Phnom Penh: seeing it through Rouge tinted glasses

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July 18th 2012
Published: July 22nd 2012
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We had hoped we would feel a sense of familiarity returning to a place we only left a few days ago, however, as we were using a different bus company it took us to a different bus stop, north of the city as opposed to south west where we were left to the tuk tuk cartel last time. The usual bombardment awaited us and having made friends with a German couple we decided to check out a few hostels together, with a hoped bargaining power of 4 people over 2. The couple were at the end of a one year journey that started in Canada moving to central and south America, round to New Zealand but missed out Australia in favour of two months in South East Asia due to cost. This is something that is worrying us as we have been struggling to stick to budget in the cheapest places. The problem being you don't want to come to these places and sit in your room, yes there are plenty of free attractions that we make use if and walking soaking up the culture we do a lot of that, but most main attractions attract a cost and although minimal can find taking a big chuck especially if it requires transport.

We looked around a couple of hostels with our tuk tuk driver who took us to places he would get commission for a one time fee of a dollar each. We compared the rooms to the one we stayed in previously but we're presented with rooms that came straight out of a prison, for more money! We knew our previous was a little further out but it was nice and comfortable and the German couple were happy with that. Onwards to Sky park! We checked in and got a better room than last time complete with a sofa!

We had a plan and after leaving flowers on the river for grandad we headed to Latin Quarter, a tapas restaurant we had passed. We were walking in an electrical storm which looked spectacular but we were fearful rain would be upon us and it would be very torrential! We sat down and looked at the menu and got up and walked out! It was really expensive even for tapas and Ben for once, would have struggled finding something. We appreciate we are in a capital city but we are still in S E Asia and shouldn't be paying $15 a main course each! We walked quickly still fearing the weather to street 240, known for many differing types of restaurants and luckily happened upon another tapas place. We feasted on hummus, pita, veg samosas, tuna rolls, baked aubergine, chicken kebabs, chicken schwarmer and fries and other potatoes plus 2 beers for Ben, a cocktail and fruit juice for Lauren for $19! Result! We called it a night and watched the rest of the storm take place in the sanctuary of our sixth floor hotel while watching yet more Wayne's World!

We took the opportunity to reflect and gather ourselves before tomorrow which we knew would be challenging. When we first spoke about Cambodia Lauren knew nothing of the country and the amount we had learned so far was incredible but more was to come. Lauren first heard of The Killing Fields through her dentist! Lauren had about six appointments before heading out god knows why but she spent much time discussing our itinerary with Sharon who had children that had traveled. She asked if we were going to the fields. Lauren said no not knowing what is was and proceeded to the Internet for information. We decided that although this could be a traumatic experience it was one we wanted to do. Ben hadn't been as they had only seen tours which were pretty sadistic in our minds- you would go to the museum, the fields and then go to a shooting range. The thought makes us sick. No freakin way.

So we arranged for CK our driver from yesterday to pick us up for a 9am start. He drove us the 14km out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The price was inflated as we were foreign but the set up has to have been the best for visitors of any nationality we have ever seen. Each visitor is given a headphone and audio set in our native tongue spoken by a native Cambodian and the fields had places laid out where you pressed the corresponding button on the audio and moved around at your own pace not having to ask questions or repetition as kids are loud etc. the narrative was first and second hand but through the eyes of Khmers and how the Khmer Rouge affected every single Cambodian. A brief history if you don't mind; during the Vietnam war roughly 1965-1973 (USA troops withdraw) and 1975 Saigon falls, Cambodia was hit largely by American bombing as north Vietnam tried to use Cambodian territory in their war against the south and Americans. The country suffered mass devastation and people fled to the cities to escape the countryside bombings. It also resulted in civil war in the country after the prime minister was overthrown and the country was run by a general in exile in china. What one must appreciate is the country was in turmoil and on 17 April 1975 an army stormed Phnom Penh looking like a saviour.

