Posted by: James Shannon | October 19, 2011

Hell On Earth: The Horror Of Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot’s Jail Of Genocide

This post, without a shadow of a doubt, will be the toughest, most controversial travel blog post that I will probably ever write in my life.  When I arrived in Phnom Penh, like most travellers, the place that was the “must see attraction” was S-21, or the Tuol Sleng detention centre.  This house of horrors claimed tens of thousands of lives over the duration of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.

I expected a sobering lesson in how barbaric men can be in the pursuit and maintenance of power and ideology … but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter. This blog post is my best attempt at trying to put across how emotionally heart-wrenching this place was, and still is today.  The content of this photo essay is mature to say the least, and some images may be disturbing to those with weak stomachs, and to small children.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Before we get to the heavy stuff though, we pick up from where we left off last time.  After surviving an encounter with voracious beg bugs the night before, job #1 was to find a new bed.

… but first, some breakfast!  A little OJ gave me some get-up-and-go to face the new Cambodian day.  While I was sitting and waiting, no less than three book vendors entered the restaurant, trying to get me to buy their wares.  I wasn’t interested, but I admire their initiative … beats begging any day of the week!

While lugging my gear around Phnom Penh, desperately trying to find a soft, bug-free bed, I came across a gorgeous building along the Tonle Sap River that houses PP’s main post office…

Sugar coconuts sit out for a sale on a side street, near my newly-found guesthouse … I passed out and slept for five solid hours, from 9 AM to 2 PM!

After getting some badly-needed rest, the time had come for me to confront Cambodia’s most reviled legacy … the trail of death and destruction torn through this countries’ soul by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  I hired a tuk-tuk ($1) to take me to S-21, about ten minutes away…

Barbed wire, as twisted and rusty as can be, marked the barrier between a paranoid life spent fearing the secret police, and the barbarism that awaited those (intellectuals, political opponents, people who fell out of favour with the Khmer Rouge) that were dragged here to be tortured and exterminated.

In 1979, the Vietnamese swept into Cambodia to flush out the Khmer Rouge … when they arrived at S-21, they found seven survivors.  The picture above is of the graves of 14 unfortunate souls who didn’t make it.

Stark steel bed frames are what prisoners were made to lay on day in, and day out … the metal bar restrained their arms, and the ammo case is where they had to defecate.

The “rules” that prisoners had to abide by while in S-21 … talk about a lose-lose proposition (click on image to expand)

Some of the “dangerous subversives” that were a threat to the agrarian revolution that the Khmer Rouge imposed on Cambodia for five long years.  May God grant their souls eternal rest.

Pol Pot and his minions of terror and death

Kaing Gek Iev, one of the chief architects of the genocidal madness that went on at S-21 … truly, the face of Evil

Heading down a dimly lit hallway to one of many holding cells … all the buildings that you see here used to be a high school before the revolution … the clapboard, dingy walls set up where children used to run, play and learn…

The last light many prisoners saw before falling victim to horrendous torture techniques … must have been trying to see the world outside from this cell, while knowing they would likely never walk there as a free man again…

No comment needed…

From this point forward, a number of images will be hidden via hyperlink, as I have deemed them to be too graphic for the casual viewer to happen upon by mistake.  These pictures are mostly artist’s rendering of the crimes that were perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime at Tuol Sleng.  These pictures are shocking and brutal.  CLICK AT YOUR OWN RISK.

S-21’s re-education room, where subversives were restrained in long rows, and taught the “ways” of Khmer Rouge.

Examples of waterboarding and the usage of the gallows

A prisoner gets flayed by electrical wire, presumably for breaking one of the onerous rules shown earlier in the post.

Waterboarding face down with a watering can.

Torturers cutting off a victim’s fingers, one by one. VERY GRAPHIC!

Torturers squeezing the nipples of a victim with vice grips, presumably, until they rupture.

An elaborate water torture technique, where the victim is suspended in the air, with only his face submerged in the bucket beneath.

Yet another waterboarding device, pure evil in its setup, as it fills up with the victim restrained inside, leaving them to ponder their impending doom, helpless to do anything about it…

One of many skulls found around the premises in 1979 … a raw reminder of what death looks like in its cruelest form.


I hope this post hasn’t saddened you too much, but it’s vital when on a journey to report not just the joyous and wondrous occasions, but also the sombre and thought-provoking encounters. I think that while it is depressing place to visit, it is important that all travellers see this exhibit on humankind’s capacity for cruelty, so that we might stand against such crimes in our world, today and in the future.

Tuol Sleng gave me an education I never anticipated … I sincerely hope it has done the same for you, through this post.


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