I frowned up at the skies as the darkened overhead started to drizzle huge drops onto my forehead.
“Great,” I whisper to myself. The weather was totally imitating how I feel right now.
I quickened my pace into the next run-down building and half-skipped into the first room.
Suddenly, dark, dampened and suffocating atmosphere seemed to cloud over my nose.
I hastened to get out, a quick scan of my surroundings and ended up back at the porch, coughing as if I had been one of those tortured so many years ago.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located about 30 – 45 minutes from its partner visit the Choeung Ek Genocide Museum, otherwise known as the Killing Fields. If you will be visiting one of these places, you definitely have to check out the other as both come hand in hand.
Since I only had a few hours to tour Phnom Penh, I chose these two places specifically. And I guess there were no other better places to visit if I really wanted to see where the Khmer people were coming from.
Once a former high school, this museum was the site of the Security Prison 21 (more commonly known as the S21). Tuol Sleng means Hill of the Poisonous Trees. As one of the 150 execution centers in the country during the Khmer Rouge regime, this museum holds some of the most gruesome memories of what took place during the 1975 – 1979 reign.
Over 20,000 people were killed in this museum and you can practically smell it upon entry.
I paid an entrance fee of $2 at the gate and headed straight to what looked like coffins at the gardens.
These coffins are those of the last 7 prisoners of the Khmer Rouge.
I entered the first building, cautiously, not really sure where to start the tour.
From the porch, I could already make out what was inside the rooms. Just like any other school, the entire hallway was divided into rooms, tiny and creepy with sufficient light poring into the room from a barred window at the end. The walls were brown, smudged with dirt, possibly remnants of what could’ve happened in these rooms. The floor was checkered brown and white that you would most likely see in a kitchen. But this time, the entire look was just eerie and claustrophobic.
In every room, there was a spring bed, the ones you usually see in hospital rooms. There was also a painting of what happened inside the room. People were tied on this bed as they were tortured alive.
Being inside any of these rooms gave me the chills. When I went to the 2nd floor, I immediately remembered our haunted high school. So freaky. But this was freakier. I honestly didn’t want to be inside any of the rooms more than a few seconds.
Outside the second building was a tall bar with three ancient jars below. According to the sign, they would hung people on the bars and then pull them up and down like a pendulum. Then when they lose consciousness, they would dip the person into the jar of water to regain consciousness.
Tragic how someone could do this to their own countrymen.
In another room was a collection of what they used to tie people up. Metal bars, screws, torture tools. It was suffocating and tormenting just looking at it all.
Just before I exited the second building, the rain started to pour. Hard.
It was just the kind of weather to match how gloomy I now feel after doing the Killing Fields and this museum.
Sad and gloomy to match the eeriness of this place. I bet if I took a video here at night, I could probably sell it for a video on Halloween. People in the Philippines love a good scare.
I didn’t bring an umbrella but my super, super kind tuktuk driver, Paulie had lent me his own umbrella. I didn’t use it though, because I was too lazy to open it up.
As I walked to the next building (which was more than a stone’s throw away from the second building), the quick build-up of water was a reminder of how fast flood also builds up in the Philippines.
I suddenly missed home. And I was only on my second leg.
I pushed through walking in the 2-inch flood and got to the next building.
And if the buildings couldn’t get any creepier, this one definitely did.
Wrapped with barbed wire that had been live with electricity before, to kill anyone who tried to escape, it was the ultimate last test to a desperate tormented victim.
When I went in, half crashing in due to the pouring rain, I immediately found myself rushing back out, the compressed air inside so strong, so unpleasant that I couldn’t tolerate it in the first few seconds.
If the last two buildings showed rooms to keep one or two people, this time, the building showcased rooms where they would keep groups of people. There were small stalls where people would be locked up. Each room would be divided by bricks into tiny stalls, illuminated only by small, enclosed windows.
It was suffocating.
According to stories, from time to time, they would be showered with water from a hose so they could “take a bath.” Only few people got to experience that.
The last room was visually horrifying.
With paintings of how they killed people, the tools that they used, the torture equipment, how they cut people’s hands, how they pulled out skin, how they drowned them.
There was also a collection of skulls in cupboards, like they were just pieces of kitchenware or something. In separate cases, there were skulls which had specific death reasons - blunt trauma, hits on their cheeks, etc.
But when I turned around, it was there, right in the middle of the room. I felt hot tears brimming in my eyes and half of me felt stupid for being so attached to what happened.
There, in the middle of the room was a painting. Instead of explaining it, here’s a picture:
Was it horrifying? Hell yes. Sad? Definitely.
I ran out of the museum, under the half-opened umbrella, under the harsh rains and into the slowly rising flood.
Perfect for hiding the tears that I may have let escape in mourning for those babies.