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Visiting S21 Prison: Morbid Or Meaningful?


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Lula Schmitt



Visiting S21 prison is undoubtedly a thought-provoking experience. This former Khmer Rouge prison, located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, serves as a haunting reminder of the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, S21 prison has become a popular tourist destination, raising questions about the moral implications of such visits.


At its core, the debate revolves around whether visiting S21 prison is morbid or meaningful. Critics argue that it is macabre and voyeuristic, exploiting the suffering of the victims for mere entertainment. On the other hand, proponents highlight the educational and historical value of the visit, arguing that it contributes to the preservation of collective memory and the prevention of future genocides.


Understanding the historical background of S21 prison is crucial in navigating this debate. During the Khmer Rouge regime, an estimated two million Cambodians lost their lives due to execution, forced labor, and starvation. S21 prison, once a high school, was transformed into a complex where detainees were tortured, interrogated, and ultimately killed, often after being forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.


This dark chapter in Cambodia’s history has left many scars on the nation’s psyche. The transformation of S21 prison into a museum was a deliberate effort to confront this painful past and educate future generations about the horrors that occurred.


Historical Background of S21 prison

S21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, was established in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. The regime sought to create an agrarian utopia by forcibly evacuating cities and implementing harsh policies. S21 prison was one of several secret detention centers where perceived enemies of the state were interrogated, tortured, and executed.


The prison was originally a high school, but it was transformed into a center for torture and interrogation. The Khmer Rouge regime targeted various groups, including intellectuals, professionals, government officials, and even their own supporters suspected of disloyalty. The prisoners were accused of being spies, traitors, or counter-revolutionaries.


Upon arrival at S21 prison, detainees were stripped of their identities and assigned numbers. They were subjected to brutal interrogation methods to extract confessions, often through severe physical and psychological torture. The torture techniques employed included electric shocks, waterboarding, beatings, and deprivation of food and sleep.


Confessions obtained under duress were used to incriminate not only the prisoners themselves but also their families and associates. The Khmer Rouge regime believed in collective guilt, seeing anyone connected to the accused as potential threats.


Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 people passed through S21 prison. Shockingly, only a handful of prisoners survived. The majority were brutally executed, either at S21 or in the infamous killing fields, which were mass graves located outside of Phnom Penh. The bodies of the victims would be disposed of in the most expedient and callous manner, representing the brutality and disregard for human life exhibited by the regime.


After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, S21 prison was discovered by Vietnamese forces who had liberated the country. Shocked by the horrors they found, they decided to preserve the prison as a memorial to the victims and as evidence of the crimes committed.


Today, S21 prison stands as a somber reminder of the dark chapter in Cambodian history, serving as a stark contrast to the bustling streets of Phnom Penh. It has been transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, attracting visitors from around the world who seek to understand the tragic events that unfolded within its walls.


Controversies surrounding S21 prison visitation

The visitation of S21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has sparked heated debates and raised ethical questions. The controversies surrounding the visitation of this former Khmer Rouge prison can be summarized into few key points:

  1. Exploitation of Tragedy: Critics argue that turning a place of immense suffering and death into a tourist attraction is exploitative in nature. They believe that the monetization of such a tragic site can trivialize the pain endured by the victims and their families, reducing it to a form of entertainment.
  2. Sensitive Nature of the Site: There are concerns that the commercialization of S21 prison may undermine the solemnity and respect that should be accorded to this historical site. Some argue that the presence of cameras, tour groups, and noise can disrupt the tranquil environment necessary for reflection and remembrance.
  3. Morbid Fascination: Critics further argue that visiting S21 prison might promote morbid fascination with the suffering and atrocities committed. They fear that some visitors may approach the visit as a voyeuristic experience, seeking a thrill from the gruesome stories and exhibits instead of genuinely engaging with the historical significance and lessons of the place.
  4. Emotional Toll: For survivors, their families, and even the wider Cambodian population, visiting S21 prison can have significant emotional repercussions. It can reopen wounds and bring back painful memories of the past. Some argue that the visitation should be voluntary and accompanied by appropriate support services.

While these controversies highlight the valid concerns surrounding the visitation of S21 prison, it is essential to consider the counterarguments that support its continued availability for visitors. The next section will explore the arguments put forth by proponents who view the visit as meaningful rather than morbid.


Arguments supporting S21 prison visitation as morbid

Numerous critics argue that visiting S21 prison is a morbid affair, exploiting the suffering and tragedy of the victims. The following are key arguments that support this perspective:

  1. Commercialization of Tragedy: Some critics contend that transforming S21 prison into a tourist attraction, complete with entrance fees, gift shops, and tour packages, is a disservice to the memory of those who suffered and died there. They argue that profiting from the pain and tragedy inflicted upon the prisoners is morally wrong and disrespectful.
  2. Sensationalism and Voyeurism: Critics claim that many visitors are motivated by a morbid curiosity, seeking shocking and gruesome stories from the prison’s dark past. They argue that these visitors are more interested in satisfying their curiosity than engaging with the deeper historical and educational aspects of the site.
  3. Insensitive Behavior: There have been instances of disrespectful and insensitive behavior by some tourists at S21 prison. Critics argue that taking selfies, making inappropriate poses, or treating the site as a backdrop for entertainment trivializes the suffering and devalues the lives lost within its walls.
  4. Exploitation of Victims: Critics believe that the visitation of S21 prison can exploit the trauma endured by the victims and their families. By turning their suffering into a spectacle, they argue that it perpetuates a culture of voyeurism, where visitors consume tragedy for their own entertainment or personal gain.
  5. Lack of Context: Another argument is that the visitation of S21 prison, without proper contextualization and historical understanding, can further distort the narrative and trivialize the magnitude of the crimes committed. Critics argue that without a comprehensive understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime and its impact on Cambodian society, visitors may not fully grasp the significance of S21 prison.

