The Tuol Sleng / S-21 Prison is an old high school building turned prison right in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia that now serves as a museum to remember the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. In this prison, more than 20,000 people were imprisoned, and only seven prisoners survived the four years of horror at the prison.
We went to Tuol Sleng after finishing our visit to the National Museum of Cambodia. When we arrived at there, my first impression of the place was that it’s somewhat different than what I had thought in my mind. While I knew that Tuol Sleng was located in Phnom Penh, I didn’t realize that the complex was right in the middle of a dense residential area. You could see people’s homes right across the street and surrounding the complex.
The building itself looked old and run down, but eerily it looked somewhat familiar to me. The building was a high school before the Khmer Rouge regime converted it into an interrogation center and prison. As such, the three-story high school buildings with their classrooms looked very similar to my junior high and high school buildings back in Indonesia. I think my school buildings were built around the same era as when the Tuol Sleng buildings were built, so it makes sense that they look kind of similar.
One part that gave a visitor a clue that this was not just an ordinary building was the fence around the complex. The fence was covered with corrugated metal sheets and barbed wires — looking more like prison than high school.
I took the photo below from the third floor of one of Tuol Sleng’s buildings. You can see the courtyard, and the surrounding dense residential neighborhood. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a neighborhood close to a place where thousands of people were tortured and killed.