Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was a 5 hour minibus journey away from Sihanoukville and we arrived quite late in the evening. We checked into the SLA Boutique Hostel after a 20 minute walk from the bus station, through a maze of pitch black streets lit only by a number of red illuminated ‘massage’ bars.
The hostel was nice – we had a double bed bunk each so could’ve actually just paid for one bed, but Tom decided to sleep separately anyway, thanks!
We wandered into town, walking down dark, rubbish-filled roads to grab some dinner and watched as middle aged westerners left blacked out bars with young Cambodian girls. A bit gross.
Having not managed to catch any of the England games in the World Cup as of yet, we decided to stay awake for the 1am kick off against Colombia, settling down in front of the TV in the kitchen area of our hostel. About 15 minutes in a girl arrived wearing a Colombia shirt – how random! We chatted and watched the game together, learning that she’d just got out of hospital after being on a drip for 5 days after drinking contaminated water. England won the game on penalties (slightly awkward for us) and at 4.30am we very quietly crawled into bed.
After a lie in we visited the National Museum of Cambodia which was $25 for two tickets and an audio guide which we shared. The museum, frankly, was crap – just a few ornaments and carvings with awful descriptions and barely any information to learn from. Annoyed we’d paid so much to go round, we left and made our way to the Royal Palace.
At the palace we again paid $10 each to enter, only to find out that my attire was deemed ‘inappropriate’ as my shoulders were on show, despite the fact I had them covered with a scarf (that I’d used to cover up with at numerous temples/religious monuments previously). So in a toss up between walking all the way back to the hostel to change or to pay $3 for a disgusting t-shirt, I went for the t-shirt. Back at security, the guard then decided he wasn’t happy with the length of my dress either so, pissed that he was messing me around, I refused to pay for trousers and slipped my dress down, tying it around my waist to make a long skirt. Finally allowed in (albeit looking like a weirdo), we browsed a series of ornate buildings covered in gold with intricate carvings but after having seen quite a few palaces and temples now, we weren’t bowled over by it.
After an hour or so we left the palace and wandered to a casino and mall on the edge of town where we watched some traditional Cambodian dancing. On the way back to our hostel Tom braved a haircut at a barbers he’d found on TripAdvisor, along with all other westerners in Phnom Penh apparently.
We had dinner that evening at a Cambodian street restaurant and had simple beef noodles with veg. It was extremely popular with the locals and there was a constant stream of people pulling up to get food to take away. We were somewhat put off our food however as we watched the cook catering for the take aways constantly chop both raw and cooked meat and salad on the same wooden board with the same knife, occasionally wiping it down with a dirty rag. Lovely!
The main tourist spots in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (otherwise known as S-21), giving visitors a shocking insight to the horror and atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge when they slaughtered 25% of Cambodia’s population. One of the great things about our hostel was that instead of pedalling expensive tours to see the sights they simply had a white board in the common area where you could write your name, a date and time and others could join you to share the cost of a tuk-tuk. We did this and were joined by a lovely graduate from New York. We agreed a price with a driver outside the hostel to take us to both sites and set off for the Killing Fields first.
The audio guide was fascinating and we were able to tour the site at our own pace, listening to stories from survivors and learning the awful things that happened there. We walked by numerous mass graves with up to 450 bodies contained inside some of them, pausing to take stock of the brutality of it all. It all became very real when I looked down at the ground and realised I was walking on bone fragments and remnants of clothing – although hundreds of skeletons were recovered and examined, the majority were left to rest peacefully in the graves and, when it rains, it’s not uncommon for bones and shreds of fabric to rise to the surface.
The most shocking part however was the grave next to the ‘Killing Tree’. Here lay a mass grave of women and children alongside a tree originally found with blood, hair and brain upon its bark. *Warning, graphic* It transpired that the Khmer Rouge guards would hold babies and children by the ankles and swing them at the tree, smashing their skulls to kill them. Then, after the poor mothers had watched as their children were cruelly murdered, the guard would kill them too, throwing their bodies into the pit. The guards used powerful chemicals to cover up the stench of the rotting corpses, also speeding up decomposition, but when the burial site was first discovered, the smell was said to be overwhelming.
It was also shocking to learn that after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, the leaders who orchestrated these killing fields carried on with normal lives, some becoming school teachers, only to be found out later in life and held to account.
After browsing the rest of the museum including the huge memorial stupa containing hundreds of skulls and other bones, all colour coded to show cause of death and separated by age range, we found our tuk-tuk driver and made our way to S-21.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was a high school converted into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge and operated from 1975-1979. An estimated 20,000 Cambodians were imprisoned and tortured here before being sent to the Killing Fields. Only 12 people made it out alive. People were held here under suspicion of espionage and the Khmer Rouge killed anyone they thought to be academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers; even those who simply wore glasses.
We again had an audio tour and made our way through the complex, entering baron rooms with barbed wire covering the windows, some with metal beds inside with photos on the walls showing deceased prisoners shackled to them. As we moved through we saw rooms lined with thousands of photos of people, none of whom survived. Many prisoners died here of curable diseases, starvation and infection and, overwhelmed by the photos of dead bodies, I began to feel faint. Taking a moment, I took a seat outside and got some fresh air for a while.
Throughout the complex there were examples of torture devices, tiny jail cells and paintings by prisoners of what life was like. I won’t describe these in depth.
The Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, unearthing the true extent of what had been going on to the world.
At the end of an intense day I struggled to come to terms with how this had happened at all, let alone only 40 years ago. Over the following days, Tom and I discussed what we’d seen with our parents, asking if they remembered seeing it in the news. It must’ve been baffling to learn of. Entire families, villages and cultures were wiped out and, as we met people on our journey through Cambodia, this would be on our minds constantly – how had each individual been affected?
Next stop… Siem Reap.
See ya later, Sophie x