What is S-21?
Phnom Penh is full of things to do, but to understand the recent history of the country visiting S-21 is probably the thing to do.
S-21 was formerly the main prison of the Khmer Rouge during the time of Democratic Kampuchea. I’ll go ahead and assume if you’ve got the far you understand at least a little about Khmer History.
If you do need a history refresher check out the following site.
As for S-21 it processed around 13,000 people. Of these 13000 only 7 were known to have survived the place. Those killed were tortured into making fantasized false confessions about being spies. Everyone from children to grandparents were killed at S-21, including even members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
To read about Pol Pot click here
Visiting S-21 is relatively easy as it is located in the center of Phnom Penh, not far from the Russian Market area. Getting a tuk-tuk from the riverside will cost under $2.
Traveling anywhere in Cambodia we suggest using Tada, or Grab, which you can read about here
What do you see at S-21?
The prison is housed in a former high school, something that is very evident by the rooms and the layout of the place. It is also amazing how little schools have seemingly changed since this time in the capital, with many of the school based vaccine-centres having an alarming similarity.
Various photos and exhibitions are on display. This includes many of the victims, as well as a room simply full of skulls.
In many ways there was a lot less than I expected to see there, but the fact it was so understated took nothing away from how moving an experience it was.
Meeting a survivor
Towards the end we saw an elderly gentleman selling books. It turned out that his name was Chum Mey, one of the 7 people known to have survived S-21. In many ways this made things even more surreal. He came across as just a nice old man as he sat playing on his smart phone. But this in itself reinforced that anyone you see of a certain age in Cambodia has a story. And the story is not usually a happy one.
You can see him in S-21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine on YouTube
You can visit S-21 as part of a Dark Tourism Tour with YPT
Amazingly it is now his “job” to stay at S-21 to sell his book (which of course I brought). You don’t have to buy the book, but when visiting S-21 I’d recommend it, if only to be able to help support someone that has been through so much, yet still manages to smile at the very place where he suffered so much.
Overall on visiting S-21
I have to say that visiting S-21 is one of the best things I have done in Cambodia. Of course it is dark, very dark and in a sense emotionally draining, but that is also what gives it its immense power. Essentially you are in a school and it very much looks like other Khmer schools that you see in the country. It is also weirdly located in a “cool” area. There are tons of bars and restaurants here. S-21 just acts as a very weird reminder of just how recent everything bad that occurred here was. Keep in mind that literally just next door in Thailand it was already a party place.
So, although it has taken me numerous trips and a long time in Cambodia, I am extremely pleased to have finally seen the place. Dark Tourism can get a bad rap, but you can only truly understand a country by understanding its darkest elements.
If you want to understand modern contemporary Cambodia, come to S-21 and learn about their dark past.