Phnom Penh S21 Genocide Museum, Killing Fields and Sihanoukville

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
September 14th 2011
Published: September 24th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

I got the night bus to Bangkok from Koh Phangan with some of the guys from my resort; it was so nice having easy company. I was especially grateful when the guy I sat next to even let me sleep on him so I was more comfy. You really appreciate silly things like this and it meant I managed to get some sleep for a change. I had booked my flight to Phnom Pehn for the morning my night bus arrived in Bangkok, which in hindsight was a stupid idea. Although I slept, it wasn’t that much so I felt grubby and tired when arriving at Bangkok. My skin was feeling the effects of too much sun and drinking so I had a 9 step face massage for the equivalent of 5 pounds! I also managed to get a shower there and get my hair cut. I felt like a new women when I left the spa. On my way to the airport the taxi driver bought some bags of food from the women who was walking between the traffic. It was fried banana. He let me taste one, then he gave me one bag to eat and he had the other. So kind.

I met a few people on my flight over to Phnom Penh, we also ended up going to the same hostel/hotel together; I love meeting new people, everyone has a story to tell and they’re always more interesting than mine. On arrival it was chucking it down. Getting our visas was so easy; you just need to have 20 dollars and a passport photo and job done. It didn’t go unnoticed by us that the staff doing the visas were pocketing every second 20 dollar note! As soon as we walked out of the terminal we were literally swarmed by tuk tuk drivers and taxis ‘I give you special price’, ‘I ask you first’, ‘hey lady’. It was a bombardment of the senses, but they were friendly about it.

Despite the heavy rain 4 of us squeezed into a tuk tuk for our journey to the hostel, the roads were drowned in water but it was a lot of fun and a great way to see the city.

On arrival in Cambodia there is a marked difference in atmosphere from Thailand. I loved the country as soon as I walked out of the terminal, you can almost feel the kindness of the people as soon as you arrive. I can’t really explain it, it’s a feeling.

We managed to stay in the centre near the Mekong River, it was a good location because you can walk to the markets and central sites, it is also lovely having dinner on the river front, despite the brown murky water. When we arrived we were shown our rooms (I got my own), the first stank of mould and damp so badly that I had to move, the second room had the biggest puddle of water in the room and the toilet seat was broken and stashed behind the door - the guy actually thought I would agree to sleeping there- I am really not cut out for this. The third room had the noisiest fan I have ever heard and even the guy showing me around agreed that I wouldn’t be able to sleep there. In the end I stayed in a room that still stank of damp, had brown water stains down the walls and the power kept cutting out…usually when I was mid shower (this happened twice!), you have no idea what hard work it is to navigate in a pitch black room when you’ve naked in the shower, it’s not like I took my torch in there with me. The pillows and bedding were damp and smelt so I slept in my sleeping bag liner, I have no idea how real backpackers do this every night. I would have moved but the people were just so nice to me I didn’t have the heart to say I wanted to leave. We met up with a guy who I’d met in Koh Phangan who waited for me in Phnom Penh and all went for dinner – I had a Western treat and it was amazing, fillet steak, mash and veg with a pepper sauce, yum yum. I missed some good ole mash! There are some things that way outshine rice and noodles when you’ve eaten it twice a day.

In Thailand when the locals offer you something and you say no they usually get abrupt and rude. Here, they remain super friendly and it is so refreshing. They are the kindest people and I didn’t notice many fake smiles.

I spent my first full day visiting the S21 Genocide Museum (a school which was used by the S21 to torture and hold their victims), the Killing Fields, Royal Palace and other local tourist sites. It cost me 15 dollars for a day with my tuk tuk driver, my friend also joined me to be a guide, as he did it the day before. Dollars seems to be the currency in Cambodia as well as Riel. It’s very confusing when you get dollars and Riel in change but it doesn’t take long to learn its value.

I found the S21 Genocide Museum the hardest hitting; it’s difficult to understand what happened without feeling angry at the atrocities that humans can commit, especially against their own people. I was also embarrassed that I didn’t know much about it, particularly when considering it is recent history. I won’t turn my blog into a history lesson but I will say that we (most of us) are very blind and ignorant of some horrendous things that happen in the world. Even when we think we know, we don’t. If you are interested in history it would be worth you reading about Cambodia’s recent past and the genocide during the 70s lead by Pol Pot. Can you believe that there is only one person currently serving time in jail for these crimes?! Me neither.

It was heartbreaking to see the faces of those who were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge; they all had the same expression, which was a mix of utter fear and lack of hope. I’m glad I went here first because when I went to the Killing Fields, I was able to understand a little more. It is very hard to comprehend that you are standing at a site where so many lost their lives and to see the tree which they used to kill babies by smashing their skulls against it. It is sickening and makes you appreciate the society that we live in today, even though it is a society which is ungrateful for what it has in comparison to what other people live through all around the world.

