At 8am on Monday 22nd January 2018 we got on a bus to take us to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The journey would be around 6 hours and cost us 250,000 dong (£8). We had to pay US$35 for a visa, $5 of that being a fee to get the bus driver to sort out our visas for us. We had read online that some drivers would leave without you or make it impossible for you to get your visa if you didn’t pay the $5 so we resigned ourselves to pay it. We then ended up having to pay an extra $5 each because we didn’t have a passport photo to give them. We had read we could get a picture for $1 at the border but our driver told us this wasn’t the case and that the $5 would be used as a bribe to the border guard to let us into the country. Who knows who ended up getting the money we gave but it got us into the country and gave us our visa which was the main thing.
Before I came away, Cambodia was one of my favourite countries after having spent one month here volunteering at a village school in 2014. I was looking forward to being back and to Niall being here too and hoped that it stayed as good as I remembered it. We arrived to beautiful blue skies and hot weather at around 3.30pm. We were staying at 19 Happy House Backpackers which was in a good location near to the river and the night market. It was cheap which is why we chose it but it was very basic and didn’t have air conditioning which was particularly a struggle when we first arrived and were hot from our walk from the bus. It isn’t peak season for Cambodia so the hostel wasn’t very busy but that wasn’t an issue for us. Although not cold, the ground floor had decent wifi and music so we could chill under a fan when we weren’t out exploring. The rooms ended up being an alright temperature too so the strangest thing about the hostel ended up being the guests as we’ve found capital cities can attract a strange group of people (our had an elderly gentlemen who insisted on sleeping naked and someone who FaceTime’d in the early hours of the morning whilst everyone tried to sleep).
After getting some food we had a walk about the area to get our bearings and a feel for the place. It was exactly like I remembered it which I loved. The main tourist area is along the Tonle Sap River which has a wide pedestrian walkway running alongside the river and also has a line of restaurants and bars on the other side of the road which takes you to the Royal Palace. The walkway is lined with the flag of Cambodia and palm trees and was busy with elderly women taking dance aerobics classes, children playing football and tag and young couples relaxing together, looking out at the river. I find Phnom Penh has a really chilled vibe during the day so is a very relaxed city to spend time in.
After a walk after dark (around 8pm) we saw a completely different side of Phnom Penh by the river as we walked through the Red Light District (RLD). Now, this is very clearly a RLD as every bar has at least 10 girls in high heels and tiny dresses sitting around talking to old men or trying to get them to come into the bar. It’s seedy but that’s because of the many old men leering over girls that could easily be their daughters (and probably granddaughters) age! Saying that, you don’t feel unsafe. You can walk down this street as if it’s any other and not experience any trouble as it is also filled with restaurants. It does make me a little bit sad though seeing these young girls all sitting around waiting in these bars. Most of them look incredibly bored and then I think that the alternative to their boredom of waiting around that night isn’t better in any way.
After a relaxed morning, we headed to the Central Market which, as the name suggests, is in the centre of town and is enormous. This market has everything from a massive jewellery section in the middle to electronics, toiletries, arts and crafts and clothes. What we enjoyed about this market was the space and the fact that you’re relatively left alone to wander around without having every person shout at you to buy something from their store. I bought some new sunglasses here and we bought some phone charger cables so it was a lot more of a practical shop but it would be a great place to buy souvenirs to take home if this was your last stop.
After some lunch at a small stall on a side street by the river, we headed to the Royal Palace. This cost US$10 to get in and you had to have your shoulders and knees covered so I wrapped my sarong around my legs. They’re clever as they have tops and trousers you can buy so I imagine they make quite a bit of extra money from the dress code requirements. The palace is closed between 10:30am and 2pm so we went here in the late afternoon and it was nice to be able to walk around with relatively few people in the palace grounds and it being outside of the hottest part of the day. The palace is the official residence of the King of Cambodia, King Sihamoni, and so you’re not able to visit the entire site. The area we could visit was the Throne Room and some of the buildings adjacent to that and then walk around some of the grounds which are beautifully landscaped. Gold is heavily featured here particularly on the roofs which are all beautiful with intricate gold designs. Every part of the buildings had something to see from statues of deities holding up the roof to dragons flanking the stair cases – I loved it.
You can then walk through a gateway that leads you to a neighbouring complex where the Silver Pagoda is. There are lovely stupa’s that are made of stone and covered completely in beautiful, intricate carvings. They must have taken forever to create as they’re also very tall. There are also lots of murals and temples here that are full of golden statues of the Buddha. It’s another pretty place and complements the palace beautifully.
We walked along the riverfront and went to the FCC building which is the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia. This places is one of many Correspondent’s Clubs that are around the world but isn’t a private club for members only like a lot of the FCC’s are. You can come here to have a drink, some food or even stay the night but we went just to look at the articles and pictures and see what the place was like. The building itself is pretty and sits on the corner of the street in a colonial style, painted yellow. It’s right on the riverfront so looks out onto the water and inside it’s decorated with wood with a giant bar in the centre. You can imagine in the past the journalists, ex-pats and locals all meeting here to discuss the current affairs of the day.
