School, from 1975 to 1979, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem was the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, through whose gates 17,000 to 20,000 people passed to their death. S-21 was an interrogation center particularly for the educated and elite : doctors, teachers, military personnel and government officials all passed through the Khmer Rouge hands. The regime was indescriminate in its choice of victims, even children, some of whom were just babies, were among those detained here and subsequently slaughtered. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. Prisoners’ families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the Killing Fields, which we visited the day before.
Although the compound is surrounded by high walls and ringed by barbed wire, it’s still difficult to understand that this was once a torture center. Up to 1500 prisoners were housed here at any one time, either confined in tiny cells or chained to the floor in the former classrooms. Some of the balconies, specifically on the upper floors, are still enclosed with wire mesh to prevent the prisoners jumping to a premature death. Some cells still contain iron bedsteads to which inmates were shackled. When the Vietnamese army entered the prison in 1979, they found just seven prisoners alive; the corpses of some prisoners who had died shortly before they were discovered in the cells were buried in graves in the courtyard. It was definitely such an eerie feeling walking around that place. The fact that thousands of people were tortured and slaughtered here (there were still some blood stains on the walls and on the floors), was seriously freaky. I had to bring my rosary with me because thoughts of ghosts were going through my head. The Cambodian government really did a good job preserving this historical site and to educate everyone, locals and tourists alike, of what the country and its people had to go through a few decades ago from the hands of these soulless monsters.
There was also a display of thousands of black and white photographs of the victims, their eyes expressing a variety of emptions, from fear through defiance to emptiness, each of them holding a number. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in documenting its prisoners. Although the majority murdered here were Cambodians, foreigners, both Western and Asian, were also interrogated and tortured.
Things get no easier emotionally after the photographic display, as you progress to a display detailing the methods of torture practised here, some of which are graphically depicted in paintings by one of the survivors. I was also able to read through some extracts in the exhibition area from forced confessions from some of the prisoners and the exchange of letters between the cadres, who sadistically continued to victimize prisoners until their declarations conformed to the guards’ own version of the truth. Reading through the torture process these prisoners had to go through makes me wonder how these monsters could even sleep at night. It was so disturbing and it was making me sick. Painting of babies being killed and tortured with the tagline “smashing babies” made it even worse for me to absorb everything that happened there.
We spent about three hours circling around the place, covering every classroom in all the four buildings. One of the three remaining survivors was also there, signing his book that details his experience in this hellhole, and having his picture taken with the tourists who visited the place. It was such an experience for me to finally arrive and walk around this place. I have always been intrigued with the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison to finally visit this place was all worth it. I still get shivers every time I go through all the pictures I took from the place and every time I think about what those prisoners had to go through and trying to understand why the Khmer Rouge had to do this to their fellow countrymen.
Our driver was waiting for us outside and though we had a few more hours to spend, we decided to be brought to the airport instead. I originally thought of visiting the Royal Palace but since the body of the king that arrived a couple of days before was there, the palace was closed to the public. We arrived around 1PM in the airport and we stayed there for a couple of hours before checking in for our late afternoon flight to Vientiane, Laos.Follow @iamthegarysia