A very sobering Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Hello! So Andy left you all last in the air, flying from the very miserable island of Phu Quoc to a bright and warm Saigon. We landed with smiles on our faces, we felt like we had returned home. We went back to our last guesthouse and were warmly welcomed by the elderly owners who were very pleased to see us again. The feeling was mutual. We spent the day around the sunny city, drinking expensive coffee at a Trung Nguyen shop, walking round the vast American military market my dad had recommended and of course drinking Bia Hoi with the locals. Wey hey! It was our last day in Vietnam and what a way to clear the Phu Quoc cobwebs away!

The next day, we checked out early and were kissed and hugged by the lovely wife of Anh, the owner of the guesthouse, bringing a tear to my eye. They were such lovely people and I would recommend their guesthouse to anyone – Diep Anh Guesthouse. We were getting on a bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and were a little apprehensive about the journey and the border crossing. It didn’t take too long to get to the border, around two hours which was just past where we’d been before to see the Cao Dai temple. But immigration took a while, especially since we had to buy our way out of Vietnam as we’d accidentally stayed an extra day. Illegal immigrants! Ha ha! It only cost $5 each. Also, even though we had bought our Cambodian visas online, we still needed our fingers and hands scanned to get into the country. Very high tech I thought! So the whole process took two hours in the end.

We walked back onto the same coach but we were now in the land of Cambodia which felt slightly odd. We were surrounded by casinos, probably here for the Vietnamese to use, as gambling is banned for them back home. I was also shocked by the amount of children walking around, semi-naked on the street begging. After the most horrid and expensive lunch stop (cold slimey hacked up dog meat and bone) and a strange ferry ride four hours later, we rolled into a huge and bustling Phnom Penh city. We found our accommodation – a bar called The White Rabbit with a few spare bedrooms on the side and sat down for a well earned Angkor beer. It went down well 🙂 The city didn’t feel or look too dissimilar to Thailand or Vietnam but the first thing we noticed was the high price for everything (all in American dollars). The only time you saw their own currency – Riel, was when you were getting change for under a dollar. I thought Cambodia was going to be really cheap but I was so wrong.

To help you guys understand what happened in Cambodia just 30 or so years ago, I’d suggest going on Google or checking out Wikipedia for info on the Khmer Rouge and a horrid man called Pol Pot. Basically, just think along the lines of genocide. Yep not nice, but since we were here, we had to try to understand what these poor people went through only a few years before I was born, by going to visit some of the sites where it all happened in Phnom Penh.

So the next day we got up early, preparing ourselves for the day ahead. It wasn’t going to be easy visiting S21 (a primary school the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture house) and the killing fields (where people’s bodies were piled into mass graves), but we wanted to get it out of the way on the first day and then enjoy ourselves visiting other sites like the palace and national museum on the second day.

S21 was situated in the heart of town, walled off with barbed wire making the whole place look cold and spooky. We walked through blood stained rooms that were once happy classrooms – with photos of dead tortured bodies on the wall. We saw reams of before and after execution photos, everything was documented and everyone was accounted for. In Pol Pots eyes, everyone was guilty and plotting against his regime. If you were a doctor, scientist or teacher you were brought here and tortured. If you wore glasses, could read or even had soft hands, you were killed. If you were a guard here and disobeyed an order to kill, you were killed. They wanted people working the fields, hard labour, no intellectuals left to question what was happening and no children remaining to seek revenge. So millions upon millions were slaughtered. Insanity! There were times during our visit when it would all get too much for Andy and I, and all we could do was go outside to cry and get some fresh air. I just couldn’t believe what happened here and that the world didn’t know it was going on. On our way out, we passed an elderly man sat on a desk selling books. It turned out to be one of seven survivors of S21 when the Vietnamese stormed the prison, rescuing them and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. We sat with him and listened to his story about how his whole family had been murdered and how he had been held in this terrible place. When we went to leave, he shook Andy’s hand and gave me a kiss on my cheek. I walked through those gates bawling my eyes out.

The next stop was the killing fields. It took 20 mins on a tuk tuk to get there and by this point we were completely shell shocked and knew this second half of the day would be even harder to digest. One of many killing sites dotted around the Cambodian countryside, the reason this one was so infamous was because of the number of people who met their end here – the people from S21. In a professional and respectful manner, a free audio guide directs you round the sights and mass graves, narrated by a survivor of the times. So every visitor walks around in silence and if you removed your earphones at any point, the only sound you could hear was the wind in the trees and the birds singing. We passed mass graves, some excavated and the remains stored in the memorial tower, central to the sight, and others were left to nature. It was on the pathways around these graves that pieces of clothing, hair, teeth and bone could be seen on the surface of the mud. Apparently every time it rains here, more of the dead start appearing. I spent the whole time at the killing fields either crying or close to tears. The thought of what happened here not so long ago is absolutely horrendous. I think the worst area for me was a small pit located next to an old blood stained tree where women (naked and raped), where shot and thrown in but not before witnessing their babies and children smashed to death on the tree first. What monsters! I just had to walk away before I was sick.

We spent the rest of the day quietly contemplating what had happened to these poor people. We looked around in the centre of town, trying to spot someone over the age of 40. There weren’t many. I initially came to Cambodia obsessed with the ancient ruins of Siem Reap and its past religions and lost civilisations. However, I now had a greater understanding and compassion for Cambodia’s recent history and a huge respect for the people of this country.

The next day was spent walking around, enjoying the city. We drank iced coffees, did some shopping, watched locals sell lemongrass snails on the side of the road, we even had a snake jump out of a tree by the royal palace onto Andy’s back (yes, a snake!!!), and we also visited the national museum. It was absolutely jam packed with religious relics taken from different sites around Siem Reap. I started to worry that Ankor Wat and other ruins we would visit soon would be completely bare. I guess Egypt’s pyramids are the same, most of the mummies are in London!

After my fill of ancient artefacts I was now ready and raring to travel to Siem Reap for a spot of tomb raiding.

Roll on Lara Croft :0)


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