While these arguments depict S21 prison visitation as morbid, it is important to acknowledge that there are also compelling arguments supporting its visitation as a meaningful and educational experience. The next section will explore these contrasting perspectives.


Arguments supporting S21 prison visitation as meaningful

Despite the controversies surrounding the visitation of S21 prison, there are several compelling arguments that support its importance as a meaningful and educational experience:

  1. Preserving Collective Memory: By transforming S21 prison into a museum, supporters argue that it plays a crucial role in preserving and honoring the memory of the victims. It serves as a solemn reminder of the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge regime, ensuring that the stories of the victims are not forgotten or overlooked.
  2. Historical Education: Visiting S21 prison provides an opportunity for visitors to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime and its devastating impact on Cambodian society. It allows individuals to deepen their understanding of the past, promoting empathy and empathy towards the victims and raising awareness about the consequences of political extremism and unchecked power.
  3. Preventing Future Genocides: The visit to S21 prison can also serve as a powerful tool in preventing future genocides. By confronting the horrors of the past, visitors are reminded of the consequences of hatred, intolerance, and discrimination. It encourages them to actively promote peace, justice, and human rights, fostering a commitment to ensuring that such atrocities are never repeated.
  4. Honoring Survivors and Their Stories: For survivors of S21 prison, their families, and the wider Cambodian population, the visitation can be a way to honor their resilience and strength. It provides a platform for survivors to share their stories, ensuring that their voices are heard, and their experiences are acknowledged.
  5. Educational Value for Future Generations: S21 prison offers a unique educational experience, especially for younger generations who may not have direct knowledge of the Khmer Rouge era. It allows them to engage with history in a tangible and impactful way, fostering critical thinking, empathy, and a broader understanding of the consequences of totalitarianism and human rights abuses.

Supporters of S21 prison visitation argue that it is imperative to confront the darkness of the past in order to build a more just and inclusive future. They believe that by visiting S21 prison, individuals can contribute to the ongoing process of healing, remembrance, and learning.


Ultimately, the decision to visit S21 prison is a personal one, and it is important for visitors to approach the experience with respect, sensitivity, and a commitment to understanding the historical context. By doing so, the visit can become a meaningful and transformative experience, contributing to the collective memory of a nation scarred by tragedy.


Personal Perspectives on Visiting S21 Prison

Visiting S21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, evokes a wide range of personal perspectives. Some individuals may feel a deep sense of duty to bear witness to the atrocities committed, while others may grapple with the moral implications of such a visit. Here are a few personal perspectives on visiting S21 prison:

  1. Emotional Connection: For those with a personal connection to the events of the Khmer Rouge era, visiting S21 prison can be an emotional and cathartic experience. It allows them to confront the past, pay tribute to the victims, and find a sense of closure and healing.
  2. Educational Journey: Many people view visiting S21 prison as a valuable educational journey. It provides an opportunity to learn about the history and consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime, fostering a deeper understanding of the complexities of genocide and the importance of human rights.
  3. Empathy and Solidarity: For some visitors, the decision to visit S21 prison is driven by a desire to show empathy and solidarity with the victims and survivors. It is a way of acknowledging their pain and suffering, standing in solidarity with them, and honoring their resilience.
  4. Active Remembrance: Visiting S21 prison can be seen as an act of active remembrance. It is a way of ensuring that the stories of the victims are not forgotten and that their names and experiences are preserved for future generations.
  5. Confronting History: Some individuals see visiting S21 prison as a necessary confrontation with Cambodia’s dark past. They believe that by acknowledging and understanding the atrocities committed, they can contribute to the healing process and promote a more compassionate and just society.
  6. Moral Dilemma: On the other hand, there are those who struggle with the moral implications of visiting S21 prison. They question whether it is morally justifiable to visit a place of such suffering and death, and whether it risks turning the pain of the victims into a form of voyeuristic entertainment.
  7. Survivor Testimonies: For many visitors, hearing the testimonies of survivors can be a compelling reason to visit S21 prison. These firsthand accounts provide a unique and powerful perspective on the atrocities committed, offering a glimpse into the resilience and strength of the human spirit.

Overall, personal perspectives on visiting S21 prison are deeply influenced by individual experiences, beliefs, and values. It is a complex and personal decision that requires thoughtful reflection and consideration of the historical context, ethical concerns, and the desire to honor the memory of the victims.



The debate surrounding the visitation of S21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as morbid or meaningful is multifaceted and deeply personal. While critics argue that it may exploit the suffering of the victims and trivialize their pain, supporters emphasize the educational and historical value of the visit, as well as the importance of preserving collective memory and preventing future atrocities.


S21 prison stands as a stark reminder of the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge regime, and its transformation into a museum reflects Cambodia’s commitment to confront its painful past. The historical background provides a somber context for understanding the magnitude of the crimes committed within its walls.


Controversies surrounding S21 prison visitation center around the commercialization of tragedy, insensitive behavior, and concerns about voyeurism and exploitation. However, proponents argue that the visitation is meaningful as it preserves collective memory, educates visitors about the past, honors survivors, and provides an opportunity to prevent future genocides.


Personal perspectives on visiting S21 prison vary widely. Some view it as an emotional journey, an act of active remembrance, or a means to confront history. Others struggle with the moral dilemma of visiting a place of immense suffering.


In conclusion, the decision to visit S21 prison is deeply personal and should be approached with sensitivity and respect. It is crucial to recognize the historical significance of the site, the stories of the victims, and the lessons to be learned. By engaging with the visitation in a thoughtful and compassionate manner, it can serve as a way to honor the memory of the victims, educate future generations, and contribute to the prevention of future atrocities.