The main jail for Phnom Penh is at Prey Sar in Meanchey district in the southwest – it was outside the city when it was built 15 years ago, but Phnom Penh has grown and now it’s suburban. Conditions there are pretty bad, but before Prey Sar there was T3:
Imagine a place so filthy, infested and decrepit that the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to use it as one of their torture chambers, so used it instead as a pigpen…
It was built in 1877, on street 154 between the National Museum and Kandal Market. I can’t work out exactly where, but apparently right behind Wat Ounalom – you turned off the Riverside at Wat Ounalom and followed the yellow walls of the monastery until you reached walls covered in green slime in a dirt street where gutters ran with raw sewerage. It was dire.
Bad as T3 was, not far up the street, on the corner of 154 and Pasteur was an even worse place. Part of a larger police headquarters, this was PJ Prison, from the French Police Judiciaire.
PJ I can locate more precisely: it was on the corner of streets 154 and 51, just a few blocks up from T3, on the site now occupied by Golden Sorya Mall. To be even more exact, it was on the northern half of the Golden Sorya, the southern half of which occupies the space of an old police building. Read about them in this 2012 article by Dermot Sheehan on Khmer 440.
“Herb Trader”, by Arthur Torsone, is a Westerner’s story from inside T3. According to Torsone he was the patsy in a covert US operation designed to rig the 1998 Cambodian general election, the one that saw Hun Sen win a convincing victory. This was not Uncle Sam’s desired outcome. Things went wrong, and Arthur ended up in T3. Here’s the Amazon blurb:
In 1998,U.S. Agents orchestrated a mission to alter the national election in Cambodia. To secure this victory, one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the world was drawn into the mission, only for it to go awry when things got personal. Given the authority to alter the election, a pair of Green Beret twins used deception and betrayal for their own gain. The U.S. finds itself at a loss and in a desperate last attempt, they make a sacrificial lamb out of Max, a reefer smuggler from Woodstock. In spite of their efforts to kill him, Max survived and is now exposing the truth in his new book. This riveting true story tells of corruption and treachery at the highest level.HERB TRADER exposes how secure top level government agencies were infiltrated and used by diabolical, self-serving criminals.
In Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, Christopher G Moore has Vincent Calvino visit T3. He gives a very atmospheric description, “a huge colonial cage” built to terrorise and brutalise a subject people, and still serving its original purpose. Women inside with their children (as is still the case at Pray Sar), a hundred shirtless men crammed into a concrete room stinking of urine, decaying food, smoke and sweat (as is also the case at Prey Sar).
T3 was torn down in 2000 after the site was sold to Sokimex, the petrol firm (it also runs the Angkor tourist zone, or did until recently). There was talk at the time that Sokimex would build a hospital on the site, but so far nothing at all seems to have been done. PJ and the complex of police buildings it was part of was also sold off to make way for Golden Sorya Mall; I understand that Golden Sorya itself is now likely to be knocked down and redeveloped in its turn.
Ghosts, ghosts. Here’s Bronwyn Sloane, a journalist (journalists are rational types), writing in Tales of Asia in 2006:
…[W]e drove past the site of the old T-3 prison one night. Long demolished, the once infamous prison is now a vacant lot in the center of town and the prisoners have long since been transferred to the new Prey Sar prison, miles away from the city.
My daughter, who was born long after the grim, century old, French-built T-3 had been expunged, started to stare very intently out the window. Then she turned to me and asked: “Why are all those sad men in blue pajamas working so hard?” I couldn’t see anyone. To me, the lot was empty. But I broke out in goose bumps and prepared for another round of 20 questions being put to her from curious Khmers.
The Cambodian prison uniform worn by inmates of T-3 consisted of a simple medium blue smock and pants with a white stripe around the edges. And that uniform, I have to admit, looks a lot like a simple set of blue pajamas.
Hi, I really like this blog. I used to have the Phnom Penh Places blog (until I lost access to it) and also wrote under the Dermot Sheehan name on 440. One thing that should be pointed out, maybe you know it, is that Prey Sar has actually been around a long time, there was a detention center called S24 there during the Pol Pot regime and the prison dates back even further. Anyway, keep it up!
Hello Dermott! (Or Hank). Thanks for the information about the history of Prey Sar, I wasn’t aware of that. And thanks for the feedback – it’s nice to know that somebody’s reading :). I like (or liked) Phnom Penh Places, sorry it’s no longer going.
Yeah, you’re welcome (only noticed this message now!). Your writing is great anyway, keep it up.
Seriously grim. More reading to add to my ever growing list!