Days 40-42 – Phnom Penh

Day 40 came, and I had to wake myself up from a hangover to catch a bus ride from my hostel in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

On one hand I was a little sad at leaving Siem Reap when I was. I’d made quite a few friends at the hostel and i’d had a great night out. But i’d pre-booked my bus that morning to leave, and really i’d done everything I had wanted to do. So after a few handshakes and hugs, my goodbyes were said and I got a  bus journey to Phnom Penh which is further east of Cambodia and nearer to Vietnam.

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After the bus dropped me at their bus station in Phnom Penh, I had to get a Tuk-Tuk to take me to the Mad Monkey Hostel I was staying at.

One top tip I can pass on from my travelling is to go on the Google Maps app on your phone before going somewhere and download the offline map for the area you are going to first. That way you can use your GPS offline to get you anywhere, like say, that hostel you’re staying at in a place you’ve never been before when you’re dumped in the middle of nowhere in darkness from a long bus journey.

Unfortunately my phone battery was low, the hostel was quite far, it was dark, I had my bags to contend with and it was still really hot so I made to haggle with a Tuk-Tuk.

As always, upon getting off a bus, the locals know where all the tourist buses stop and so surround the exit asking where you are saying and giving an inflated price to get you there.

I tried hard to haggle, even walking away from their price for a few minutes, but it was futile, and what with the Khmer New Year I paid the price asked of me.

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Day time picture of the hostel entrance. – Flags for the Khmer New Year

Eventually I arrived at the hostel and checked in. I was in a dorm with 6 bunk beds, and everyone else in the room was English. In fact, from what I could tell, they were all travelling as a group of 18 or 19 year olds on a gap year before going to university.

I tried to interact with them initially but I didn’t exactly feel warmly welcomed by them so in the end I mostly kept myself to myself for the 3 nights I was in Phnom Penh. Seeing as I ended up seeing memorial sites whilst in Cambodia – something which i’d rather do alone, it didn’t really bother me.

A brief history of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ in Cambodia…

Before I went to Cambodia, I had no real idea about the terrible things the Cambodian people had been through. Before I write about where I went, I think I should therefore briefly explain what happened.

Between 1975-1979, Cambodia was ruled by a regime called the ‘Khmer Rouge’. The Khmer Rouge believed in creating a completely classless and self sufficient Cambodia (or Kampuchea as it was then). Their idea of doing this was to completely ban any foreign influence or institutional structures like schools, hospitals, finance (including money) etc

The authoritarian regime took control of trying to turn all of Cambodia into a nation of forced labour farmers, erasing anything considered ‘modern’ in its midst. To do this, it killed anyone that did not fit into their society, and by the end of their 4 year reign of terror, about 2 million of the 8 million Cambodians had died either through direct executions or starvation and disease.

S-21 Prison

The day after I arrived in Phnom Penh, I went to visit the S-21 Prison. It was used as one of many concentration camps within the Khmer Rouge rule.

Out of respect, I did not take many pictures of this or the Killing Fields as it just didn’t feel appropriate.

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I walked around rather sombre with the very good audio guide provided. It’s packed with information and does a fantastic job of recreating the horrors of the prison. S-21 was a school before it was converted into a prison as you might tell from the buildings, and you can walk around most of the converted classrooms.

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Many people that were taken to the prison had no idea as to why they were even there, and what they had supposedly done wrong. Some people were taken simply because they had soft hands or glasses, thus they were intellectuals and not compatible with the vision of the Khmer Rouge.

Prisoners were brutally tortured in order to ‘confess’ their crimes, most having to confirm they were part of the CIA or KGB when many didn’t even know what they were. They were encouraged to name other people that were part of their supposed crime and after being tortured for their confessions, they were executed.

The main memorial at S-21
The main memorial at S-21

The Killing Fields

The day after, I also went to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, a series of mass graves where the Cambodian people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

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I walked around in the blazing heat, again with an audio guide, learning about the terrible things that had occured. From children beaten against trees, fragments of bones on pathways, pieces of clothing washing up with the rain, it’s an incredibly tragic and powerful place.

The commemorative Stupa containing skulls of the victims
The commemorative Stupa containing skulls of the victims

And then I decided to leave Cambodia…

100 days might seem a long time but it really wasn’t. I was aware I was nearly at the half way mark and there was still plenty I wanted to see. The question was mainly one of priorities and my gut feeling.

With 2 months left, I could have spent more time in Cambodia. People had recommended some of the islands like Koh Rong or to head to Silhanoukville. However, I cannot overstate just how hot April is in Cambodia. I think this was probably the hottest country i’ve EVER been to, taking the title from July in Hong Kong.

And it wasn’t pleasant heat, it was ‘don’t go out between 11am-3pm unless you want to turn into a pile of ashes ‘ heat. There was also the fact I was thinking that i’d end up in the Philippines which would have arguably better beaches and be cooler.

I guess I just didn’t ‘feel’ Cambodia like I did other countries (a little unfair considering I spent 6 days there admittedly), and I always told myself that if it didn’t feel right, to move on.

With Vietnam a very short distance away, I committed myself to heading there. The hostel organised an express turnaround Vietnam visa service and so I handed over my passport and $50 and not long later I received a 30 day visa in my passport for entering Vietnam the next day…

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2 thoughts on “Days 40-42 – Phnom Penh

  1. Good read, Chris, I look forward to checking out Cambodia in the future. A lot of people aren’t aware of Cambodia’s dark history under the Khmer Rouge, back then you could get executed for wearing glasses simply because gave the appearance you were an intellectual. Did you notice the missing generation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked it. From only going to Cambodia for 6 days it’s hard to say I found a missing generation. I went to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that have largely been rebuilt as they are major cities. The people seem very welcoming and happy despite the horrific events. I did see a few amputees as land mines are still a big problem (I went to the land mine museum in Siem Reap).

      Chris

      Like

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