Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

A modern ghost title

Popping the SD card from my camera and systematically slipping it into the slot on my laptop I scooted back, falling deeper into my chair’s embrace. Having only briefly settled back into my apartment I was already excited to explore Cambodia all over again through my photos.

My finger impatiently ticked in the password to gain entry to my laptop and settled into an idle rhythm as they waited for the SD card to register on the desktop screen. When it finally appeared the mouse zipped over to click it open. Eagerly it snatched up the files from the card and carried them to their new home on my laptop.

The transfer from my card was so large I looked through the entire series and still had time to spare for Facebook updates and a quick dash through my backed-up email.

Finally the files finished copying onto my computer. It took me over an hour to select photos from the Angkor temples and I excitedly scrolled down for the photos I’d taken of my next destination on the trip—Phnom Penh. As I scrolled a haze of memories shuffled into my mind.

After leaving Angkor Wat and Siam Riep I’d moved on to Phnom Penh via an ancient rickedy bus. The sky was doing its best to beat the bus down and some of the passengers were unlucky enough to be at the receiving end of its soft violence. My travelling companion huddled in his seat as water droplets smashed against the chair ahead and splattered him with remnants of the rain lying siege outside. Darkness had settled in and there was no view of the outlying countryside to brighten our spirits. The window seat my companion had seized with such joy was now his greatest regret.

When at last the bus trundled into Phnom Penh my companion and I linked up with a couple from the United Kingdom and we trudged to a hotel. Finding one with a reasonable price not far from the bus station we dropped our bags and went out for supper and some beer.

Aside from getting completely lost on our way back and circling the blocks like Pacman making a desperate attempt to acquire all the yummy snacks, the night was calm and full of amusement.

“Let’s go this way,” the males in the small company gestured enthusiastically.

The other woman and I shared a knowing glance and argued for going the way we’d arrived. But the men were hopelessly lost in their adventure.

“No, no this way will be shorter, a short-cut.”

They took off walking and joking like old friends. The city was devoid of obvious judgment over our jovial troupe but it still felt like a stern librarian eyeing noisy visitors in an effort to quiet them. The atmosphere was heavy.

As a city that only recently became occupied again after a period of emptiness in the late 70s, it lacked the development I was accustomed to.

Photo by Al Rockoff, one of a small number of foreign journalists who documented the dawn of the Khmer Rouge's reign.
Photo by Al Rockoff, one of a small number of foreign journalists who documented the dawn of the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

The streets were darker. No municipal buses existed. Streetlights and stop signs were rare and attention-seeking honks sounded at unmarked intersections to guide cars and motorbikes safely across.

When my group and I got back to our hotel rooms a quick glance at my phone told me it was early in the morning.

Putting my phone back on my desk I found myself back in Thailand blinking groggily at my laptop. Stepping out of my pool of memories and flinging the memories away with a vigorous shake I tried to focus on the photos before me. They displayed Otres Beach, my third destination on the trip.

Chuckles escaped my lips while I looked for the photographic evidence of my memories at Phnom Penh. The chuckles died as my mouth slipped into a frown. A moment later I leaned forward as I scrolled. It looked like I was prepared to dive into my computer. Something was wrong. I was back at Angkor Wat. Then Otres Beach. Angkor Wat. Otres Beach. Angkor Wat. Otres Beach.

My heart began to flutter in bursts as I shifted between attempts to stay calm and unbridled bouts of fear. Every inch of my body was frozen except for my frantic fingers as they slid up and down the keypad and my eyes flickering back and forth. The barely measured movements of my fingers on the keypad transferred to bewildered stabs at the keys in a futile search.

But there was nothing. Nothing in the folder. Nothing in the trash. Nothing on my desktop.

Then I tried the card again.And there they were. I almost cried from relief. I hadn’t lost them. They were found. I sagged back in my chair and gulped down some air to replace what I’d been holding in. Shakily I moved them over to my computer.

As the load bar pushed along I began to scan through the photos still on the card to pick my immediate favourites to share with my boyfriend.

Joyfully discovering a bundle I dropped them into Photoshop to make the files smaller for easier uploading to the social application called Line.

After much hesitation, I wiped the photos from the card so I would have room for an event coming up.

Satisfied with my work I shut my laptop for the night and slogged to bed.

The next morning in an effort to speed up my laptop I emptied the trash to lighten the load. RAW photos take up a freakish amount of space.

With some extra speed granted I began to explore the contents of the new folder freely. The photos scrolled by and I came upon the trouble area.

Absolutely nothing.

All I could see was a blank space as empty and disturbing as if I’d been struck by amnesia.

Struck with shock my forehead settled on my desk’s surface like a grieving mother clutching the ground. The ghosts of the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 hovered over me shaking their heads sadly as they hoisted the photos onto their backs. They weren’t ready to share the indignities of their last moments or the remnants of the horrors of their demise through my lens.

Or maybe they were upset that I hadn’t had to pay the extra camera charge?

Defiantly snapping upright I chased after every file recovery program I could find. I waited for hours and scanned through the rescued files. But the same gap clenched its teeth at me no matter what I did. It was censorship of the tallest order. The photos were lost. Truly lost.

Terror subsided into sadness then made room for resignation and grudging acceptance.

I would have believed I had fabricated the whole experience if I hadn’t remembered the two instant favourites I had drawn from the pool earlier.


All I had left were these two photos. Both are hauntingly beautiful. One is from the Genocide Museum and one is from the Killing Fields outside of the city. I was left with a glimpse from each site. The bed and room are remnants of the classrooms turned into torture chambers by the Khmer Rouge and the coloured bracelets are from a mass burial site. 450 people were buried in the plot surrounded by these bracelet covered posts. The bracelets come from temples and are endowed with blessings—I guess that’s why people leave them here.

Somehow, my photos of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum where signs told you, you weren’t allowed to smile and the almost picturesque scenes of the grassy dips and knolls of the Killing Fields had disappeared without a trace.

Staring at the numbers mysteriously cut off from their brethren and the temple photos bleeding into the gorgeous sunsets of Otres Beach, I was baffled.

It was like I’d never visited the city and its monuments to a gruesome history of mass murder and execution.

Even now as I try to put this blog post together the words and images continue to be wrenched away. I copied my words from Word and pasted them into WordPress only to find nothing there but a 1166 word count. My words had somehow turned white. You want to see a blogger turn pale in terror, turn their text white.



At one point I flipped to another tab and returned to this view of my almost finished post.

This post is plagued with problems. I wonder if you will ever see these words.


After finishing the writing for this post I discovered that even my two favourite photos had disappeared from Line and my desktop…

After three days of file recovery programs and a mild break-down when I found the two photos but wouldn’t be allowed to recover them unless I paid $90 for the “upgrade”, I was shown an open source recovery program called PhotoRec by my amazing, fantastic, wonderful boyfriend. With it I found a small clutch of the photos I’d taken in Phnom Penh, the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields on my SD card.



With enough stubbornness you can accomplish anything.