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Published: December 9th 2012
Our border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia went smoother than we could have imagined. We booked a ticket for a bus that took us directly from HCMC to Phnom Penh. One of the employees on our bus had everyone fill out the appropriate paper work well in advance. When we arrived at the Vietnam side of the border he took everyone's passports to get an exit stamp, all we had to do was have a border official make sure it was in fact our passport by comparing our current state of “backpacker chic” with our mug shots. The same guy from the bus then collected all the passports again and took them to the Cambodian side with our money to get our visas. Again all we really had to do was go through a wicket – where they scanned our finger prints – and make sure our face matched our passports and off we went into Cambodia to start the next leg of our journey.
When we arrived at the central bus station in Phnom Penh we were bombarded with tuk-tuk drivers wanting to drive us to hotels. Ricky Bobby is the tuk-tuk driver we chose and he ended up driving us anywhere we needed to go for the next few days. While this was Rebecca's first time in Phnom Penh, it was Tyler's second time. He started his last SE-Asia trip in Phnom Penh so he was sort of familiar with the city. Ty really wanted to go back to an area of town that he stayed in two years ago but Mr. Bobby informed us that it had all been demolished. It is commonly known that the lake district in Phnom Penh (PP) is under going a “face-lift”. The lake has been filled in with sand and many of the guesthouses have been reduced to rubble.
With the knowledge that we probably wouldn't find a nice place to stay in the lake district, Mr. Bobby took us to another tourist area by the river. We found a decent room at Longlin Guesthouse and arranged for Mr. Bobby to pick us up the following morning at 10 to take us to the killing fields.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon and evening wandering around getting familiar with our new surroundings. As we walked passed a sports bar we saw an NFL schedule on the chalkboard and had to enquire. The owner was a nice middle-aged Aussie guy and he said he would PVR the Eagles game the next morning so we could come back and watch it in the afternoon. On our way back to our guesthouse we saw Ricky Bobby drinking with some buddies so we joined them for a couple pitchers of Ankor before calling it a night.
The next morning we just had time to grab breakfast before Ricky Bobby showed up to take us to the killing fields. He had warned us that the roads were really dusty so we brought a scarf to cover our faces. About 40 minutes later we were at the killing fields.
Before getting to deep into the killing fields, here is a brief explanation of the genocide that happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia with the mindset to create some sort of farming utopia. Most people were forced from the cities to work in the country sides. There was no more money (they burned it all), education, religion or families, only manual labour and suffering. Over 1 million people were killed, practically all were defenceless civilians. This continued for four years until the Vietnamese came and stopped it. The Chinese used to have a saying 'as wealthy as Cambodia' because it was such a prosperous country before the genocide. The Khmer Rouge took them literally back to the stone age and the country is still recovering today.
Choeng Ek – The Killing Fields
Upon arrival we paid the two dollar entrance fee (it's $5 if you want the audio tour) and walked towards a large monument. The monument is about 4 or 5 storeys tall and consists of a bunch of glass cases. Inside the glass cases are skulls, thousands of skulls. Most of them are separated into different age groups and sexes so you can see the difference between a 4 year-old female skull and a 40 year-old male skull. Some of the skulls had cracks in them and we weren't sure if those were caused while the person was still alive or after they were buried in the mass graves.
The killing fields was a very sombre place. It's really strange to be walking around; There are trees, a really pretty pond and holes all over the place with signs to let you know how many bodies were found in them. The growth and greenery seems to be there as a reminder that Cambodia has been through hell but the survivors and their new families are looking forward; life goes on.
Thousands of people were massacred at the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge would take truck loads of people from the prison in PP out there to be murdered. There was a tree that they would beat children against. In one of the mass graves 166 bodies of women and children were found. Bone fragments still come up from the ground during floods. At one point the Khmer Rouge were killing 300 people a day at the killing fields. Many people were buried alive.
After the killing fields and another dusty tuk-tuk ride back to our guesthouse we went to the sports bar to watch some football. The Aussie owner put the Eagles game on three TV's for us and even put the surround sound on. The game started off pretty good but in typical Eagles fashion (this season) they couldn't keep it together and lost in the end. While it was hard to watch the loss, it was still nice to be able to see a game; it will probably be the only one we see all season.
The next day Tyler's friend Jaf was scheduled to arrive. Our favourite tuk-tuk driver, Ricky Bobby, took Ty to pick Jaf up from the airport. Jaf had been working on a farm for the last couple of months so the first thing he did was shower and shave. When he was all cleaned up and settled in the three of us went out to find some food. We found a guy on the side of the street serving up fried noodles with some bean sprouts and an egg for 75 cents. With full stomachs we decided to check out the central market. It was one of the nicest markets we have seen. Jaf bought a pair of shorts and a couple t-shirts while we just browsed. After loading up on new shirts in HCMC we weren't ready to spend more money on clothes just yet. We made a small detour on our way back to the guesthouse so that we could check out the river. It was a really great day!
Jaf was still settling in to the travelling mindset the following day so he stayed back while we walked to Toel Sleng, commonly known as S-21.
During the Khmer Rouge regime a school in the middle of Phnom Penh was used as a prison. Approximately 20,000 people were held and tortured there before being taken to the killing fields. All but seven were killed. Much of the former high school has been left as it was found in 1979 and there is an extremely heavy air while walking the corridors. S-21 is also now used as a museum with thousands of pictures of the victims that were held there. The faces of the people in the photos showed their emotions through their eyes; some were sad, most were scared, a number of them actually looked proud and strong.
Hopefully S-21 will be the last place we go with such a intense atmosphere. Some people we have met don't go to the gloomy places; they don't think a country should be profiting from something like the slaughter of a generation. For us it's a part of history; while it's sad and hard to absorb, we feel it's important to see, to learn and to have a better understanding of what a country like Cambodia has really been through. The rest of our afternoon was spent doing the usual city thing: walking, eating, laughing.
For our last day in PP we separated for a couple of hours. While the guys went to a shooting range, Rebecca got a massage. We got our things packed up and called it a night pretty early since we had to be ready and waiting for our bus at 7am. Next stop: Paradise.
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