Tuesday, September 16, 2008

toul sleng

I think that one of the toughest parts of travel is confronting the darker parts of a country. There is an impulse in travel to idealize, to skim off all the good parts, and not look at reality. The problem I find with that approach is that it ends up feeling empty, sanitized, and false. Though seeing poverty up close, people with diseases, people missing limbs, children begging for food, is not what we go on vacation for, it is also part of the places many of us choose to travel. How we interact and understand the people from the country in which we travel to says a lot about us as people and the places we come from.
Cambodia takes it beyond just dealing with our reactions to poverty, Cambodia asks us also to face a brutal history, a history many of us know little about.
I am not an expert in Khmer history, but through my previous travels in SE Asia I knew a bit about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue. But until my trip to the Tuol Sleng genocide musuem the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia during 1975 until 1979 felt like most history, distant, relegated to dusty gray photos, and having little to do with my present. Tuol Sleng is like a slap in the face, the history jumps out at you, dragging you through the interrogation rooms, sucking you into the eyes of the prisoners, and leaving you at the end reeling and wondering at it all.
Though the trip to the museum was not what I would call pleasant, it was the most worthwhile thing I have done since I have been here. It gives this country and these people context, something that makes me feel like I have actually experienced Cambodia rather than just, "doing" it.

one of the interrogation rooms, where prisoners were tortured

one of the larger interrogation rooms, numbers were painted on the wall marking spaces for individuals

the exterior of building "C" where the majority of the prisoners were kept in individual cells of brick or wood

brick cells constructed in the interior of building "C"

photos of some of the prisoners in building "B"

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