What if the walls at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum could speak?

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge Regime took over Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) and implemented a new way of life for the people of Cambodia. This new way of life meant death for more than three million Cambodians. The new regime wanted a peasant dominated society untainted by anything that had come before. This meant the killing of any intellectual who held a profesional job, spoke a foreign language, was not 100% Cambodian, worked for the former government/military or even wore glasses. If you weren’t killed you were subject to working 15 to 20 hour days as slaves in the countryside. With working conditions not fit for anyone the people were only given 2 meals a day (if that) of watered down rice and forced to live like savages in disease filled camps. If you managed to survive the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge Regime rule you were one of the lucky ones.

During the rule of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia they transformed many locations into Killing Fields where people were killed by the hundreds (for no reason at all), but one of the most notorious locations was the Tuol Sleng Primary and High School in Phnom Penh. This location was used for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing of high profile detainees. Everything that happened in these buildings was documented in detail. When the Regime fell photographs, torture tools, forced confessions, shackles and 14 corpses were collected and are now at display there. The methods that were used to gather information from people was extreme and hurts me just thinking about it. I do not want to write it all out, but if you want to know more please read more about it here. It is estimated that over 20,000 people were imprisoned/killed here and lived a life of misery and torture during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia.

Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. I have tears right now just remembering what I saw and what I learned from this visit. When you walk past the metal gate surrounded by barb-wire it’s like your body knows you are about to witness something so sad and your heart sinks a bit as you see the grey walls of the buildings that were once schools and so full of life. You walk into the first room and ironically it’s bright yellow with white and yellow checkered floor. Yellow makes me smile because I know it’s my mothers favorite color and that was the 1st thing I thought when I saw it, but then my eyes witnessed a metal bed just there in the center with items used to torture it’s victims and all I could think was… why???


As I made my way around all the rooms started blending in with each other because they were all the same. Some had metal beds in them others didn’t. In each room though I spent some time just looking around trying to find clues of what really happened in them. In one of the empty rooms I was able to find blood stained foot prints left on the floor, my heart sank and tears filled my eyes… I stood in the corner and watched people just walk in and out; they didn’t even notice the foot prints left on the floor. A million things crossed my mind as I wondered who did these belong too, why did they have to go through this?


One of the rooms had an actual desk and chair behind the bed and for some reason it’s the room that is most engraved in my mind. All the rooms bothered me, but this one the most. I stared at the desk for a long time and the only thing I could think of was that some sick basterd sat there watching another human being die. Even today as I look at this photo my mind can’t grasp how any human can sit there and watch another lay there tortured dying.


Many times as I walked out of a room I just needed to lean over the edge of the corridor to get some air and let my thoughts flow unconfined by the yellow walls that confined the thoughts of the many victims. I stood there just gazing out with a daze in a state of  confusion and trying to grasp everything I was seeing. Even though the rooms were empty and bare they still told me more than I could ever imagine. In each room was a story of thousands of victims.


As I neared the end of the museum I lost all control of my emotions when I walked into a room filled with all the photos taken of the detainees. It was row after row of head shots…. now a face was placed to all the victims I had learned about. Now a face was placed for everyone I had only imagined before. I walked row after row examining all the faces. Some were children, others were adults, men and women alike photo after photo. Some had a face of desperation others showed no emotion… I wondered what my head shot would look like if I knew I was heading to the end of my life? I was in tears as I walked around with my hand over my mouth… I just couldn’t believe it. After a while walking around I rushed through the rest of the museum because I couldn’t handle it anymore.


I sat outside on a bench for a while trying to processes everything I had just seen and learned about, but couldn’t. My mind kept thinking “what if the walls at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum could speak?”. I know so many details were documented at this prison, but the one thing no one could have documented were the thoughts of the prisoners or what happened in these rooms when no one was watching. If the walls of the Museum could speak what would they tell us? I know it’s a quote we often say when we want to know more about something “oh if the walls could talk” and I know I’ve thought it on many occasions, but  for some reason it’s these walls I’d love to hear from most of all. The walls of these rooms used as prison cells must have heard so many gut wrenching tears, pleas, prayers and who knows what else from thousands of innocent people. What’s sad is this isn’t even the worst of what the Khmer Rouge Regime did. I also visited the Killing Fields Museum and will be sharing photos from that next week.

As I sit here writing this I still want to know many things. I still want to know why? I still want to know how the world let this happened? I still want to know why I feel this atrocity is only discussed among backpackers? I still want to know how human beings can even do this to one another? I can go on and on with my questions, but honestly I just look at these photos in confusion and feel like these are some of the most powerful photos I have taken. When I see them my heart breaks, because my mind can’t grasp that thousands of people died in each of these rooms and none of them were able to have a decent final good bye.

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  1. It’s hard to understand why anyone could do these things to other people, but it’s happened countless times throughout history. This was only 1 of the major genocides just in the 20th century, even; think about the holocaust or Rwanda, for instance.

