Tuol Sleng

By John Reality, Cambodia, June 2011

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For serious-minded visitors to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a trip to The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a command performance. Situated in a former high school, the site was used as a notorious prison by the murderous Khmer Rouge from its rise to power until its demise in 1979. The high school was originally named in honor of a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, but the name it now bears translates as "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill". It's an apt moniker. The scenes of misery and agony that took place on an industrial scale within its walls stand apart in the annals of human cruelty.

The exhibits on display at Tuol Sleng are frank in their depiction of the torture, depredation and extermination that was inflicted uniformly as a matter of course on as many as 20,000 Cambodians, and to a much lessor extent, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotians, Indians, Pakistanis, Britons, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians, who were also imprisoned and killed. The walls are covered in photographs identifying the many victims of the Khmer Rouge, as well as cases filled with human skulls, and implements and devices employed for the purposes of coercing confessions and accusations, typically directed at victims' family, friends and close associates, who were then arrested in turn.

Tuol Sleng is hardly a mecca for pleasure seekers and backpackers bent on enjoying the exotic and sensuous offerings that the country has long been famous for, but it is definitely an eye-opening experience and it goes without saying that attention deserves to be paid by anyone genuinely interested in Cambodian history and culture. The museum is open to the public 8 a.m-11:30 a.m., and 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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