Holiday in Cambodia: “Ugly Foreigners” At The Tuol Sleng Genoicde Museum

Yeah, yeah, you knew it was coming:

A sun-pressed afternoon and I’m walking through the dim cool rooms of the Tuol Slen Genocide Museum. The crumbling cells, the tangled barbed wire, the blood stains on the floor—none of it seems real. A bird flitted through the room of brick cells during our tour; a child was giggling and running on the grass. Tourists snapped photos.

I didn’t feel anything I was supposed to, or thought I was supposed to. The rooms and rooms lined with photos on cheap display boards, gleaming plexi-glass—young faces, beautiful faces, virtually all with same expression. I can’t quite name it; it isn’t anger or fear or anything like that. Maybe it’s a lack of fear, a numbness, a well-isn’t-this-it, isn’t-this-the-end-of-it. I looked at them and they didn’t look dead, didn’t look like people tortured and starved and tossed off into a mass graves just a couple meters away. They looked real and their expressions, in the face of death, looked real too.

I’m waiting to catch my tour guide. He’d shared his own experiences during the tour—life in the camps, his family members that had died—and I want to ask him questions. How does he do it? How does he walk through here everyday and talk about it, tell his story to masses of Western tourists, panting and sleeveless?

“Everyone in my generation is traumatized,” he’d said, pointing to his head with both fingers, making a very small looping motion. “We all have the trauma.” How does he do it, how does he talk about it?

[“I don’t want to, I don’t want to take this job. But I needed to work,” he told me later, a bench in the shade. He’d gone to Germany last summer to study at a Holocaust museum. “That’s what this was, a second Holocaust,” and he showed me a page in the book he held, where amidst the Khmer lettering, more like art than language, a lone English word stood in parentheses: “Holocaust.”]

I’m waiting and rewalking through the first rooms, torture rooms. In each one is a ragged metal bed frame, rusted tools of torture, a photo on the wall of a body, bloody and dead and tied to the bed. There are blood stains on the floor and they look more like dirt, so that you could almost think that they were dirt and not someone’s blood, and again I don’t feel anything.

Three tourists—male, late 20s. Not American or European, some kind of Asian, I think. They’re laughing. There’s big signs that ask you not to laugh—a smiling man with a red slash across his face—and they’re laughing.

One of them picks up a torture tool. He swings it at the other in slow motion; he makes a comical grimace and their friend snaps a photo. They gather around the viewfinder and laugh.

I watch them, and it’s now that I feel something. It isn’t anger or rage, which would make more sense, I think—not even the how-dare-yous. It’s just a sadness—a deep, wordless sadness.

“That’s really fucked up and disrespectful,” I say. I don’t know if they speak English, but it doesn’t really matter.

And it’s at that point that I feel tears welling up—that I finally feel what I think I’m supposed to feel at a place like this. And I curse myself for having put on eye makeup that morning, and I curse myself for crying for something I don’t think I have a right to cry for, for crying here, in the middle of the museum. I curse myself for letting someone else’s ignorance bother me, and I curse myself for having said something when it’s not my job or my place—when it won’t change anything, not their disrespect and certainly not my sadness.

They stare at me. They have no expression, and maybe it’s their own kind of numbness. “That’s really hurtful,” I add, and walk away.

6 Responses to “Holiday in Cambodia: “Ugly Foreigners” At The Tuol Sleng Genoicde Museum”

  1. 1 Abbie March 3, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I’m glad you said something.

  2. 4 Steve L March 7, 2011 at 9:32 am

    I’m pretty sure that if I was there I’d say a lot more than you did. You are awesome Lauren.

  3. 5 Rebecca March 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    It’s amazing to think that someone who suffered like this now spends his days guiding tourists through the museum. It must be so difficult and raise awful memories every day – but I guess the pull of the need to make money is too strong. What an inspirational person.

  4. 6 Hank August 19, 2012 at 2:53 am

    I understand your point, but while those signs look like they mean “No Laughing,” they actually read “No loud talking.”

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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