We departed Sihanoukville at 9am thinking we would get to Phnom Penh by 12:30. The driving experience was a bit better than the previous in that the driver didn’t fall asleep, but the roads were still very scary, especially due to the amounts of huge trucks and tuktuks and only one lane per direction. Watching the world pass by kept us wide awake for the four hours that it took us to get to Phnom Penh.
Once arrived, we got our welcome drink and checked in to our hotel called Katari, near the Independence monument – which has a penis shape. (Not that I have ever seen one of course)
We had to get a tuktuk straight away to sort out my documents and went to FedEx and then went to a very rated restaurant called Malis. It was very tasty, although a bit weird since it was completely empty as it was 4pm! We had fried soft shell crabs, Fish Amok, and some river fish called Gobi something. We walked back, passing by a cool area with lots of bars and querky shops called Bassac Lane. Very interesting to see the contrast between the quirky modern bars with buzzing music, and the people living in the area, with their windows and doors open and their babies playing in the street. I bought a funny leopard print t-shirt that will always remind me of the Cambodian vibe. We strolled back to the hotel before dinner, passing by a local sport pub to check if they were going to show the Tottenham – Arsenal game.
As we got back I started feeling sick… I won’t describe it as you can imagine, but it was pretty bad. Especially cramps, nausea and vomit wouldn’t leave me alone. The chills and fever kept me awake overnight. Brucey ended up watching the game on TV in the room not to leave me alone, which was very nice of him!
I didn’t feel like eating obviously, so when the game finished he went out to get a burger and met a nice Cambodian lady which is engaged to an Irish guy.
The next morning I was still feeling pretty poorly, but the nausea at least seemed to have gone. I went for breakfast with Brucey, but it wasn’t a good idea since after 10 minutes I started feeling dizzy and getting a blurred vision… As I got up to go back to the room I was about to faint, and I had to lie straight down on the floor to get my blood back in my brain. Bruce didn’t even know that I needed to get my legs up in the air and as I asked him to do it, he kept saying what? what? Luckily he somehow understood eventually.
I crawled back to the room, and he went back to have breakfast and met a nice Australian couple that was asking how I was feeling.
The rest of the morning I spent it trying to recover, Bruce went to the pharmacy and got me some more medicines until finally I slowly regained strength by 2pm when we decided to go out and see Toul Sleng, the S21 prison – one of the prison network where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge imprisoned between 1-2 million Cambodians – and many thousands of foreigners. Here they were starved to death, tortured, or killed, during this reign of terror. The Genocide museum is located in the prison ground, and it contains 6000 photographic records of the massacre. You walk around with an audio guide, and you need two hours to see it all.
It is very hard to see, profoundly depressing and moving. I cried several times. But as the audio guide says, the Khmer Rouge killed over 2.5 million people of the overall population of Cambodia at the time of 8 million, and everyone needs to know and remember what has happened here. Only by remembering and knowing we can help for it not to happen again. Everyone that comes to Phnom Penh needs to come here, this only happened 40 years ago, between 1975 and 1979. And it touched the lives of everyone in Cambodia, to understand their culture and history, it is important to understand what they had to go through during the Angkor (what the communist “state” was called) era.
Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns and lawn-bowling pitches. The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977 and the interrogation rooms only display a school desk-and-chair set that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979.
After leaving the prison we were both speechless, and couldn’t find the words to talk about it. We went back as the experience and the heat made us very tired. We then left to go and eat at Friends a must in Phnom Penh (and part of the Tree Alliance of which also Sandane in Sihanoukville is part), which offers tasty Asian and Western tapas bites, heavenly smoothies (Brucey tried and loved the coffee and coconut smoothie) and most importantly it offers former street children a head start in the hospitality industry. Bruce had squid and seafood soup, and I only had steam rice – boring but safe.
Next to it is the Nail Bar, where I got my nails done after dinner, while Bruce got a feet and hand massage again to help street children in a new vocation. The kids were about 17 and were very sweet. Bruce didn’t seem to enjoy too much his massage which didn’t looked relaxing since there was one kid pulling his arms around and a girl pulling his foot, he seemed to be very confused about what was happening. But we did it for the good cause of course. Ready for bed afterwards, we just had a quick look at the river front which wasn’t too lively, and then got a tuktuk home.
I managed not to faint during breakfast, which was a success and a good start of the day! We met the Australian couple again, which were so nice, and we are hoping to meet them again when we get to Oz in April. After breakky we had to check out and we decided to head to the Killing Fields before heading to the airport to catch our 3pm flight to Siem Reap.
The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek are only one of the 300 extermination camps that were active in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. This particular one has been chosen as a memorial, where to pay respect to all the victims from all the Killing Fields in the country. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located 7.5Km south of the city and the entry ($6 per person) includes another excellent audio tour (even if Bruce had to change his machine 3 times as it kept turning off).
Here is the place where, between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to in vans without windows. The Khmer Rouge was telling them that they were bringing them to a new home to try and keep them quiet. Once arrived they were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age and type of wound, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988. It is a peaceful place today, masking the horrors that happened here several decades ago. We left a flower and again a few tears to pay our respect.
After a two hours visit to the Killing Fields we moved to the airport, speechless again. We got our flight to Siem Reap for only £25 and it was such a good idea after all the bad drives we had here in Cambodia. There was no cue for checkin, security was very quick, the flight was half empty and it only took 30 minutes. Definitely worth since the minibus would have cost us the same if not more. I was initially a bit scared of Bassaka airline, but they got us here in one piece!
We arrived in Siem Reap and got a free tuktuk to our Hotel called Golden Villa Temple, the welcoming drink was a delicious lime and sugary ice tea. Now we have two days here to visit Angkor Wat and see some of the beauty that the Khmer created, to heal from all the horrors we’ve seen so far!