We chose the luxury bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh at only $11 each for a 6 hour journey. After a mosquito killing contest which resulted in an 8-2 victory for me, the journey was uneventful, save for the smartly dressed Cambodian girl whose job it was to make announcements and hand out free snacks. She was full of useless information about all the provinces we travelled through but, due to being barely understandable, most of these facts passed us by as serenely as the Cambodian countryside.
We found Phnom Penh to be a little underwhelming to be honest. The National Museum wasn’t bad but the Royal Palace was pretty dull (and expensive at more than $6 each!) and there is not a lot else to do here other than the two principle sites to visit, both related to the horrors of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
First was Tuol Sleng – a school which was hastily converted into a prison in which the educated classes could be tortured and forced into confessions by the new government under the command of the recently tried Duch, one of the only members of the regime to show any sort of remorse for his actions.
Some truly horrific stuff happened there in the name of creating a new, agrarian, self-sufficient society overnight and the experience of looking around the adapted classrooms at the faces of the 20,000 that were sent there can only be described as emotionally exhausting and harrowing. The fact that it was a school that was in use right up until the day the Khmer Rouge emptied the city in 1975 served to make it all the more horrific I think.
Exhausted by the experience, we decided to leave the famous Killing Fields until the next day which, I think, was a good decision because if anything, this was harder on the senses than the prison.
After spending what could be months in the prison being tortured, inmates were taken to these fields 15km south of the city in trucks, where they were led to ditches, made to kneel and simply bludgeoned to death by various blunt instruments to the side of the head, bullets being deemed too costly to waste on killing people they thought were just not worth the expense.
The worst experience came when our guide pointed out that there are still some 10,000 bodies under the ground here, some of whose clothes, bones and teeth are beginning to surface as the tourists walk around the place. Realising that that piece of cloth you can see sticking out of the ground under your shoe belonged to a victim of the genocide was particularly disturbing, as was seeing the tree on which the troops reportedly smashed babies heads against to kill them before dumping their, and their mothers’ bodies into the ditches.
In the evening, we ate at a restaurant in town which employs street kids and teaches them (in several different restaurants) the trade including waiting tables and cooking, which gives them a leg up and gives them the chance to get a job using their experience once they have qualified. It felt like a tiny contribution to help these people out and I suppose our mere presence here, spending our pounds on tuk-tuks, night markets and hotels helps them out too.
Next day, we travelled down to Kep, a small town on the south coast where the wealthy used to come to relax in their big houses and villas back in the 60’s. During the years of the Khmer Rouge and civil war, the place was virtually destroyed and today the place is littered with deserted shells of old hotels and houses.
The town is growing again and there are a few tourists here but it’s still very quiet and we’ve enjoyed relaxing here for 3 days, staying in a wooden hut up in the trees. We’ve also met some really nice people from all over the world, one of which actually MET the King that day when we could only stand and watch him swish by in his official car in Siem Reap so that trumped Annika’s excitement at just SEEING him and I think she’s finally coming to terms with the fact that she’s not going to become Cambodian royalty on this trip.
Cambodia has been a fantastic experience – the people are great and very friendly, despite the very recent traumas that almost all of them have come through. Everywhere you go, there is evidence of what happened here, land mines leaving many amputees and orphaned children begging on the streets and yet there are a lot more smiling faces around the place, particularly children who are very happy to wave and shout “Hello!” to every foreigner they see.
The food has been really good and it has to be said that Angkor Wat and the other temples were the highlight of the trip so far.
Tomorrow morning we are off to Vietnam, starting in the Mekong Delta, heading to Can Tho before travelling north to S-s-s-s-Saigon where, I’m led to believe, the average age is 19. Hmmm.