Woke early and packed our bags. I’d decided we should leave this dark place and go up to Siem Reap. We had a morning to kill before our 1:30pm Mekong Express bus, so we took a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Museum, or ‘S-21’ as it is also known. It was with reluctance that I returned to this former High School, taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into the largest prison of torture in the country, killing 100 people a day in 1977. 17,000 detainees were sent to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be exterminated.
Visiting S-21 is a harrowing and unpleasant experience. To witness the horrific acts a human can commit against another leads one to question whether morality exists at all. Humans really are the cruelest of all creatures. The place looks like an old school from the outside, a plain building, an overgrown grassy area, children playing in the grounds. Walking in the school though, and seeing the metal beds onto which victims were shackled to and tortured is unsettling to say the least. Other classroom walls were knocked down to make corridors of tiny prison cells. Harrowing black and white photographs of each prisoner upon entry to the prison and after extreme torture are displayed, as are cruel weapons of torture. Men, women and children of all ages were tortured and killed here. As I walked around for the second time (the first time was New Years Day 2005) nothing seemed to have changed. The eerie quiet remained. I could barely stomach this a second time, and I decided not to look around the whole place again, as tears were already stinging my eyes.
We left silently, and our driver took us to a few Wats of minimal interest. He did suggest stopping at the Russian Market, but after my last visit there and my unpleasant encounter with the ‘man with no face’, I opted against it. We skirted around the Royal Palace, but it was closed. We got dropped off at the bus station. We still had around 15 minutes before our bus departed, so we popped into a pleasant Irish bar, where I ordered a ham and cheese baguette for the journey.
The bus journey on the Mekong Express cost $12. For that amount, you get a comfortable air-con coach, a meal, and commentary from a cute local girl with impeccable English. We arrived in Siem Reap at around 7:30pm. Off the bus, we were met by a few tuk-tuk drivers, but there wasn’t nearly as much harassing and desperation as in the capital. A friendly young chap called Mark, who spoke with an Aussie accent, offered to take us around a few hotels for $2. We eventually found a fantastic room in a great location, and unpacked. Mark had arranged a 5am pick-up to go around Angkor Wat, and he would go home happy, knowing he had work the next day. We went out to a lovely restaurant in a small alleyway permeated by little Khmer restaurants. The Angkor Draft was 75 cents, the curry set $7, and the Khmer curry $2.50. The ambiance was good – peaceful and cultured – and it was enjoyed without the unwanted attention of the street kids as in Phnom Penh. After the meal we went back to our hotel. We had a busy day ahead of us.