Published: January 12th 2012January 11th 2012
After an amazing time in Vietnam, we moved on to Cambodia where we planned to spend two nights in the capital, Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor temples. On the way into the city, I was struck by how different the countryside was from Vietnam. The scenery on route to the capital was really beautiful as the road we travelled ran alongside the river, and passed through many little villages and farms.
Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, we were dropped off at the bus station and immediately hounded by tuc tuc drivers. One advised that our hotel was 7km and it would cost us $8 to get there. Thankfully, we didnt listen to him and went online to discover our hotel was only a few blocks away! Vinny had booked a nice guesthouse the night before, after checking into our awful room in Chau Doc and so, although it was a little bit above budget, it was worth every penny! Everyone was very welcoming and it was really peaceful, with a small swimming pool in the courtyard and a nice room that looked down over it. There was a kitchen there called the “Four
Ladies Kitchen” and was run by four women who survived the genocide of the 70s although they all lost family members to it. The food was amazing so we ate there both nights! There was also a common room in the guesthouse with a massive pool table, big tv and a library of books so we were able to chill out there in the evenings.
The recent history of Cambodia is heartbreaking. During the Vietnam War, the Americans instigated secret bombing along the Cambodia's borders, a stronghold for the North Vietnamese/Vietcong forces. The communist party of Cambodia, most famously known as the Khmer Rouge, led by the infamous party secretary Pol Pot were waging a revolution against what they saw as a U.S. puppet government . This civil war gained momentum over the period of 1970-1975. After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, Cambodia became 'the only show in town' as the Americans stepped up their indiscriminate bombing of Cambodia. There are those who argue that this played into the hands of the Khmer Rouge as their forces rapidly grew to fight the foreign influence and all that was left for the government to protect was the
city of Phomn Penh. However the city finally fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17th 1975, as the Americans pulled out and the U.S. Congress would not sanction further support for the Cambodia government. At first they were welcomed as liberators into the city, many of the local people unaware of the motives of the Khmer Rouge. Disturbing to them must have been the sight of young soldiers, many 14-18 years old dressed in 'black pajamas' wielding maching guns. Within 3 days, the stark reality of this new regime began to set in as the city was evacuated and the near 2 million population of Phnom Penh were forcibly led away to work in the countryside under very harsh conditions. Many of these people were refugees who had fled to Phonm Penh in earlier years to escape the bombing. This tactic was implemented in all cities by the Khmer Rouge as they put the 'capitalist city people' to work in the countryside. These people would be referred to by the regime as "April 17th people" or "new people".
The period of 1975-1979 marked the darkest period in Cambodia history as it is esimated that over 2 million people
(1/4 of their population) perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, otherwise known as 'the organisation', as a result of genocide, starvation and disease.
The first stop on our itinerary for Phnom Penh was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This museum is housed in what used to be a secondary school, until it was turned into a prison during the regime. People were brought here to be held and tortured before eventually being brought away to the killing fields to be executed. It was a very grim place to be as it is made up of many rooms that used to be classrooms but were turned into cells. The cells in Block A were the worst as when the regime fell and the prison was reclaimed, 14 bodies were found in the 14 rooms in Block A, so as you walk into each room, you can see a photo on the wall, showing what was discovered in that room. Many cells still retained the tortue devices used. We then went to a different block, which housed rooms full of photographs found in the prison, documenting the twenty one thousand people who had been through the prison. This
was tough because as you walk from room to room, you are met with thousands of faces of the people who most certainly were put to death not long after these photos were taken. By the third room, I went back outside. I had seen enough.
To lighten the mood, we went back to the Four Ladies Kitchen for some gorgeous cambodian food for lunch. We then got a tuctuc to the Killing Fields, a terrible but required place to visit to understand this dark period of Cambodian history a bit more. As you go in, you are given a headset and audio tour, which is excellent. Each spot along the way is numbered so you press the number on your device and are given a lot of information along the way.
The first stop is the Stupa, which is horrific in itself. It was a tower with many levels, filled with thousands of skulls from the victims of the killing fields around it.
We then walked along listening to the audio guide describe how the trucks filled with prisoners, many not realising that they were being led to their deaths, would pull up in front of
a little office (that is no longer there). They would then be led to what are now the mass graves. Music would be played really loud so as to drown out the screams and cries of the prisoners as they were beaten to death and dropped into the mass graves behind them. Chemicals were then sprayed on top of them by the soldiers when they were finished, to control the smell and also to finish off anyone who was still alive.
As horrific as this was, nothing prepared me for what they did to the women, children and little babies who were left in a different grave, a little bit away from the men. I won’t go into it in the blog but the level of cruelty suffered at the hands of the soldiers of the regime is hard to comprehend.
We were informed that every three months or so, the staff there have to collect bone fragments, teeth and bits of cloth from the top of the mass graves that surface when it rains. Thankfully, there was not much to see the day we went there.
Needless to say, we both badly needed a drink after
that experience so we got the tuctuc driver to bring us straight to the riverfront where we took in the sights before finding a nice bar overlooking the river and ordered beer. A couple of hours later, we were still there chilling out, reading and enjoying the 50c beer. At one point, Vinny got all excited and was like “look behind you” and I turned to see a huge elephant being led down the middle of the road by a mahout, which was class! We were all excited and took photos while the locals didn’t even bat an eyelid!
On route back to the guesthouse, we passed lots of really interesting buildings and statues along the way and I have to say, I thought Phnom Penh was a really nice city and nothing like I expected it to be. The Cambodian people were very friendly and smiling and its hard to imagine that less than a generation ago, these people were subjected to such unimaginable cruelty.
There are more photos below