Published: April 1st 2010April 1st 2010
The night bus left Siem Reap for Phnom Pehn at 7pm and off we went. At first I was happy we had the luxury of air con. However, air con was put at its max. I ended up snuggling closely to another volunteer trying desperately to keep some body heat in. So we arrived and were picked up by the guesthouse tuktuk driver. When we arrived we were shown our room. A plush 2 bedroom apartment complete with a balcony. I could not believe our luck. I had a huge soft double bed with a duvet (I haven’t slept under one of those for 3 months.) I was loving it. However, all good things must come to an end when the following morning we were informed that actually we were put in the wrong room. We were moved into a small room (not much bigger than a box room.) There was one double bed and a mattress squeezed on the floor. Gone was my beautiful duvet and replaced with a blanket on a mattress so hard I swear it was made of wood. I looked out the window and was greeted by a brick wall 2 inches from my face. We
were told that the smaller room was in fact $3 cheaper than the plush apartment...
So whilst we were in Phnom Pehn our first stop was the Killing Fields. As I walked in a tall memorial building stood in front of me. There were 17 levels going right the way up. Each level had human bones on them, sorted into age and sex. On the very bottom level victims clothes were laid out. This I found hit me the hardest. I laid yellow flowers in respect and then wandered around. There were clear signs explaining which area was used for what type of torture and graphic details of how that torture was carried out. Mass graves were everywhere, one had 450 people in it. One contained 180 beheaded people and one was where children were repeated beaten against a tree and then placed. The tree still stood strong next to the mass grave. I went into the museum and watched a short film. I saw images and filming of the capital in the 1970’s before the Khmer Rouge. What hit me the most though was how western and modern Phnom Pehn was. It looked just like your average western
city in the 1970’s with the same style buildings and 70’s cars driving about. We then saw filming of the empty deserted town. It was so odd and sent a shiver down my spine. After the Killing Fields we went onto S21 - The Genocide Museum. This place was the most disturbing place I have ever visited. It was once a school turned into a torture prison. Strangely enough though people were living in houses overlooking the place and as we wandered in tuktuk drivers were playing with a shuttlecock in the grounds. In the buildings we saw tiny cell after cell with the chains still in there. There was photograph after photograph - thousands and thousands displayed spilling out into many rooms of all the victims. Both sexes, all ages, tiny children and even some westerners. You could see the desperation in their eyes. The thing that upset me was just looking at these photographs - and some of them were even of the poor victims being tortured. They were just normal people like us. The children were just normal innocent children, just like the ones I teach over here. There were paintings of the torture, stories of victims
and Khmer Rouge supporters and finally the torture rooms. The torture rooms still had the torture devices left on the floor in the middle of them and most horrifically a blown up photograph on the wall of a victim being tortured in that very same room that I was stood in with the very same equipment that was laid out in front of me. As you can imagine it hit me pretty hard.
So after the emotional draining experience of the Killing Fields and S21 I went and saw the Royal Palace. It was beautiful and had an impressive silver tilled floor. It was pretty crowed though mostly with Japanese tourists all wearing matching baseball caps in order to stay in their tour groups. The tuktuk driver then asked if we wanted to go to a shooting range. Still feeling the emotion of earlier experiences I wasn’t too bothered but the male of the group as you can imagine was desperate to do it. So we arrived at a big metal gate guarded by a security man in the middle of nowhere. The gate was opened and then shut as soon as we drove in. We were then handed
a GUN MENU! I was gob smacked and was then warned that I was strictly prohibited to take a photograph of it. Inside the gun menu was every type of weaponry you could imagine, from pistols, to machine guns, AK47’S, grenades and on the back page a rocket launcher. For a mere $300 you could shoot the rocket launcher at a cow. Yes a real live cow. I decided against firing a gun as the place seemed really sketchy. We were led to a room which was like a long corridor in which to shoot the guns from. There was no safety precautions put in place whatsoever, you literally picked some weaponry from the menu, were handed it, shot whatever you ordered and then paid up and left. On the way back the tuktuk driver stopped and asked us not to tell the hotel staff that we had visited the place. Later that evening glancing at the Lonely Planet Guide I saw that the place I had visited earlier was in fact illegal.
We caught the night bus back. On the way back we stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. We were greeted at the coach
door by lots of little children trying to sell us bananas. I bought some Pringles from the restaurant and shared them with the children. While the rest of the passengers ate at the restaurant I sat and chatted to the children whose English was pretty impressive. They were beautiful, happy little munchkins and it annoyed me slightly how other travellers just pushed past them like they were scum. When it was time to go one of the little boys took his bracelet made of telephone cord off his wrist and gave it to me. I was so touched by this gesture that I almost cried. The fact he had nothing but still gave me one of his few belongings. The children waved as we drove away into the night. I fell asleep on the coach (this time the air con wasn’t turned right up.) I awoke as the coach turned off its engine. I looked around me and saw that the bus had in fact stopped in what looked like an enclosed paddock. Feeling disorientated I climbed out with the rest of the passengers. Apparently the enclosed paddock was Siem Reap. Tuktuk and moto drivers then leapt upon us and kindly informed me that we were infact 6km from Siem Reap and the bus was going no further. With no other choice at 2am I was pretty much forced to jump into a tuktuk and was told I had to pay $8. There was no haggling with this driver despite the fact that I had been sat on a bus for the last 7 hours and only paid $7 for the ticket. The tuktuk driver had exaggerated the distance which in fact took less than 10 minutes - a trip which would have normally cost a max of $2. That is the downside of being a westerner out here.
Phnom Pehn was very different from Siem Reap. It reminded me of a continental town - especially with its French influence. Parts of it were very poor and parts of it were incredibly western. There was a shopping mall for example which I went into. I felt shocked as I walked in. It was like I had walked into a shopping mall back home except all the merchandise was cheap designer copies as there are no copyright laws over here. I thought of the villages near Siem Reap and the school I teach at in one of the very poorest areas and thought about what drastic contrasts there are over here.
Hope everyone is good. Only 1 more day left of teaching...