That evening we headed out for tea and ended up finding a nice restaurant that did a Khmer (Cambodian) red curry with noodles that was very tasty. We hadn’t really known what Khmer food would be like (even though I’d been here before I was a lot more inclined to eat western food back then!) and have found it to be a lot more similar to what we know of Thai food over Vietnamese. A lot of places also sell cheap beer for $0.75 so after our food we headed to one of these bars and then finished our night playing pool at our hostel. It was a nice evening and we were really enjoying our time in Cambodia’s capital.
Niall’s first Tuk Tuk ride!
On our last full day in Phnom Penh was spent learning about the terrible and barbaric Pol Pot regime. Before I came to Cambodia in 2014 I had never heard of the Pol Pot regime or knew anything about Cambodian history. It’s not something we learn about in the Western world but I think it’s crucial to learn about what happened to this beautiful country if you visit. Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communist party) Government between 1975 and 1979. His aim was to create a classless, communist society and so took particular interest in intellectuals (anyone from doctors to teachers), city dwellers, civil servants and religious leaders. He aimed to reset Cambodian at the year zero after eliminating the city class and you were considered an intellectual if you knew a second language or even if you wore glasses or had soft hands! It is estimated that in the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the regime anywhere from 2 to 3 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or being overworked all through the actions of their own people – it works out around 1 in every 4 of the population! An interesting (although sad) book to read more on what it was like during this time is called ‘First They Killed My Father’ which I read on my first trip here and is a true story of a young girl who was turned into a child soldier and was on the run during the Pol Pot regime. The older population today still remembers this time and I would be surprised if anyone here doesn’t have a family member who was killed during the regime. Moreover, many of the intellectuals are now a lot younger as these were the majority of people targeted by the regime so you’re likely to see younger pharmacists, doctors and teachers in Cambodia as opposed to other parts of the world.
To learn more about this time, Phnom Penh has two historical memorial sites that document the brutality of the genocide that occurred here. We decided to go to them both. The first was to Choeung Ek which is often referred to as The Killing Fields. Around 17km from the city, this is a mass grave for many people killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s a harrowing place to walk around as you listen to your audio guide that explains a lot of the activities that were conducted here. The guide takes a couple of hours and walks you through the site from the terrified prisoners entering the grounds to their final moments and then to the place being discovered when the country was liberated by the Vietnamese army and Cambodian defectors of the regime. I’m sorry for how explicit I am going to be with what happened here, I know it will be distressing to read as it was to hear and see the sites here but I think it’s important to know what happened just like it is to know what happened whilst Hitler was in power in Germany.
Originally trucks would arrive at the Killing Fields every two or three weeks with mass graves dug waiting for the new arrivals to be killed in very brutal ways involving whatever they had to hand such as bamboo poles, machetes and axes (bullets were too expensive to use on such a thing). By 1978, Pol Pot grew increasingly more suspicious and was sending tucks full of prisoners for execution every day. Until it was discovered after the regime had fallen, no one knew what this place was as patriotic songs were played loudly all day and night to mask the sound of the screams as people were killed.
A mass grave
The audio guide was excellently done, giving informative information as well as commentaries from guards and people who suffered during the regime. The guards talked about how they had to bring people to the Killing Fields or kill people and that if they didn’t, they would end up dead themselves. One grave that was found contained headless soldiers of the Khmer Rouge who were considered traitors and so beheaded with only their bodies being buried as their heads weren’t deemed Cambodian anymore after they tried to defect. Sometimes, they didn’t even try to defect, Pol Pot was just suspicious of them so they would be killed. Throughout the regime a number of officials in the Khmer Rouge Party would end up here or at S-21 (the torture prison) for being seen as traitors due to Pol Pot’s suspicious mind. One of his slogans was: “better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake“.
Bones and cloth collected over the years
There is a peaceful pond with seating all around it and you can listen to stories from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. It’s horrible to think that we won’t even be hearing remotely the worst of what happened as what we heard was bad enough. The place has a calm to it that is such a contrast to what it would have been like to those that were brought here. You can still see fragments of cloth embedded into tree roots or under the soil and every few months the maintainers of the site go around collecting this cloth and bone fragments that come to the surface after heavy rain fall. It is said it is because the spirits do not rest easy on the site which you can fully understand! As I mentioned earlier, women and children were also killed here. The worst site for me was a tree covered in bracelets left in memory for the victims that died here. This is the ‘killing tree’ and is where babies were hit off the tree to kill them before being thrown into a grave whilst their mothers would often have to watch before being killed themselves. Full families were also killed as the Khmer Rouge believe that “to dig up the weeds, one must even dig up the roots” and they didn’t want future generations to survive to be able to exact revenge for their loved ones.
The Killing Field
There are over 300 Killing Fields throughout Cambodia, some deep in the jungle, some completely immersed in water and others that have not yet been found. Like in many of these sites, Choeung Ek had a memorial stupa on the site for those who died. This is considered the main memorial in Cambodia for the Killing Fields and has many levels which house 9000 skulls as well as many of the other major bones of the victims dug up from the mass graves found here. There are still many bones left buried as their isn’t room to house them all. The 20th May is when the Khmer Rouge came to power and this is now the date for memorialising and remembering those who died here. This day used to be known as the Day of Anger but is now called the Day of Remembrance as the country continues to grow and heal from their ordeal.
