Cambodia is a land with a lot of hauntings. One of them being in the old prison known as Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 where almost 20 000 people were tortured and killed during the Cambodian Genocide. And even today, the building is known for its ghosts. 

In Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that used to be a prison, some of the prisoners were never really freed. Even in their deaths, their souls lingers in what used to be their own prison cells. However, they have now people taking care of them. 

The people working in the former prison now turned into a museum are well aware of the past and try their best to honor the building’s gruesome history. There are many occurrences that are being reported on that the museum’s staff cannot explain. Objects are being thrown hard to the floor and high pitched screaming has been heard.

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The staff working there also leave out food for the ghosts when they go on lunch break as they can’t enjoy their own lunch because of the loud noises the ghosts will make when they don’t leave an offering. 

The Cambodian Genocide

To understand the hauntings of this museum, we must first understand a little bit of Cambodia’s dark past and how so many could die in a place like Tuol Sleng. 

After years of devastating civil war, Cambodia had already seen its fair share of bloodshed. But the worst was still ahead of them and from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia went through a systematic killing, later known as the Cambodian Genocide which killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. The exact death toll is uncertain, but it ranges from everything from 1.5 to 2 million people. 

The genocide was done by the Khmer Rouge, a popular name given to the communist party called Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), led by Pol Pot who wanted to ‘cleanse’ the population in order to establish a pure, self-sufficient communist state. 

Cambodia is a land with a lot of hauntings. One of them being in the old prison known as Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 where almost 20 000 people were tortured and killed during the Cambodian Genocide. And even today, the building is known for its ghosts.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Known as Security Prison 21 or S-21 during its time of torture and killings where thousands of Cambodians died. Here is one of the buildings of Tuol Sleng in 2013 // Photo: Dudva/Wikimedia

The Story of the Prison Turned Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (សារមន្ទីរឧក្រិដ្ឋកម្មប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍ទួលស្លែង) literally means, ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’. It used to be a secondary school in the capital Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge regime took over and used it as a prison during the genocide. 

File:Phnom Penh-Tuol Sleng Genozid-Museum-18-Zellen-2007-gje.jpg

Cambodia is a land with a lot of hauntings. One of them being in the old prison known as Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 where almost 20 000 people were tortured and killed during the Cambodian Genocide. And even today, the building is known for its ghosts.
Prison Cells: The former school turned the classrooms into prison cells the museum has kept intact to this day.// Photo: Gerd Eichmann/Wikimedia

Known as Security Prison 21(មន្ទីរស-២១) or S-21, it converted the classrooms to prison cells and torture chambers in 1976. It is estimated that over 18 000 were killed in the S-21, including children. Of course, this is an estimate since the real numbers are uncertain and could also be much higher. Only 12 former inmates survived from the prison. 

When the prisoners arrived at S-21 they were photographed, forced to undress and had their personal belongings confiscated. Many of the prisoners didn’t even know why they were taken. There would often be nonsensical reasons like wearing glasses or speaking multiple languages, a sign of being an intellectual that could potentially speak against the communist regime.

Also religious, ethnic and political reasons were why you were being singled out as a potential threat to the regime. Often whole families would be taken at the same time so that no one would be able to seek revenge for them. Pol Pot said himself: “if you want to kill the grass, you also have to kill the roots”

After a grueling questioning to make them give up information, they were taken to their cells. Some were shackled to the floor in small prison cells, others were shackled together with others in large rooms. One of the common hauntings people report on is the sound of shackles rattling from the cells. The prisoners were forbidden to talk to each other and had to follow the rest of the rules. Any action, just sitting up or turning over had to be approved by the Khmer Rouge guards, and they would be severely punished if they broke the rules. 

The goal was to get the prisoners to confess before executing them. Either that they themselves were betraying the party and the revolution, or give up names of those that did. They got the prisoners to confess to anything by the use of torture and submersion in water, electric shock or being hanged from the gallows by their hand until unconscious were some of the methods. Once they got a signed confession, they had to face their execution. 

The Killing Fields

The prisoners were killed on site at first, but then they also started to execute at what would be known as the killing field outside of the city known as Choeung Ek. The prisoners often had to dig their own graves before being killed. 

These fields have numerous stories of being haunted themselves. In the field in Choeung Ek, a site with mass graves where many graves are visible above the ground. During rainfalls, bones and clothes surface from the shallow graves.

This relentless killing and torture lasted for many years. The prison closed down in 1979 when the Vietnamese army invaded and ended the rule for the Khmer Rouge. And ever since then, Cambodia has tried to rebuild the country, piece by piece.

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Security Prison 21 never returned to being a school for children. It was instead turned into a memorial and a museum that would remember and showcase the atrocities that the people suffered during those years.   

From 1979 until 2002, they displayed a huge map of Cambodia made up of 300 skulls of victims to the regime. It was displayed to show the brutality of the regime until it was dismantled to give the skulls a proper burial at last. 

But did it also bury the rumors of the prison being haunted?

The Haunting at the Museum Today

From the outside rumors about a haunting of ghosts started spreading. Neighbors claimed to hear the rattling of shackles and terrified screams from inside the former prison. Also from within the museum, countless reports of something paranormal going on started to spread. Many of the staff at the museum claim to have witnessed the hauntings, both cleaners, guides and the security guards, especially those working the night shifts. 

Cambodia is a land with a lot of hauntings. One of them being in the old prison known as Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 where almost 20 000 people were tortured and killed during the Cambodian Genocide. And even today, the building is known for its ghosts.
Map of Skulls: This is the infamous skull map that was on display in the former S-21 prison camp at Tuol Sleng in January 1997 // Photo

“There was one night that I woke up to go to the bathroom when I saw a black figure bending towards me, and that made my hair stand on end. I was very frightened; I climbed back into my bed and waited until the morning to tell my colleagues,” Nong Saveoun, a security guard who both worked and lived at the genocide museum said to the Phnom Penh Post back in 2016.

There is also a story about a security guard that heard the shower start running after he saw a dark figure opening the toilet door. When he went to investigate, there was no one there. 

Three times a year they hold blessing ceremonies at the Tuol Sleng museum where they invite both government officials and monks to give a prayer to the victims on the Khmer new year, the Pchum Ben festival and on Visak Bochea Day. Perhaps that is the way to appease the soul and finally free the ghostly prisoners from their cells and their shackles to this world. 

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References

Featured Image: Pete Stewart/Wikimedia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Wikipedia

History of the Museum

The 10 Most Haunted Places on Earth – Days to Come

NST Region: Five most haunted places in Cambodia

Land prices undaunted by genocide museums’ history and hauntings | Phnom Penh Post

https://www.wired.com/2002/03/skull-map-dismantled/

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