    The only thing people can do is educate others on it, so they will learn. Because those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.
    Kaylin recently posted..Day 28: My American Travel Bucket List

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Oh I know Kaylin, as I was writing this I thought about all the genocides I have learned about and wondered about the many I have no clue about because they are not taught to us. I could have mentioned some of the ones I knew about, but then the post would have been longer and I didn’t want to stray from this one in particular. I’m glad I am able to share this with people, because like you said we must educate ourselves to make sure history does not repeat itself.

  2. Rubi Hurtado says:

    Wow. This is so sad. I don’t understand how a human can be so cruel to another human. This is not too long ago. I wonder if some prisoners survived to tell the story.

    Thanks for the informational blog, Jaime. It was very interesting to read, and very sad.


    • Jaime Davila says:

      Hi Rubi, yes this is so sad. Visiting this and the Killing Fields was one of the saddest days of my trip. This seriously happened yesterday in terms of history. It’s crazy to think no one did anything to prevent this from happening. I did forget to mention that “there were only seven known survivors and as of September 2011, only three of them are thought to be still alive”. I’m glad I was able to share with you something you didn’t know about. I’m going to be recommending two books about this on my next post about the killing fields. I love ya Rubi & see ya soon.

  3. When I was there a little over a year ago, I remember that being the roughest day of my entire trip. I went here and to the Killing Fields in one day, and it was crushing. Like you said, it was so hard to walk through room after room in that school and think about what happened there and what those people must have been thinking, what they went through. And why is this something I never heard about until I got into the travel blogging world and started planning my trip to Cambodia? Certainly people who were adults in the late 70s and early 80s must have heard more about it when it all came out in the public. I’d say maybe you and I are just a bit too young and missed it, but then we still learn about the horrors of WII in history class. Maybe because that was a huge war the US was involved with and it was a different situation, but still seems strange.

    Really moving post Jaime. You had me crying with this one.
    Ali recently posted..Is “What If” Stopping You From Traveling?

    • Jaime Davila says:

      I have to agree with you Ali, it was one of my roughest days too of my two years on the road. It takes a toll on your soul as you see these sights and learn more about this dark history. I also didn’t learn about this until I got into Travel Blogging and am upset I didn’t learn about it earlier. I know the US didn’t have much to do with this… well if we don’t includ everything it did in Cambodia leading to this we can say it didn’t, but still this is such a huge genocide that should be shared with us so we help prevent something like this happening again. Also yes we were not even born during that time so that too may be another reason. I am just happy I have a platform to share this with my readers. Glad you enjoyed the post & I’m sorry I made you cry.

  4. I’m not sure I could handle visiting this place, but I would try my best, because it’s so important when traveling to visit historical places like this. Makes you a much better traveler and person!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..A Photographic Look At My Thanksgiving In 2012 + Giveaway

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Yes Andi, it’s hard to visit, but it’s our job to make sure we see some of the things that will make us feel very uncomfortable and even cry. It helps you learn more about the world we live in & sometimes wonder how certain things could have ever happened.

  5. hate to admit it but this place made me cry… at first i could not understand why some people are crying inside the museum then when i started reading the stuff on the wall, i cried too… immediately went outside… it’s so sad and depressing… but a great wake up call for everyone to not let this happen again to any country in the world…

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Oh Flip you aren’t alone… I cried too. It was so damn hard. Have you read any of the books I recommended? Oh you should… you will cry too while reading them and learn a bit more about this horrible event. I’m glad they share it with us and hope it never happens again, but sadly feel like it’s happening today in some places of our world.

  6. Why can something like this happen? Maybe because of the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility. The diffusion of responsibility for alleged war crimes during World War II was famously used as a legal defense by many of the Nazis being tried at Nuremberg.
    Izy Berry – The Wrong Way Home recently posted..Volunteering in Cambodia

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Izy thanks for sharing that with me never heard of this, but it all makes sense and well we are seeing this happen as the the world stands by & watches thousands die in Syria. Ahhh sometimes I marvel at the world with all it’s wonder but then sometimes I marvel at how horrible it is.

  7. I think the only way that people can be so cruel to others is if they envision their victims as being less than human. I personally don’t know how it’s possible to envision another human being as being less than human when we all bleed and breathe the same air, but I imagine that’s the only way that anyone could exert this kind of treatment on others. It’s sick and it’s sad, and unfortunately, things like this are still happening today. All I know is that there’s a special place in hell for the sick people responsible for this!

    • Jaime Davila says:

      So true Dana and that is sad… I too don’t know how it’s possible to envision another human being as being less human than you or I. This actually reminded me of not only this but the many corporations or governments inflecting fear or other tactics to make sure they continue to profit off us. Ugh nevermind not sure if that made sense and well I know tha tis a whole other subject.

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