Next we visited a detention centre in the city called S-21 (security centre 21). This is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and is an old school that was converted into a torture prison, imprisoning people for ‘crimes against the state’. Around 20,000 people were imprisoned here before they were sent to the Killing Fields and only twelve survived.
We also got an audio guide for this site which was full of lots of information as well as stories about survivors and victims. A Khmer Rouge slogan said “study is not important, what is important is work and revolution”. For this reason schools (as well as pagodas/temples) were turned into prisons or warehouses throughout the country. Due to the secrecy of the regime, this was a site that no one knew about and was simply referred to as “the place people entered but never left”. It’s horrible to think that you could be living nearby to such an awful place with no idea of what was going on there. Many people were kept here for months and were tortured multiple times a day in a variety of cruel ways. The torturers were often teenagers who had been recruited from the countryside and desensitised to the violence by killing animals or even practising on the prisoners. Many of these torturers ended up being prisoners themselves later in the regime – no one was immune.
A man named Duch ran the prison and was the ‘perfecter’ and teacher of the torture methods used here. He was methodical and very disciplined and required complete self-control and compliance from his workers. The audio guide tells of a story when he makes a guard kill someone straight away just because he wanted to check that the guard could do it, a bit of me thinks that for the prisoner that could have been a nicer way out that what was probably planned. Duch is one of the few members of the Khmer Rouge that has been sentenced (he was sentenced to life in prison in 2012) with many of them living their full lives without being held accountable for their crimes.
Some of the survivors managed to avoid the torture and being killed as they had a skill that was needed at S-21. For some this was being a mechanic to fix the type writers that documented every prisoner, action and confession and for others it was through painting (thus documenting) the goings on at the prison. Whilst in S-21 the prisoners were either kept in a single cell where they were chained to the floor or kept in mass cells where they had their ankles chained in rows and could either sit or lie. They would be washed from a hose being put through the window but this wasn’t regular, with reports of being washed once in three months to others being washed weekly. Moreover, the guards would find any reason to punish the prisoners, even for slapping a mosquito off your arm. A rule at the prison was also not to cry out during torture as this would lead to more punishment – an impossible task!
The torture was used to extract a confession from the prisoner. The truth wasn’t what was important, they knew what they wanted the prisoner to say so, really, this was just a sick way or legitimising their massacre. They would make the prisoners confess to being spies for the Russian KGB or American CIA, agencies the majority of prisoners had never heard of and then make them swear that family members had also done the same. After months of being tortured you can’t blame them for saying whatever they were told to to make it stop. They meticulously documented everything and, once the confession was signed, you were sent the Killing Fields for execution.
When the Vietnamese stormed the prisoner at the end of the regime, only 14 prisoners were found within the grounds, but they had been killed. All had been strapped to beds and had been undergoing torture when the Vietnamese entered Phnom Penh. It is thought that the guards panicked and so killed the prisoners with whatever they had to hand and fled the prison. In one of the buildings you can see the beds in the room and photos of how the prison was found – it must have been a gruesome sight. As there was no way to identify the prisoners – due to the treatment they had received they were unrecognisable – 14 white graves were placed on the site and their bodies cremated as a memorial for them and all of the people who suffered at S-21.
It was a tough day learning about the atrocities that occurred in this beautiful country. The level of secrecy meant that the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime went unnoticed by the West with Pol Pot’s government even having a place in the United Nations years after the genocide. Some people were able to defect but many didn’t believe the stories they told. What we found very interesting is that Sweden visited Cambodia during this horrible period in their history and fell for the propaganda that Pol Pot’s government fed them. They returned to Sweden and commended the Khmer Rouge regime and discredited the defectors who had been lucky enough to escape with their lives. Even after it was revealed what happened here by the Vietnamese the Khmer Rouge remained the recognised government of the country for years by countries such as the UK and US and received funding and aid which never reached the country. Horribly, Pol Pot lived a peaceful life, enjoying life with a wife and children until into his 70’s.
That evening we got some food and then walked back to the hostel through an area of Phnom Penh which had large parks and statues. It had lots of life and was cool as well as being a lot more modern compared to down by the river. This area was near the Russian Market which we didn’t have time to go to but is surrounded by lots of bars, shops and restaurants and is where more hostels are as well as a large ex-pat community. We got caught in really heavy rain just as we were nearing our hostel which confirmed us staying in for the rest of the night. This wasn’t too much of a problem though as our day had really tired us out.
Before we caught our bus to Sihanoukville I met up with my cousin Cleo who happened to be visiting Cambodia at the same time as we were there. We met for breakfast and caught up which as so lovely. Whilst I was at breakfast, Niall walked back to see the parks we had visited the evening before. We would be spending the rest of our day on a bus down to the coast before heading to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem the next morning for some much needed relaxation (travelling can be tiring after all)!
Sending Love x