Published: May 7th 2012April 28th 2012
I got into Phnom Pehn Sorya's bus station and shared a tuk-tuk with a Canadian guy who'd booked up at Hostel 88 just to the northwest of the Wat Phnom temple. It was another great hostel with another free pool table and outdoor pool, although this one was considerably warmer than the one in Siem Reap. It was 7USD a night. So far Cambodian hostels seem to be head and shoulders above those in other Southeast Asian countries. Phnom Pehn was hot... ball-sweatingly, T-shirt-disintegratingly hot and possibly the hottest place I've been to in my life so the aircon in the dorm and outdoor pool were lifesavers. Going outside at any point between 11am and 6pm was madness! I stayed for 6 nights which was longer than I wanted but I was forced to stick around a bit longer for my Vietnam visa to be issued and also because I didn't wanna risk missing "El Clasico" on Saturday! I got my one month / single entry visa for $38. It would've been more expensive to get it done in Sihanouk Ville (where I went after Phnom Pehn) despite the bizarre fact that that's where my passport was taken and visa issued.
My passport made the trip down and back again 2 days before I did!
Phnom Pehn wasn't too bad a place although I've been in nicer cities. During the day it was fine (apart from the heat) but at night the city's seedy side seemed to crawl out and, especially in the streets around Wat Phnom, it was just a little too in your face. In some ways the city was how I expected Bangkok to be until I actually went there and realised that I was miles away. Still, the riverfront promenade on Sisowath Quay running along the Tonle Sap River was very nice and had a good selection of restaurants and bars with 50 cent a beer happy hours. The Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers make for great backdrops and river cruises and I wonder how long Phnom Pehn's skyline will remain as it is. It's surely just a matter of time before skyscrapers start springing up.
I passed by the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom and the Independence Monument but I'd really come to Phnom Pehn to only see two things, each one as chilling and genuinely horrifying
as the other. The first was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to the southwest of the city centre. It was once a school but during the Khmer Rouge period got turned into a prison by Pol Pot's security forces in 1975 and renamed Security Prison 21... S-21. This was just one of the places where, during 1975-1979, Cambodian civilians were incarcerated, tortured and forced into confessing to crimes they hadn't committed. It was a real soulless place, void of any life and to think that it used to be a building used for learning, development and education. At its height, around 100 prisoners a day were killed at S-21 and many of the victims' photos hang in display cabinets around the four different buildings.
As if S-21 weren't distressing enough, the following day I went with a small group from the hostel down to the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek where, once prisoners at S-21 had confessed, were executed at mass grave sites. There was at least some sign of life here as nature has reclaimed the grounds and the area has an slight air of tranquility but any doubts about what actually happened here
were immediately and comprehensively erased after seeing the memorial stupa just inside the main gate that contains over 8000 skulls of people executed here. Some of the information signs around the Killing Fields have to be read twice to be believed. It's horrifying stuff but nevertheless a worthwhile visit in order to learn something about an important part of Cambodia's recent history.
On Sunday 22nd I left Phonm Pehn and headed for the beaches on the south coast. I just couldn't take the heat anymore and I needed to escape for a while. My last beach experience was back in Ko Phi Phi in Thailand and that seemed like years ago. I went to Sihanouk Ville, the same place my passport had been taken just a couple of days before. There were two options for places to stay - the party orientated beach of Serendipity (probably full of morons) or the chilled-out Otres Beach a few kilometres to the southeast of Serendipity. I met a Dutch girl on the bus who was heading to "Wish You Were Here" hostel on Otres so split the cost of a tuk-tuk with her ($4 each). I needed a
few days of R&R and this beach and this hostel were perfect for it. I think I wrote in my Boracay blog that it would be cool to go back in time twenty years to see the beach then. Were that possible what I'd see might not be too
far away from Otres Beach. The water here isn't as calm or crystal clear as in Boracay but the sand was super fine and stretched out a good distance. Electricity came and went sporadically; there was an internet cafe but no ATMs. It was basically just a dirt track running parallel to the beach with a handful of ramshackle bars and restaurants. It was great. The staff at the hostel was really friendly although they did look like extras from "The Beach". I stayed here for 6 nights and in that time I did sweet FA. The furthest I moved was to go to Serendipity on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to catch both Champions League games and then again on Friday just for a look around at where I might have stayed. I made the right choice... there's rubbish floating around Otres Beach but Serendipity is basically a tip and the
street sellers are relentless.
On Saturday 28th I took an 8am bus from the city centre. It was gonna be a long day. My destination - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.