A combination of the current conditions, excess bustle and the tragedy that befell the city less than 45 years ago really opened my eyes. Although I can’t say there weren’t things to enjoy about this city that was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’.
It’s true that the actual travelling is the worst part about going travelling, particularly when done on a budget. The mini bus from Siem Reap took at least five hours. It was hot, it was stuffy, it was cramped; especially when some hench local guy squashed next to us, along with several large wood carvings.
We’d decided to treat ourselves to a night in a ‘spa’ hotel, for just £15 per night. So after that uncomfortable journey, the four of us who’d endured it we were eager to get to the Le Mont Hotel as quickly as possible.
The ride did give a good opportunity to look around, driving past hundreds of stores called ‘Samsung’ and the Royal Palace - which was incredible. But if I’m being completely honest I wasn’t filled with much optimism. It was quite chaotic, with heavy traffic, unpleasant smells and clouds of dust sweeping across the streets. I was very thankful we had a nice place booked.
We checked in and were pleasantly surprised how big the twin rooms were. A double bed each, our own shower (for the first time), plus a TV showing films and Premier League football; just the comforts needed after the excess of Siem Reap.
We were keen to take advantage of the other relaxing features, so we donned our free dressing gown and slippers, before heading down to the first floor. We did have to ask them to start up the spa for us, but it meant we had it to ourselves.
There was also a roof top pool and a gym, which was sadly blocked off due to abandoned maintenance in that corridor; probably the only downside of the hotel. With such comfort and relaxation, we barely ventured out that evening, except to the supermarket and Burger King down the road.
The next day we checked into a similar hotel, called Xin Lan Xin, but without a spa as advertised. No big deal though, for $15 we got a decent pool and the rooms were even more impressive than the last – with king-sized beds and a bathtub.
As walks go it was fairly stressful, mainly due to how busy the roads are, but shout out to Maps.Me for getting me there. You should check out this app if you’re ever travelling places without mobile or roaming data.
The museum was once a high school called Tuol Svay Prey. Then in 1976, during the Khmer Rouge regime, it was converted into an infamous prison and torture camp known as S-21.
Just to shed some background, the Khmer Rouge was the name give to followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia). There’s far too much history about them to delve into but they were fronted by a group of despots, including their talismanic leader Pol Pot, who wanted a classless society driven by agriculture.
Their crimes could be anything from supporting the previous regime, to being an academic, intelligent, a monk, studying the arts, being foreign, or even just speaking a foreign language. Along with many other trivial things.
It cost me $8 to enter the museum, which includes an audio guide and a map of the grounds. These narrated many atrocities which took place on the very spots where I walked and stood.
As I walked through the cell blocks listening to the chilling voices of survivors, eyewitnesses or guards, namely the sadistic camp director ‘Comrade Duch’, I’d never felt such a mixture of sadness, guilt and anger in my life.
They would be chained in manacles, shackles or iron bars; left to fester, with only mouthfuls of food each day and a hosing down every four days.
Prisoners had finger nails pulled, they were water boarded, or hung upside down and dunked in pots of filth and faeces. Some were the subject of experimental operations, or bled out without anaesthetic. It’s hard to describe just how barbaric.
Hardly surprising that people would be coerced into confessing to fictitious and ridiculous crimes, that they didn’t even understand; such as working for the CIA, KGB, or Vietnam.
This would often mean listing ‘co-conspirators’ or essentially people they knew or had spoken to in the past, who in turn would be rounded up and processed in the same way. With high levels of paranoia, many Khmer Rouge supporters found themselves imprisoned too.
I would soon discover that almost 20,000 people would come to S-21 for this sort of interrogation, with only 12 surviving the ordeal.
Many of these did so because they were able to paint or sculpt various tools of propaganda. One of them was a guy called Van Nath, who has since released a book and painted some of the ordeals he witnessed or was subject to.
A couple of other prisoner’s stories from the audio tracks really stood out too. One was about a young woman called Bophana and her clandestine relationship with a Khmer Rouge convert, before both were arrested, tortured and executed.
Another was about Kerry Hamil, a Kiwi who was caught in Cambodian waters, along with a Brit and Canadian, during an innocuous sailing trip. I listened to his brother give an emotional testimonial during Duch’s trial.
I felt a sense of despair, coupled with seething anger bubbling through me, that no one from the outside world intervened. That was answered by another of the audio tracks.
Apparently a Swedish contingent, (the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association), were invited visit the country and were taken on a propaganda tour; from which they reported back no evidence of foul play or oppression. That seemingly satisfied the UN, who actually allowed Pot and his gang to hold on to their seat after they’d gone in to exile.
I was reflecting on the walk back to the hotel, but I honestly didn’t know how to feel or what to do with myself. It was quite surreal to watch the current residents just cracking on with life, yet all said Khmer Rouge policies killed at least 1.7 million people in the country (one in five of the population).
I did think to myself how important it is to acknowledge and remember what happened, and those who were lost; but I was glad I didn’t go to see the Killing Fields as well – there was enough trauma at Tuol Sleng for one day.
Afterwards we walked back past lots of alfresco dining, or should I say people eating god-knows-what sat on crates and stools on the street, with heaps of rubbish everywhere. I must have been in a snobby mood, because none of the nightlife seemed very tempting either.
Soon we retreated to the comfort of our hotel for a film binge. After all, we weren’t to know when our next proper night of leisure would be.
For once we were leaving somewhere suitably refreshed. It was with a clear head that I appreciated how fortunate we have things living in the UK, even the roughest or scruffiest parts that we love to mock.