Toul Sleng: The Nightmare That Was Khmer Rouge

When genocide is discussed, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are always on top of the list. I am a person who loves history and every time I travel I make it a point to visit historical sites. Toul Sleng has been on my list for a long time and I am fortunate to be able to visit a historical place, as well as learn about a Cambodia’s grim past.




The Khmer Rouge reached the city of Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. Under their leader Pol Pot, they modeled the new regime to Mao’s China during the Great Leap Forward. The Khmer Rouge immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to work on rural areas. April 17, 1975 is forever known as Day 1 of Year 0.


The Khmer Rouge wanted the citizens to rebuild the country’s agriculture and in the process they destroyed modern factories, libraries, temples and anything that is considered Western. They wanted to return the country to the Stone Age, basically. a lot of Cambodians who lived abroad were sent letters, urging them to return to their country and help rebuild the nation. When they came back to Cambodia, they were often killed and family members were left wondering about their fate. 


The estimates of people killed during the Khmer Rouge run from one to three million. The exact numbers will never be established but due to the large numbers of deaths, it is referred to as the Cambodian Holocaust. The most appalling thing about this genocide is that nobody ever went to trial for it, much less prosecuted for the atrocities committed on humanity.


The Halls of Toul Sleng


During my second trip to Phnom Penh, I made it a point to go to Toul Sleng Museum. Toul Sleng Museum was a former high school which was used as a notorious prison during the Khmer Rouge Era and it was referred to as Security Prison 21 or S21 for short. It was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge.


You will find the $6 charge for an audio tour of the museum well worth it. If you have the money, you can also get a guide who can explain the history of Toul Sleng in your own language for $10.


Walking through the halls of Toul Sleng has the tendency to make you introspective and wonder how could anyone think that killing people is the path to take in order to restore a country. The pictures I took speak volumes of the raw emotions, pain, and hopelessness the prisoners must have felt when they were imprisoned in Toul Sleng. Most of those who were brought to Toul Sleng were never able to leave the place and their families were left wondering what happened to them. May their souls rest in peace and find eternal respite. 

The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh has been listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. This plaque will greet visitors at the entrance


Rooms were crudely divided into small cells to hold prisoners. A small such as this was shared by two prisoners


Toul sleng ankle lock
These ankle locks were used to prevent prisoners from moving


A picture of a mother and a child who were brought to Toul Sleng. The infant would have been probably taken away from her and killed after the picture was taken.


Pictures of women taken and imprisoned in Toul Sleng. Some of these women were not only tortured but also raped during interrogation.


The rules and regulations in Toul Sleng


Porridge was prepared in a communal bowl such as this one. Prisoners were made to labor for more than 10 hours a day and were only given two meals. City people or the new people, got lesser rations compared to farmers or old people. 


Toul Sleng
Prayer notes left by visitors


A stupa sits in the middle of an open area in Toul Sleng, commemorating the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime


The names of the prisoners who died in Toul Sleng are inscribed in plaques such as this, which surround the stupa.

2 thoughts on “Toul Sleng: The Nightmare That Was Khmer Rouge

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  1. absolutely love your post. am like you, I love history and will always visit historic places when am going somewhere. Cambodia is high on my list for this reason. Cambodia’s story was a few paragraphs in the history books of my generation in France. It is our duty to never forget. Shoah, Pol Pot, Mao, Rwanda or ex-yougoslavia are just few of these things I make sure my kids know about – they are still small, but I introduce them slowly to our 20th century history – sight too many horrible things to tell them. So thanks for your post and keeping the memory of these people and their sufferings alive a little longer.


    1. Glad that you feel the same way Julz. I believe that it it is our duty to keep the legacy of these things alive so that they are never repeated.


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