One would think Chao Ponhea Yat High School is just another regular school. On entering the gates, it looks like any high school, with five buildings that face the well-maintained lawns.
Note: viewer discretion is advised as some of you may find the contents and images distressing.
It is now called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. However, between 1976 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, who had overrun Phnom Penh had named it S-21, or Security Prison 21. They immediately set about converting it into a prison that would hold an estimated 20,000 inmates, including men, women, children and infants. The adults and children were photographed and then interrogated and tortured until they ‘confessed’. Though that number is disputable, it is worthwhile to say that there are only twelve accounted former prisoners who survived. As for the rest, once their interrogators had done with them, they were sent to Choeung Ek, the most famous of the killing fields, to be finally executed.
Walking through the classrooms is an extremely painful and depressive experience. Walls had been broken between classrooms to facilitate movement of prisoners and guards. Barbed wire and iron grills replaced windows throughout the building. Beds and shackles are left as they were when Vietnamese troops came to liberate this city. These classrooms served as interrogation rooms, with just a desk and chair that faced a steel bed frame that had shackles at either end. Photographs mounted on the walls show prisoners shackled to beds or on the flow, killed and their bodies waiting to be taken away. It is not for the fainthearted, and just makes you wonder how one human being can be so cruel to another.
Walk over to another building, and you see haunting portraits of thousands of the inmates who passed through this school and were interrogated until they were finally forced to confess. Some in absolute fear, while others have a resigned look on their face.
Today, this museum serves as a memorial for the thousands of victims who passed through its door, never to see freedom again. It is a sad chapter in Cambodia’s history. While the Khmer Rouge regime lasted just four short years, its legacy continues to haunt a generation of Cambodians.
The museum is open from 8:00am to 5:00pm every day. Entry fee is US$ 5 for foreign nationals and is free for Cambodians. For an additional US$ 1, you can hire an audio guide. Also, as in most places in Asia, do remember to dress appropriately.