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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Corner of Sts. 113 and 350
Phnom Penh , Cambodia
855 23 216-045

It is located in a posh neighborhood, in what had once been a good high school. Outside the prison, still fortified with barbed wire fences, are several guesthouses and cafés with that Lonely Planet vibe: Eric Clapton songs, fresh fruit juices, silks in time-honored designs. The architecture of Tuol Sleng is sober but not unpleasant, an example of the Modernist optimism of the 1960’s: four three-story white concrete buildings with balconies, set around a spacious garden with palm trees, plants, and an exercise bar. The old schoolrooms are bare, with brown-and-white checkered floors. Some of the rooms on the third floor were divided into tiny brick cells, not high enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down in. Inside the bare schoolrooms are steel bed frames, rusted around the edges, and enough bolts for shackling several people at a time by their feet. Various instruments of torture are exhibited in these cells: pliers, whips, manacles, hammers, water tanks. On the walls are photographs of corpses, some barely recognizable as human. There are also paintings by the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, showing scenes of torture and killings. These were painted from memory. After being tortured to the brink of death, he was put to work on portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. His artistic skills were the only reason he survived. Despite all the photos and grisly exhibits, the mind is unable to conceive what it must have been like to have been a prisoner in Tuol Sleng, being forced to make detailed confessions that corresponded with the paranoid visions of the jailers before being killed. The most haunting images are not the torture pictures, but those of the victims’ faces, like passport photographs from hell. Most of the people put before the camera, and subsequently killed, had themselves been in the Khmer Rouge and fallen victim to one of the periodic purges. Many were young, a few of them children, like the vicious guards who were barely 15. Most look numb with terror. Some Khmer Rouge peasant cadres, who had been suddenly accused of spying for the CIA, just look bewildered. And others smile, perhaps to ingratiate themselves, to buy time, or perhaps as a vestigial reflex, smiling for the camera.

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