This website reflects my own personal views and not that of the U.S. Government nor, more specifically, the Peace Corps.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Written: January 5th, 2011

I visited the infamous S-21 prison, “Toul Sleang,” the main torture/”reeducation” prison during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. It was ironically preceded by the theft of a purse from my friend on the way there. Malice, discontent, and corruption still roam the streets of Phnom Penh, but it is nothing compared to that of the era of the Khmer Rouge. Millions were put to forced labor and killed, and thousands upon thousands were imprisoned and tortured all in the name of an ideal. Toul Sleang used to be an academic school. The Khmer Rouge sought out high ranking officials, doctors, and professors/intellectuals. Ironic isn’t it? Needless to say, this place continues to harbor all of the horrors that existed more than 30 years ago and is now home of the National Genocide Museum.
This Cambodian museum is unlike any American or European museum. There are no ropes or tour guides. Nothing has been furnished or repainted. Nothing has changed. This, I find, is what makes its exploration all the more frightening. You walk along and into what used to be classrooms for grade nine through twelve students, most likely. You find them converted and transformed into empty cells, confining, claustrophobic with hints of blood stained floors. Tick marks hide under the years of dust. Were they put there by tourists or were they the left by those prisoners counting they days, months that would have gone by? As I stand in the heart of one of the imprisonment cells, I find myself forced to see it as it may have been some 30 years ago; a poor young man (or woman) of 27 (perhaps 72) shackled to a lone iron bed with nothing but crumbs of stale bread and a look of anguish and despair on his face. “Is this my last day? Are they coming for me next? Where is my family? Just let it end, now. I’ve done nothing but try and keep food on the table for my family,” he (she) seems to say. He/she’s lost hope, and the only thing he/she has to look to, if they are even able to see anymore, is the ceiling. Room after room, cell after cell, picture after picture after picture of imprisoned, tortured, and murdered victims is what I see. There are literally thousands of 4x5 images of them. It’s enough that you can feel their pain through their expressions of lost hope, but some of them look like students I see ride to school. Some of them look like people I work with, and others, those I live with.
After two hours of visiting every room, looking at every image and reading every word, it’s time for me and my friend to leave and reflect upon what we’ve just experienced. We stare at each other for a long moment and say nothing. There isn’t anything to talk about.
I was encountered by a volunteer/tourist who was here in Cambodia for 3 weeks. When she learnt I had not been to the “Killing Fields” or “S-21,” she was astounded and could not believe that in five months I had not been to either. I am glad that I waited. Had I not known this culture, the language, created the relationships that I now have with many people in this country, what would my experience be then? If I had not learned the stories of this awful time in the history of the human race from the mouths of those who had experienced it, could I possibly begin to grasp what I was looking at? Can I really even do that now?
Maybe the next time I get upset over my fried noodles with beef costing 5000 CR instead of 4500 CR, I will have a little more to reflect on.

Talk to you soon,


  1. Powerful. VERY powerful. Nothing like a reflection of the past to put the present into perspective. Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Wow. You really do have an amazing capacity to put thought into words. Thank you for sharing :)