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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Days 37-39 – Siem Reap

Time to say goodbye to Thailand again, and move on to a new country.

To recap… in my first 2 weeks i’d seen the south of Thailand, i’d then moved back to the centre with Bangkok, before heading west to the cheap but somewhat sombre Kanchanaburi. Following a spell in Laos, I was now in the north of Thailand and wondering where to go to next?

There were some obvious candidates. Myammar (Burma) was quite high on the list for two reasons. First, everyone I had talked to had said good things about it, how untouched it was and different to everyone else. And secondly, it was quite nearby to Thailand so might have made sense.

I didn’t head to Myammar though.  I’d have had to apply for the visa (do-able but a little hassle), and perhaps a pretty poor reason from myself was that I felt I didn’t know enough about it, what with the travel restrictions in certain places.

Anyway, I went on skyscanner, and felt Cambodia was probably the next logical place to go to. It was meant to be cheap, historic and with plenty of other travellers, so with a few clicks and £50 later, a ticket had been bought for me to fly from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, via Bangkok Don Meung.

The flights were the standard AirAsia affair really, cheap and cheerful. I left early from Chiang Mai to get a 10:15AM flight to Bangkok.

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Bye Thailand…

And after a short stop in Bangkok, arrived in Cambodia…

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Expecting an airbridge for the plane at Siem Reap was perhaps a little much!

So upon disembarking the plane it became very clear that Cambodia was swelteringly hot!!

This was April and the temperature was about 42 oC!! I think I started sweating between just getting off the plane and walking to immigration.

Time to get my visa… As a UK passport holder, you have to get a Visa on Arrival. This is where my limited preparation before my trip had worked well.

In quite a weird affair, you line up and present your passport at a desk, along with $30 US dollars and a passport size photo of yourself. If you don’t have a photo of yourself, they’d charge an extra $2.

There are a row of about 10 people, and your passport slowly works its way across them all like a game of hot potato, before you can collect your passport from another desk.

When I made it through, and collected my bag, I needed a taxi to take me to my hostel in Siem Reap. Turns out they have a set price system in place at the airport to the town.

A motorbike ride costs $2 a private car is $7 and a minivan was $10.

I was a little confused at first as to why a private taxi was less than a shared minivan ride, but then it became obvious to me… Air Con.

I felt like I was going to die in the journey in my taxi, it was so hot I think I had created a puddle of sweat on the back leather seats, and after I had refused to take a tour with the driver, he had closed the f**king windows!!!! Grrrr

Eventually I arrived at the hostel and settled in.

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It was really new and modern, and certainly a luxury for Cambodia. I took my shower, put my bags down and chatted to one of the English girls that had also arrived recently.

In one of the weirdest things to happen, it turned out this girl was from the same place I was born (a small town of about 45,000 people). But not only that, there were another 3 people in our 12 bed dorm, all of which had not previously known each other, that were also from the same place. How freaky is that?

So what did I do in Siem Reap…

Well I quickly established that one of my favourite places to eat was the Red Piano, right near Pub Street.

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Reasons included…

  1. The food was decent for foreign food and reasonably priced.
  2. The constant procession of Tuk Tuk drivers EVERYWHERE in Siem Reap would leave you alone here
  3. They accepted $100 US Dollar notes which was all the cash machines would ever give me. It felt a little insulting as on average, the workers earned about $80 dollars for the entire month, and I paid for my meals with $100 notes.

I went to visit the  National Museum and the Landmine Museum…

However I have no pictures of the National Museum, I don’t think they allowed pictures, or if they did I just didn’t take any! I’ll be honest in saying that the fact I don’t remember too much about it means I can’t have found it too interesting…

The Landmine Museum is about 45 minutes away from it, and I got a Tuk-Tuk to take me there, wait for me, and take me back for about $15. I probably overpaid, but things in Cambodia are very cheap and he was a really nice guy so I had no problems.

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Eventually we arrived and I had a look through the museum. Cambodia has a very sad past, and with all the wars from the past in the region a LOT of landmines were planted. There may still be 5 million landmines yet to be cleared.

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It’s quite a small museum but tells the tale of Aki Ra, who has single handedly cleared huge amounts of landmines from Cambodia.

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I chatted to a really helpful American guy from the museum that told me indepth all about the history, and soon we had attracted a crowd with our conversation.

Buying clothes at the markets…

Feeling a bit more sombre, I took the journey back to the town and remembering that after a month of travelling, my clothes were in not such a good state. My white T-shirts were not so white anymore and my shorts were all really big on me.

So I headed to the clothes market and soon enough a young Cambodian girl called Linda was selling me a few t-shirts for a couple of dollars each. She even got a piece of string to act as a belt for my shorts which kept nearly falling down!

Turned out this charming girl (website here) not only went to school full time, she worked on her mothers clothing stall and then at night would sell home-made bracelets in pub street to drunken party-goers. And her spoken English was highly impressive!

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Linda with her cap on selling bracelets outside a club

Admittedly the quality of the t-shirts I bought was terrible, but the price was so cheap it didn’t really matter.

The Temples of Angkor…

Probably what most people associate with Siem Reap is Angkor Wat.

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You can buy day passes, 3 day passes and week passes from the ticket office and then go and see all the temples. And to organise a trip around the temples is very easy given the huge amount of Tuk-Tuks that want to take you on a tour.

A lot of travellers I met told me that I should do at least 3 days of seeing temples, but in the end 1 day was quite honestly  more than enough for me. What I could have done (which I didn’t) is see the temples at sunrise or sunset which is quite popular and cheap.

As fascinating and impressive as the temples are, they are all a bit same-y and you can quite easily get ‘templed out’. Add that to the 40 degree heat that burns my skin instantly and that decided it.

I agreed with a Tuk Tuk driver to take me around Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and one other for $15. He was supposed to wait as I explored each temple, and then take me to the next. However, after exploring a couple of the temples, I couldn’t find the driver anywhere so he didn’t get his money which is a shame. I had to find another Tuk-Tuk to continue and take me back afterwards.

Anyway…pictures…

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Probably my favourite…

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Last but not least… drinking!! 🙂

I happened to see the following poster in the hostel…

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Pub Crawl…in Siem Reap… Sure… Why Not?!

So I tried to rally the troops from the hostel into coming along, and went with one of the English guys to pick up our vest tops.

There were a few bars we went to and one or two drinking games thrown in, and drunkenly I met alot of people and ended up with the usual random photos from the night on my phone.

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Towards the end of the night I took on my gentleman-ly responsibilities in looking after one of the Asian girls from the hostel that was travelling alone and could barely stand up. 3 bottles of water later she was good as new!!

And after that at some time in the early hours I headed back, ready for my bus to Phnom Penh later in the morning.