Originally published 19 Jun 2014
On Friday, I departed Cambodia after a two week work trip there. During the intervening weekend we visited the temples of Siem Reap located about 200 miles north of Phnom Penh. The temple of Angkor Wat was the most fabulous, but there are many remarkable temples in the area that were built from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The temples are in various states of disrepair from the forces of the jungle and the damage done by the Khmer Rouge. Fortunately, the area has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO and receives funding and restoration assistance from several countries.
Buddha Image at Bayon Temple
Panel in Angkor Wat Depicting a Battle
In Phnom Penh, we visited Tuol Sleng, formerly known as S-21, one of more than 150 execution centers run by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The location has been transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Upon arrival at the prison, victims were photographed and a dossier was created. Soon after arrival, prisoners were interrogated and tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn't commit and implicated other innocent people. Unfortunately, most of the photographs were separated from the dossiers days before the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. As a result, most of the victims cannot be identified.
Tuol Sleng Security Regulations
Tuol Sleng: Smiling Forbidden
Estimates vary, but about 17,000 people were incarcerated at Tuol Sleng from 1975 to 1979. Eleven of those captives survived: four children and seven adults. One of the survivors was Bou Meng, an artist, who survived because the Khmer Rouge valued his ability to paint photograph-like pictures of the revolutionary leaders such as Pol Pot. Despite his value to the Khmer Rouge, he too, was tortured daily. He later wrote about his experiences at the prison in his book entitled Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21.
During our visit, I was honored to meet Mr. Meng and be photographed with him. As a teenager I read about the brutal and varied torture meted out by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian populace. Meeting Mr. Meng, a person who withstood unimaginable brutality, was a powerful moment.