Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh: From School to Horror Prison of Khmer Rouge Regime

Situated 15 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng also as known as the Khmer Rouge Prison has become a tourist attraction in Cambodia that is horrifying and fascinating. In this travel blog, Indochina Voyages will guide you through back time to explore this attraction.

The Horror History

Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh, also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or S21), holds a haunting history that unveils the dark chapter of Cambodia’s past. It was once a high school, but during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975), it transformed into a notorious prison and torture center.

The story of Tuol Sleng is a heartbreaking tale of human suffering and serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed during this period. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to establish an agrarian communist society by eradicating all perceived threats to their ideology.

Tuol Sleng, formerly known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), was one of the most prominent sites where countless innocent lives were lost. It was primarily used to imprison and interrogate individuals suspected of opposing the regime, including intellectuals, professionals, and even Khmer Rouge members deemed disloyal.

Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh
A glimpse of Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh

The prisoners endured unimaginable torture and were coerced into providing false confessions under extreme duress. Cambodia became isolated and over the four years the Khmer Rouge ruled the country between 1975 – 1979, it is estimated about 3 million people died. That was almost half the population at the time.

The prisoners endured unimaginable torture and were coerced into providing false confessions under extreme duress. The methods employed included beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding, and various other forms of brutal torture. The objective was to extract information and force prisoners to implicate others in order to perpetuate the cycle of fear and control.

The place has a long history behind it and reminds us of the horrifying times that the people of Cambodia have gone through during the reign of Khmer and after. Till now it has turned into a fascinating attraction when coming to visit Phnom Penh, but every year on the 20th of May, a ceremony is held around the stupa to bring peace to the spirits of the deceased.

What Can You Expect Here?

There are many things to see while visiting Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh.

Time Stamps of Khmer Rouge History

Visiting Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh offers a glimpse into the timeline of the Khmer Rouge regime. Exhibits within the museum depict the rise of the Khmer Rouge, their policies, and the impact of their actions on the Cambodian people.

The displays include photographs, artwork, and personal belongings of those affected by the regime, providing a poignant narrative of the era. You can get a tour guide or explore on your own with an audio guide to get deeper in Khmer Rouge Stories and History.

Cambodian in Khmer Rouge Regime
Cambodian in Khmer Rouge Regime

Education and Cultural Understanding

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh aims to provide historical context, promote awareness, and foster empathy towards the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Here are some aspects related to education and cultural understanding that you can expect when visiting Tuol Sleng:

  • Exhibits and documentation showcasing photographs, artwork, and personal belongings of the victims.
  • Informational panels and descriptions provide historical context and explanations.
  • Multilingual guides offering insights and answering questions.
  • Educational programs, workshops, and discussions to deepen understanding.
  • Emphasis on cultural sensitivity and respect for the victims.
  • Opportunities for learning, reflection, and a commitment to human rights and peace.

By engaging with the educational resources and embracing cultural understanding, visitors to Tuol Sleng can gain a deeper appreciation of Cambodia’s history, develop empathy for the victims, and contribute to the preservation of memory and prevention of future atrocities. The museum serves as a platform for learning, reflection, and fostering a commitment to human rights and peace.

Galery in Tuol Sleng Prison
Galery in Tuol Sleng Prison (Image: New York Times)

Helpful Travel Information

Opening Hours

Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh is open daily between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM, with a break for lunch from 11:30 AM to 2:00 PM. It is closed on Mondays.

All are welcome though it is advised by the authorities that children should be advised and properly guided before they come here.

Entrance Fee

There is an entrance fee to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The fee contributes to the maintenance and preservation of the site. Please check the official website or inquire locally for the most up-to-date information regarding the entrance fee.

Dress Code Requirements

Out of respect for the victims and the solemn nature of the site, visitors are advised to dress modestly. It is appropriate to wear clothing that covers the shoulders and knees. This dress code ensures a respectful environment and honors the memory of those who suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Other Travel Tips

  • Respectful Photography: Take pictures responsibly, avoiding sensitive areas and obtaining consent from individuals.
  • Emotional Preparedness: Be ready for the intense stories and visuals, allowing yourself time to reflect and honor the victims.
  • Guided Tours: Enhance your understanding by joining a guided tour with knowledgeable guides.
  • Allocate Ample Time: Plan for a few hours to fully explore the museum and absorb the information.


How many people were killed in Tuol Sleng?

It is estimated that approximately 17,000 to 20,000 people were imprisoned and killed at Tuol Sleng during the Khmer Rouge regime. The exact number is difficult to determine due to incomplete records and the secrecy surrounding the prison’s operations.

What did the Khmer Rouge do to babies?

The Khmer Rouge showed no mercy, even to infants. Babies and children were not exempt from the regime’s brutality. They were often separated from their families and subjected to the same harsh conditions as adults. Many were killed or died due to malnutrition and disease.

Why was the Khmer Rouge so brutal?

The Khmer Rouge aimed to maintain absolute control over the population and eliminate any perceived threats to their ideology. They believed in creating an agrarian communist society, and anyone deemed intellectual, professional, or loyal to the previous regime was considered a potential enemy. The brutality served to instill fear and maintain power.

Tuol Sleng is the biggest and the most impressive prison in Cambodia and everyone around the world when mentioned the Khmer Rouge. If you want to learn more about Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, you should spend time visiting Tuol Sleng on your Cambodian tours. Surely, you will have memorable experiences here.

Besides, want to out-of-the-box experiences, let’s visit other sides of Phnom Penh through our travel blog: Top 10 unusual things to do in Phnom Penh

Here are our best-seller tour which have visit Tuol Sleng Phnom Penh in the route for your reference:

From Indochina Voyages Team

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