The main reason to venture out towards the southern districts of the city is to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, an inevitably harrowing and heart-rending experience, but one which puts into context the suffering of the Cambodian people and country. More history from 1975 crops up 1500m east, at the site of the former US Embassy (now belonging to the Ministry of Fisheries and bearing no outward clues to its past), on the northeast corner of the intersection of Norodom and Mao Tse Toung boulevards. Under threat from advancing Khmer Rouge troops, US marines airlifted 276 Americans, other foreigners and Cambodians to safety – the last to leave, with the “Stars and Stripes” clutched under his arm, was the ambassador, John Gunter Dean. The evacuation was completed just five days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, and the Khmer Rouge subsequently used the premises as a place of execution, slaughtering senior officers of Lon Nol’s army in the grounds.Read More
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Originally the Toul Svay High School, from 1975 to 1979 the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, through whose gates more than thirteen thousand people (up to twenty thousand according to some estimates) passed to their deaths. S-21 was an interrogation centre designed for the educated and elite: here doctors, teachers, military personnel and government officials all passed through Khmer Rouge hands. The regime was indiscriminate in its choice of victims; even babies and children were among those detained, and subsequently slaughtered, to eliminate the possibility of them one day seeking to avenge their parents’ deaths.
Through the gates, still surrounded by high walls and ringed by barbed wire, an eerie silence descends on the complex of three main buildings juxtaposing harshly against the palm and frangipani trees in the former high school playground.
Up to 1500 prisoners were housed here at any one time, either confined in tiny cells or chained to the floor or each other in the former classrooms. The most southern block A (to the left of the ticket booth) comprises three floors of cells that still contain iron bedsteads and the shackles used to chain the prisoners to the beds. Chilling photos in each room depict the unrecognizable corpse of the bed’s final inhabitant.
Walking across the garden past school gym apparatus used by the Khmer Rouge as a grotesque torture device, you come to Block B. On the ground floor there is a display of thousands of black-and-white photographs of the victims, their eyes expressing a variety of emotions, from fear through defiance to emptiness. Each one of them holds a number; the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in documenting their prisoners and sometimes photographed victims following torture, also on display.
The balconies on the upper floors are still enclosed with the wire mesh that prevented the prisoners jumping to a premature death. The partition cells on these floors, of wood or brick, are so small that there is hardly room for someone to lie down. When the Vietnamese army entered the prison in January 1979, they found just seven prisoners alive; the corpses of some prisoners who had died shortly before were discovered in the cells and buried in graves in the courtyard. Although the majority murdered here were Cambodian, foreigners, both Western and Asian, were also interrogated and tortured.
Things get no easier emotionally as you progress into Block C where methods of torture are outlined, some of which are unflinchingly depicted in paintings by the artist Van Nath, one of the survivors. Prominent is a water chamber where prisoners were systematically drowned until they confessed.
Psar Toul Tom Poung
Psar Toul Tom Poung
This is also known as the Russian Market, because all its goods used to come from Russia, one of the few countries to provide aid to Cambodia during the Vietnam occupation. The collapse of the USSR put paid to cheap imports, but ramshackle, stuffy and tremendous, this market retains its reputation as the place to buy textiles, antiques and silver – not to mention motorbike parts. It is a haven bursting with stalls selling bootleg DVDs, fake designer bags, silver jewellery, Chinese-style furniture, photocopied books, handicrafts and piles of multicoloured silks that can be bought for a few dollars and taken to a tailor to be transformed into dresses and jackets. You’ll find these stalls at the south end of the market; book sellers along the west, while the north is taken over with hardware stalls, a small food quarter and mechanics workshops, where men fix up motorbikes in tiny cubicles, revving the engines and filling the stalls around them with smoke.
The market is old and crumbling, but a government plan to rebuild it has been shelved for the time being. It is charming in its dilapidation, though a very unsafe place to work with a high fire risk and narrow exit routes.