Whether you live in or visit Cambodia, the shadow of the Khmer Rouge is never too far away. The vast excesses of the regime dominated the latter half of the 20th century, and it was only within the last 15 years that trails began to take place for the leadership of Angkar. Everyone you meet in Cambodia has a story about the Killing Fields era, and none of them are pleasant.
Now whilst the main tourist drag to the country is Angkor Wat, dark tourism related to the Khmer Rouge is also a massive pull. This can range from visiting the Killing Fields to exploring the last hideout of the regime in Anlong Veng. Yet perhaps nothing quite portrays the horrors of the regime than S-21.
What was S-21?
Located in central Phnom Penh and not far from the Russian Market district. Nowadays, it is part of a relatively affluent part of town, surrounded by expensive coffee shops and antique stores. On arrival, you do not even realize you are at such an infamous location.
In fact that kind of summarised Phnom Penh to a tee. It’s such a global place you can get Ukrainian food. It makes it truly hard to fathom that this city was evacuated in its entirety.
What Is It Like to Visit S-21?
S-21 is, as one would expect from such a dark tourism site, quite a surreal experience. On entry, you can immediately see that it used to be a school. It still looks like a school, and there are even blackboards in some of the classrooms.
It is split into different blocks from A-D, as well as including various graves and monuments to those who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge here.
S-21 Is Quite Understated
There are various rooms that do include quite a lot of information, but many just have a bed and a victim’s photograph. When the Vietnamese liberated S-21 on January 10th, 1979, they were able to take photos of what remained of the prison. All of the pictures being particularly harrowing.
To read about the war between Democratic Kampuchea and Vietnam, click here.
Aside from that, there is a lot less information than you would expect from such a place, although it is possible to take an audio tour, which gives more background.
Meeting a Survivor
In around the middle of the museum, I saw a man selling a book. I immediately recognized him from the documentary S-21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which can be seen on YouTube.
He was happy enough to talk to us, answer questions and sign one of his books. Whether to buy it or not never crossed my mind. Again chatting to this smiling old chap as he glanced every now and again at his smartphone, he could have been any elderly Khmer guy. He wasn’t, though, and he was one of only seven survivors of this terrible place.
It also really drives the pint home that any person you see who is 45+ would have memories of one of the worst genocides ever. The history is very recent and still affects the country massively today.
As stated in some ways, it was a lot more understated than I had expected, but I do not think that was necessarily a bad thing, as it kept things surreal. And if you want to understand why Cambodia is the place it is today, then visiting S-21 is essential.