Crowds cheered before being told to evacuate immediately, leaving everything behind. They were ordered to work the fields in slave conditions for 12 hours a day with a bowl of watered rice only. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, had an ideal, of a peasant owned state where everything was equal, he wanted to be the biggest producer of rice for example. This ideal was extreme communism and led to the deaths of more than three million Khmers. How this happened? Some were from starvation and over working in the fields, but more so the killer was the regime that took anyone suspected of opposing the new world- Pol Pot designated it year zero- and any intellectual and torturing them before their death at the very fields in which we stood learning this horrific history. The tour filled in any gaps as we meandered around this peaceful meadow that was responsible for around 17,000 killings. Intellects- any one wearing glasses or able to speak a foreign language, in particular doctors, lawyers and teachers, we're taken with their families (so no one could take revenge) and deposited in the former schools where they were turtured, forced to sign fake confessions before being driven at night, on the proviso they had a new home, and being killed upon arrival, although not by precious bullets, but bludgeoned to death. Here at the fields some were held in more torture chambers as during the end of this madness more than 100 would arrive daily. Workers in local fields were led to believe it was a meeting house and loud music was played to mask screams along with the hum of generators that created light. We saw graves, mostly excavated now and 8000 skulls are housed in a Stupa as a memorial, it was chilling but more so as it was so peaceful here, birds hummed, even beggars on the outside of the fences were quiet in their pleas for money. We won't go on much more, other than to say Auschwitz is not somewhere we plan on visiting and sure it evokes similar feelings that relate to this genocide. We finished our tour near a children's grave and Lauren donated one of her bands as many had done before and we said a prayer before entering the Stupa. Tears escaped us as we saw first hand the horror of cracked skulls, missing teeth and other broken bones. We didn't talk just moved to sit down outside under the shade of a tree and thought how this could have happended, and what was it like hearing this on the news, is this what the next generation will ask us in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan? the scariest thoughts of all, Pol Pot died in 1998 without facing trial and the other members are undergoing trial now. In 2012, the UN let them keep their seat until 1991 despite Vietnam freeing the country in 1979. These animals were allowed to travel to New York for conventions and represent the people whom they inflicted torture over for those three years, eight months and twenty days.

From here we moved to the main torture prison, a former school, Tuol Sleng Museum, known at the time as Security Prison 21 or S-21. Those that weren't killed at the fields were killed here through torture. The complex comprised three large buildings which showed some in their original format with iron beds and torture devices. Some were turned into rooms that showed the victims that had walked the very spot. The regime was meticulous in keeping everything documented taking photographs of every detainee, man woman and child. Their ghost like faces staring at us, we are sure they knew what faced them, death ultimately but in what way? One part of the building was for people within the regime suspected of treason, they became very paranoid of uprising, another was set over three floors all with barbed wire to prevent suicide. Here detainees were housed temporarily in brick and wood enclosures, one showed the place of one of the seven remaining survivors saved by the Vietnamese storm and is also home to the last 14 that died here.

We left being dropped off in in the main centre by the river and got a sandwich overlooking thinking about the horrors we had seen. It was something we wouldn't forget in a hurry if at all, and also meant that we did not want to see anything else. We had planned on the Palace and silver pagoda the national treasure of Cambodia but at $6.50 entry each we passed knowing we wouldn't appreciate it. We spent the afternoon back at the hotel and only ventured out for some dinner at a lovely Khmer place but Lauren actually enjoyed British bangers and mash! It was a definite home comfort that was required. We then spoke to Ben's parents ahead of their holiday to Italy at the weekend. Some of you will know we have been feeling unsure of South East Asia. We haven't felt head over heels and have never been sorry to say goodbye to each place and found anything longer than two days, too long. We were underwhelmed by the "great" hospitality which we saw as, people seeing us as pictures of dollar bills with a money tree growing beside us. We know how lucky we are to be seeing the world but so far it has felt at times that we are spending spending with nothing coming in. In that we look forward to going to Australia and hence our fear as everything sounds so expensive!

But onwards and upwards no dwelling, we spent the next day until we were needed at the airport sitting in the big green park, a welcome escape from the constant traffic in every direction, and got some divine bakery products to snack on. The rain was imminent so we went to the airport a little early out of boredom. We shared ice cream sundaes and reflected on another country done, or at least more than one place seen, which is what we wanted! It was also the end of our first month on the road so we reminisced on our favourite times and it was soon time to board. Ben thinks Lauren will hate Bangkok due to constant hum of touts etc and Lauren's mum hated it so an experience will be had of one sort..

Things of note:

Fanta comes in a plethora of flavours here that are delicious! From traditional orange, apple to lychee, fruit punch, pineapple and raspberry

Lauren bought some sweets and saved one till morning but woke up to see it covered in ants!

When you go to an ATM dollars are dispensed unless you have a Cambodian bank account, that is how little they think of their currency! But it dispenses in 100 bills and they never have change as very poor country, we had to exchange for $10 worth of riel to get $90 back and even then you could rarely do it!

We saw several rats both alive and dead amongst the pavements that is rammed with motorbikes for rent and sale, you have to walk on the road due to this, and traffic comes in every direction!

Only the main roads in city centres are Tarmac, the rest are dirt roads and provide a lot of dust when driving through on a tuk tuk, again all full of rubbish.

The traffic light green man (which means nothing people still drive) is actually the running man! Quite entertaining!

All pavements are really high due to how quickly the road floods when it rains, good for burning extra calories!

What would we do differently:

Maybe visited the Palace but we didn't want to spend longer here.

Thefts: 0

Near Misses: 0

Fallouts: minor one at the airport when Lauren got on bag scale to weigh herself! She did ask the lady who just laughed! And yes she has not put on weight since leaving the UK actually lost few lbs so she was happy!

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