After HCMC we said a sad goodbye to Vietnam. Whilst HCMC disappointed, the rest of it is such a beautiful country that we saw comparatively little of – so we definitely plan to return in the future. The coach to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia took 7 hours and dropped us off near our first full-on Hostel – the Mad Monkey. We were a little apprehensive about how much sleep we were going to get (even in a private room) but as it turned out it was a lot of fun – comfy room with friendly, helpful staff and a messy but not OTT crowd in the bar 🙂
First day we just wandered round Phnom Penh and whilst it was pretty, it was a bit of a waste of a day. There’s some beautiful old French Colonial era buildings and temples – but there’s a lot of featureless modern places which kind of detracts from the whole – we could have easily skimmed this bit and moved on.
On our second day we did a very sobering but necessary trip to help understand Cambodia and its recent past. The Khmer Rouge regime was only in power for 3.5 years in the late 70s – but in that time conducted a genocidal massacre of anywhere between 1.8 and 3 million of its 8 million citizens. Anyone who was an intellectual, involved with the previous regime or was a city dweller was liable to be executed as the Khmer Rouge cleared the cities and set the entire country to work in the fields.
The Genocide Museum at Choeung Ek is 15km south of Phnom Penh – and better known as The Killing Fields. Yet this, despite being the most infamous of them, is only one of around 300 sites where the Khmer Rouge murdered their own people and buried them in mass graves. The pagoda that confronts you as you walk in has 17 levels containing the bones of the 9000 people that were executed there and the excellent audio tour really helps you to understand the horrors of what happened there, but it doesn’t make it any easier to understand how the hell it could have happened.
Lots of people leave “friendship bands” on the fences marking the boundaries of the graves – Nikki (as is Jewish custom when visiting a grave) put a small stone on the side – no-one else there probably noticed or understood what she did but I found it really moving.
We took no photos that day – it didn’t seem the right thing to do.
Aside from the shock of the extent of the genocide I was also stunned to find out that Pol Pot lived out his life around the fringes of Thailand and Cambodia and was never brought to trial, more so that the UN and most western countries recognised him as the “true” leader of Cambodia for some time after he was ousted by a Vietnamese coup. That he was never found and brought to trial staggers me.
From there we went on to the notorious “S-21” prison at Tuol Sleng back in the city. Most people who entered there were tortured into signing confessions that they were Vietnamese / KGB / CIA collaborators and if they survived, shipped off to Choeung Ek to be dumped in a mass grave. The prison is now full of the photos of the inmates when they arrived and sometimes when they’d been tortured – everything was methodically documented.
If this seems like a pretty gruesome day, it was – but it’s something you need to experience to understand modern Cambodia before moving on to the historical sites at Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – which is where we headed next.
To be honest there isn’t too much to add to Gethin’s post except…
Unbeknown to us Lauren and Rosie who we had met on the slow boat along the Mekong to Luang Prabang were also in Phnom Penh, so they came over to the hostel and we spent the evening catching up and having a good evening.
After visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 I decided it was time to even up the “yin and yang” balance and went to the local hospital to give blood. I am now the owner of my own Cambodian donor card. I don’t think they see that many Westerners giving blood as I was queue jumped all of the way through. The processes are the same as in the UK but their criteria is not as strict as back home so giving wasn’t a problem.