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Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

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York, United Kingdom
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Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

On a recent visit to Phnom Penh we visited S21 and the Killing Fields as many visitors to Cambodia have done. We found the experience profoundly harrowing, shocking and depressing. So much so that we question our motives for going there.

Was it because most who have visited before say you have to go to see what went on? But we in the West already know that, don't we? There's a wealth of media material out there telling us all that went on with as much detail to be read as you require. Even now the current trial of Duch, who was S21's Director, is receiving widespread coverage in the West. So why is it considered necessary to see these vile places at first hand?

So why did we go?

One of the memories amongst many was a photograph of citizens of Phnom Penh joyously welcoming their Khmer Rouge "liberators" in 1975 little knowing the living hell they would soon have to endure only days later.

It is my strong contention, therefore, that it is the Cambodians themselves who would gain most by a visit to these places, to strengthen their desire never again to allow someone like Pol Pot and his ilk to gain the power they did.

But as tourist destinations........????

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Now I know this is strong stuff on what is normally a holiday forum. But the places I mention are on most tourist itineraries for a visit to Cambodia and I hope TA will allow a serious debate on the subject.

Dublin, Ireland
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1. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Hi Broadacres,

just clicked on to the Cambodian forum looking for information on how best to get from phonm Penn to siem rep overland and came across your post. It is my intention also to visit this site. it has always been my deep desire to do so,and to stand in silence, and offer a prayer in my heart in memory of the innocents that were brutalised and murdered under the regime of Pol Pot.

Places like ground zero, auschhwitz, treblinka, flanders, normandy, et al, are indeed all tourists destinations, but I think with a difference. I believe firmly that people who visit such places do so with a desire in their own hearts that such evil can never again take place.Yes it is a tourist destination, but more importantly it is also a place of pilgrimage

Brisbane
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2. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Good post Paul. We visited S21 and the Killing Fields and it helps to put things in perspective.

New Zealand
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3. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

S21 is a living reminder of what went on.And I say 'living' because in my experience , that place is 'alive' with the spirits of those that suffered and died there.

I don't know about others, but I found a very strong presence of spirits there.

And they have a message...they want the place retained as a reminder that it should never happen again.

I've written about an experience there in another thread.Anyone who visits should treat that place as sacred ground.

Edinburgh
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4. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

I take your point, these sort of 'sights' aren't your typical tourist highlights, but for me, I felt they need to be visited and understood and put into context with what had been read. It's so easy to learn about what has happened in books etc, but when you visit the place it happened, when you see the remnants of such sadness and devastation, it really hits home that it was real and it was recent. You don't ever really get that strength of emotion from reading about it. And yes, it's depressing and harrowing.

But then each to their own. Maybe they shouldn't really be categorised as 'tourist destinations', it's not quite the right term for it. But as long as anyone who goes shows respect and dignity and takes something meaningful from it, then I think it's worth going.

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5. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

'But as long as anyone who goes shows respect and dignity and takes something meaningful from it, then I think it's worth going.'

Great sentence that.

That is what the 'spirits' want...that it never happens again.Otherwise there is no meaning whatsoever in their suffering.

York, United Kingdom
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6. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Sadly, there was no meaning to what went on at these places. The only good to come out of this barbaric episode in Cambodian history was when the Vietnamese threw out Pol Pot and his murderous regime in 1979, otherwise he would have continued with his insanity.

Having visited these places and questioned my motives for going, I do not consider them places of pilgrimage as they are, in fact, maintained and run for profit.

In my view it would be better in particular to bulldoze S21 flat and erect a memorial with the names of the 17500 who were incarcerated in this place of evil. That would be a more suitable epitaph for those unfortunate souls than what exists there now.

Portland, Oregon
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7. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Broadacres,

I have questioned peoples motives (my own included) for being attracted to this kind of tourism, and I respect your take on the subject. Unfortunatly, I could not disagree with you more. I find that erected monuments are mostly powerful to the people who had first-hand experience with the situation (i.e. Vets @ the Vietnam Memorial), but as others have mentioned, as someone who was not there, the buildings themselves seem to echo with the actual sadness of such horrific events. I realize that the profits that come from this kind of thing might seem like blood money, but in an admittedly morbid way, I think the world could use more of this kind of tourism, not less. Even if their drawn by a bit historical voyeurism (sp? sorry), maybe they'll take away something far more important, a glimpse of how desperatly important it is that we not let something like this happen again.

Great debate subject, very interesting.

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8. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

The last thing the spirits of all those who endured and died there want, is for it to be razed and some beautiful monument to be built!

They want you to walk those rooms, to view those chilling photos, to see the chains and steel bars, and to stand inside those cramped cells.

They're crying out that only by experiencing it as it is now, can it ever still be a strong reminder of what happened, so it never happens again.

Perhaps someone else will walk in and stand beside one of those iron beds, in the ground floor of the middle block, and may spend a little time quietly meditating, and feel the presence.They may reach out to try and communicate with you.I just don't have the words to describe what happened.Not threatening, but I was totally unprepared for it.

York, United Kingdom
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9. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Despite some deluding themselves into believing you have to witness at first hand what happened at S21 to stop it happening again, the morbid curiousity of Western Tourists and their prayers visiting S21, does nothing to prevent this sort of thing happening again. Think of Rwanda 1994, Srebenica 1995 and Darfur ongoing as further examples.

However, as I said in my original post, it is the Cambodians who should be encouraged to visit S21 and the Killing Fields, rather than Western Tourists, because it is only they who can prevent this happening again in their country. Unfortunately, most Cambodians cannot afford the entrance fees.

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10. Re: Visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) Prison and the Killing Fields.

Agreed.But razing it and creating monuments doesn't stop it either.Witness almost every town,village and city in our societies have their War Memorials.

As Iris Dement sings'There's a wall in Washington....", and building that hasn't stopped US wars.

But visiting Mauthausen ,seeing it as it was, has created a very vivid impression in many people's minds, so that no holocaust denier has credibility.

Awareness of atrocities in the past has stopped some countries repeating that.

And who's to say that in the future, all Cambodians are never going to be able to lift their standard of living to a level when they can afford to visit?There's a lot of investment going into that country, new factories opening up.Why even the pair of trousers I just bought to go on safari in Africa are 'Made in Cambodia"!Cambodia could have a very good future.