A return to Tuol Sleng

Photos to follow

For my last full day in Phnom Penh, I decided to revisit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to remind myself of one of the key elements of my original fascination with Cambodia, which was prompted by the documentaries of John Pilger as he described the shocking atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge on their own people. Tuol Sleng - recently immortalised in Rithy Panh's moving portrayal called S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine - was one of the most extraordinary places I'd ever visited, when I first came to Cambodia in 1994. I've been back to Tuol Sleng a few times since and each time the museum has lost some of its in your face, shock value, becoming a little more sanitized on each occasion, understandably as it caters for more tourists each year.

I left the Dara at 9am after breakfast. My moto-driver, Vannak, was a driver I'd used before on a previous visit, his English is good and he's keen. I wanted to do a bookshop-run, so we started at the upmarket Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard before having a look at the used book shops, London Book Centre and D's Books along 240 Street. I picked up a couple of good bargains and we returned to Monument Books to buy a couple of brand new publications, including Philip Short's Pol Pot and Helen Jessup's Art & Architecture of Cambodia, to add to my ever-growing collection. Next stop was Tuol Sleng on the corner of Streets 113 and 350, the former High School which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation facility, processing over 17,000 people in the few years that it existed in that guise. Its one of the tourist hotspots in Phnom Penh so can get very busy, as evidenced by the two coaches outside the front gate when we arrived. Vannak parked his moto in the shade near the Boddhi Tree guesthouse and remained with some motodop colleagues whilst I entered the compound, paying the $2 entrance fee.

As I arrived, most of the crowds departed, leaving just a scattering of visitors in the museum. The sign welcoming arrivals was a new one and is now accompanied by photographs of Pol Pot and the head of S-21, Comrade Duch, still in prison awaiting trial. Similarly, the graves of the last fourteen people to die, found when the site was liberated by Vietnamese troops, have been tidied up and a sign erected. In fact, information signs have been added in the last year, though the Block A cells containing bedsteads and fading photos of the last occupants, remain untouched. The photos on the the ground floor of Block B have been arranged in rows within glass display cases and categorized with pictures of children or women or foreigners or deceased victims together in the same display unit. Individual wooden cells occupy the ground floor of C Block, with large empty rooms in the floors above. Block D has been given a lick of paint and the ground floor contains the various instruments of torture, accompanied by survivor Vann Nath's famous paintings of the instruments being put to use. The final exhibits are two large glass cases full of human skulls, that used to be attached to the wall in the shape of a map of Cambodia, but was taken down a few years ago. On the first floor, a photographic exhibition shows former S-21 warders as they are today, free and living normal lives whilst on the next floor up, a large room has been converted into a small cinema, where Rithy Panh's film of an S-21 inmate, Bophana, is shown twice each day. I watched the film for a second time in the airless room with a handful of other tourists. Tuol Sleng is a grizzly reminder, though less raw than in 1994, to the fate that happened to so many Cambodians in the '70s and as such, remains an important tourist hotspot in Phnom Penh. Read a detailed account of my March 1998 visit here. As I left S-21, Vannak appeared as did Tom, my moto-driver from my recent Bassac river trip, to say hello. I was back at the Dara at twelve noon and out to the Rising Sun half an hour later to meet up with Alex Diment, an email pal who is now working on a dolphin conservation project in Kratie and was in town for a couple of days. Alex told me that Kratie is now a very popular destination with tourists and its the dolphins that attract a lot of them. Around 80 dolphins live in Cambodian waters, the largest group of about sixteen live at the main viewing point, Kampi, north of Kratie.

After lunch, I walked back to the Dara along Sisowath Quay and took a nap. At 6pm I returned to the Rising Sun for my evening meal and a long chat with Samnang, the waitress with a permanent smile. Samnang is originally from Prey Veng and now lives in Phnom Penh with her sister and mother. Her smile and personality, alongwith the great food, make the pub a favoured haunt of mine in the capital. I was back at the hotel by 9.30pm for a drink with the owners when a French guest arrived in a panic, he'd had his wallet stolen including his passport by a passing motorcyclist and was due to return home the next day. For the next hour and the following morning, Reangsey helped the guest sort out the formalities with the police and authorities. My last morning began at 6am and after breakfast, I left for the airport at 8am, courtesy of a car from the hotel accompanied by a couple that had got married when I was last in Phnom Penh in December 2003. The departure tax had increased to $25 and my flight to Singapore left on time, 1 hour 45 minutes later we landed at Changi airport and its free internet access kept me busy until my 13 hour flight back home to England. Trip number 11 completed successfully, thanks to a long list of Cambodian friends who made my visit such a pleasurable experience.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

January 2005 marked my eleventh trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.

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