We spent the afternoon visiting some temples and going to the Grand Palace but after a while a temple is a temple and a palace is a palace, once you’ve seen a few it’s difficult to get excited about seeing more. Whilst we were walking around the city we had to double take when we saw a man taking an elephant for a walk down the main road!

The traffic in Phnom Penh is insane! More so than in Bangkok. The only way you can cross the roads here is literally to start walking, stay at a set pace and let the traffic move around you. Believe it or not but that is the safest way to cross or you'll never make it.
Some major crossroads don’t have lights and traffic crosses at the same time. I honestly don’t know how we avoided collision when in the tuk tuk.

I keep forgetting to mention the climate. I have learnt to dislike the heat, when your pores sweat 24hours a day it becomes very tiring and just disgusting. You constantly drip with sweat from the humidity. I know how important it is to drink water but it’s not like back home and it gets warm really quickly, it’s hard work staying rehydrated when you sweat constantly and have to drink warm bottled water which has a funny taste. I’m struggling with my skin at the moment, it disagrees with the climate and nothing heals in this humidity. The same goes for cuts or sores, they never dry up. Over the course of the last month of so I have discovered I have cuts and bruises all over my lower legs. I don’t even know how, but they aren’t pretty. And with a tan, everything has a bright white scar, I hope they go away with time.

After a full day doing the tourist sites, I was ready to leave Phnom Penh, I’m not over excited by cities. My excitement was to learn about the history and see the sites. So after doing this I wanted to go somewhere new, our intention was to get a morning bus to Sihanoukville, which is on the coast. We hadn’t intended a night out but before we knew it was 0600 when we got home and our bus was at 0930! I knew that if I went to bed I would certainly not wake up to pack for the bus. So instead, I either cleverly or foolishly suggested we get the 0630 bus. And so we did, a frantic pack of the backpack and quick shower and off we went. It seemed like a good idea until about 2 hours into the bus journey. I was hung-over and tired. It’s tough to sleep on a local bus during the day. About 3 hours in I started to feel really travel sick, the road became very bumpy and so it continued. I didn’t know the guy I was traveling with well enough to express just how sick I felt so I just sat up straight and tried to talk myself out of feeling sick, conscious that I had no plastic bag with me. The power of the mind is a great thing and I honestly believe in mind over matter. But then, it was like out of a film.

I was still sat up straight fighting the desire to be sick when the next minute, I looked to my left and the little boy who was sat between his father’s legs projectile vomited all over the seat and floor!!!!! I watched the whole thing and how I controlled myself not to be sick I will never know. I also managed to offer them my tissues and just hid my face from the sick. Let’s just say that it was a mentally challenging bus ride.

On arrival at Sihanoukville we were in a storm. Keen not to sleep near the main bars we found a hotel on the beachfront. We were drenched anyway, so as normal people do, we decided to go out in the storm. Loads of kids were playing in the shallow part of the shore. It was lot of fun, the wind was howling and the rain actually hurt my face. What a liberating experience! It also helped us to get over our hangovers. We lost the remainder of that day to self pity and sleep.

The storm had been so bad that the next day it was evident that it had ripped up the end part of the pier and a 20 year old boy’s body was washed to shore after he had been for a drunken swim. Really sad and a lesson to all.

The next 4 days merged into one. The storm passed and the sun shone, I’m embarrassed to say that I saw the sun for one day. This place is a trap! You just struggle to leave. I had some of the best nights out here, all revolving around the same places: Monkey Republic, Utopia and JJs. And so the cycle continued. Most nights finished near sunrise and by the time I’d wake up or be fit to leave my room it would be passed checkout time. The first night out was my favourite, as with most good nights we ended up in the sea. In fact I was tackled and rolled into the sea in my only dry dress (laundry day). From there we went straight to the pool in Utopia and swam, sat in the hot tub and I stayed until the little voice in my head told me to go home.

My only day in the sun was actually the day I left, I spent the day on a lounger talking to a little girl. I bonded so quickly with her and loved spekaing with her. She gave me a friendship bracelet and we spent most of the day talking. Initially the children all try to sell you something but as soon as you talk to them they forget about selling you stuff and love talking with you or playing games. They all say the same thing too and it's so cute...when they try to sell you something that is. For example: 'if you buy you promise to buy from me only', 'do you have a boyfriend? you know why? because you don't buy from me','i give you special price'. They also all call you beautiful or handsome. The older women just walk up to you and start to stroke your leg then say you need a wax as they want to thread your legs, or they study your toes and say you need a pedicure...most of the time they're right but it's not something you want to hear. I had a pedicure and manicure on my last day and it felt great to have red toes and finger nails again ;0).

The only way I managed to leave this little place was to just book a night bus and pay that night’s acc’n despite not sleeping there. I escaped. I was definitely craving some culture again and my biggest excitement was the Angkor Wat Temples at Siem Reap. I'm so excited.

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