Friday, February 22, 2013

Tuol Sleng: The Hill of the Poisonous Trees

On Monday, Jeff and I took advantage of the holiday and spent a couple of hours visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a nice day, a little warm but not too hot, with a brightly shining sun, perfect for the short walk from our BKK neighborhood to Tuol Sleng, located on Street 113 near Street 360. All the information I’d found on the internet indicated that Tuol Sleng was right on the corner, impossible to miss; although it was impossible to miss, thanks to the huge sign on the corner, Tuol Sleng itself was a block north of Street 360. We paid our $2 entry fee (each) and splurged on the $3 brochure, but said a polite “Qat tee, akuun” to the tour guides offering their services, then entered the former prison.
Building C: From far enough away, you can't even see the barbed wire
At first glance, Tuol Sleng appeared unremarkable, much like the many high schools scattered around the city. Not too surprising, as it originally was Tuol Svay Prey high school. It was converted into the secret torture prison S-21 (Security Office-21) shortly after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. One of the signs now present at Tuol Sleng explains that Pol Pot and his regime shunned education and viewed it as a corrupting influence, so I guess for him, it was poetic justice to transform a school into a prison for “traitors.” I assume that the moniker Tuol Sleng, meaning “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” was attached sometime after the prison was discovered by liberating Vietnamese forces in 1979.

Fourteen tombs

We entered the facility at the corner of a large courtyard. This courtyard is now a gravesite: It holds the tombs of the last 14 victims of the prison, those whose mangled bodies were found by the Vietnamese liberators. The courtyard also displays a sign with a list of rules the prisoners were forced to obey, including prohibitions on talking or any noise whatsoever, even during beatings; on contradicting the guards in any way; and on taking any time at all to think before answering a question.

A room in Building A for high-ranking prisoners

To the left of the courtyard is Building A, where high ranking Khmer Rouge were held and tortured. This building now displays grisly photographs of the remains of the last 14 victims, as well as a few beds and other objects that were used in its days as S-21.


Building B, located behind the courtyard, was used for the mass detention of prisoners. Now, it’s filled with room after room of photographs. The administrators at S-21 apparently were diligent record-keepers: Each prisoner, upon entry to the prison, was seated in a chair and photographed. Detailed information was obtained about the victims’ lives, starting in childhood, and later, information from the “confessions” was added. At some point, the photographs were separated from the information files, so even though the pictures were recovered, most of them have not been identified. Building B displays a massive amount of those photographs. What is striking about the pictures is the diversity: Although almost all are Cambodian, they range in age from a baby in his mother’s arms to old people; males and females are included; and the prisoners could be anyone from a farmer accused of stealing food to a Khmer Rouge officer accused of being a secret agent for the CIA … or it could just as easily be a farmer accused of working for the CIA—the regime didn’t seem too particular about whether or not the accusations made sense, just that they had been made. Guilt by association also was assumed; if a father or mother was accused, both parents and all the children were arrested, and quite possibly the extended family and friends as well. Although I was disturbed by the sheer number of photographs, I was most disturbed by the pictures of children, sitting bravely in the chair, unaware (I hope) of the horrors they would soon endure.


In the middle of the facility, to the right of the courtyard, is the administration building. We did not enter that building, as it continues to be used mostly for administrative purposes—though two of the survivors of S-21 now spend their days around that building, speaking to tourists and selling their autobiographies. On the other side of the administration building is a second courtyard, with Building C behind it and Building D to its right.

Building C: Cells and barbed wire

Building C is the one that, on the face of it, appears most disturbing. Barbed wire covers the verandas, to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping. The classrooms in the bottom two floors were converted into tiny individual cells, constructed of brick on the ground floor and of wood on the first floor (second floor, for Americans). Narrow holes were blasted into the walls of the classrooms to make a single long walkway from one end of the building to the other. The second floor (or third, to Americans) was left as larger rooms for mass detention; prisoners were forced to lie on the floor, head to foot, utterly silent.

Artist's rendition of a man in a brick cell

 Building D contains more photographs, as well as displays of some of the original equipment. The chair on which victims sat for their photographs is displayed there, as are several instruments of torture and a couple of artists’ renditions of life in S-21: a painting of a mass detention room and another of a man in a brick cell. One room on the ground floor houses a memorial stupa, where bones of the victims are displayed and people can leave offerings of food, drink, and incense. The first floor contains a Peace Exhibit, which is a cooperative effort of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum. I wandered through the exhibit but did not look closely at most of it, as I was too wrapped up in my thoughts of genocide at S-21 to want to read much about Okinawa, and I feared that if I did read it, I would find the inexcusable equating of the genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime and the American military administration of Okinawa during and after World War II. Jeff, who did look more closely at the exhibit, told me that my instincts to avoid it were right; it did indeed draw inaccurate and offensive parallels. [Edited to add comments from Jeff: The focus of the Okinawa portion of the exhibit was the unfortunate civilian casualties that happened during the battle for Okinawa between the U.S. and Japanese forces. To my mind, comparing the collateral damage done to a third party during a battle to the tortures and murder inflicted by a regime upon its own people invites a moral relativism that I find repugnant. As a technical collaboration to share/learn artifact/evidence preparation and preservation, I think it's great, but the display presented left me feeling like there was a comparison being made that was unwarranted and unfair to the victims of Tuol Sleng as well as to the American forces (probably the Japanese too, but their record of wartime atrocities makes me less sure) at Okinawa. I found it somewhat akin to comparing a police officer who accidentally shoots a hostage to one who abducts, tortures, and then murders their neighbor. The end result is the same, but the level of evil is dramatically different.]

Memorial stupa

Building D also is the location where an hour-long film about S-21 can be viewed twice a day. Because it was almost time for our housekeeper to get off work, and we had left Alexa in her care, we chose to skip the film and instead head home.

A photograph of the Skull Map of Cambodia (dismantled in 2002)
I am glad that I visited Tuol Sleng, though it is a difficult place to visit. I cannot say that I enjoyed my time there, and despite my interest in the film, I’m almost certain that I will not return to view it. At the same time, however, it feels somehow necessary to me to visit once, to pay homage to those who suffered and died there, or who suffered there before being sent to Cheoung Ek to die. It’s as if a part of me wants to ignore places like Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, to retreat from the horror of what people can do to other people—but another, larger part of me realizes that if we don’t acknowledge and remember the evil that has been perpetrated in the past, we leave ourselves vulnerable to forgetting that it’s possible, failing to defend against it, and repeating history. So as difficult as it may be to go, as tempting as it is to look at Cambodia’s ancient history rather than its more recent history, I do recommend that visitors to Cambodia visit Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, every bit as much as I recommend that they visit Angkor Wat and the Royal Palace. I believe that we owe it to the victims, to ourselves, and to our children to remember that against which we must guard.


  1. Have you seen the Holocaust Museum in DC? I've been twice because I wanted someone who was with me the second time to see it. It's not a museum you enjoy but I do think everyone should see it once.


    1. I haven't been there ... I'm not sure why not, since I lived just outside DC for two years. I do intend to go there one of these days, although the logistics are more difficult now since I wouldn't take Alexa with me until she's much older. Maybe whenever we eventually move back there, I'll have a babysitter I can leave her with so I can go.


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