Getting to know Cambodia… its brutal history… and somehow a not so bright present…

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
August 31st 2013
Published: February 20th 2014
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And so we were back on the road again. Since the journey to Phnom Penh was supposed to take a few hours only, we decided to take a late morning bus so we could have a proper breakfast and enjoy our last moments in Saigon. Even though the bus was quite empty, we were asked to take the back seats, not a preferred choice but turned out to be not so bad after all as the moment the locals started boarding the bus, they started reclining their chairs to the full capacity, so even though it was a bit stuffy at the back at least our knees weren’t squashed and we actually had a bit of space. You could definitely see some differences about how the locals and tourists liked to travel – tourists dressed in their T-shirts and shorts, looking outside the windows with curtains pulled aside, while the locals ready to go to sleep the moment they entered the bus, covering themselves with blouses, masks protecting their faces, curtains shut… But then who knows how many times they made this journey already – there was nothing new for them to see around I guess… We were lucky to have a young couple sitting next to us, or so we thought at first at least as without even asking she just shut the curtain in front of my eyes – even though it was me, not her who was sitting by the window… Hmmm… Sorry but I really wanted to see the surroundings, so I pulled the curtain aside a bit, thought it might mess up the atmosphere for the journey a bit, but she gave up and even smiled to me so all was good. For a while at least as later on she started digging in her nose, rolling boogers and throwing them at people around! It kind of seems funny now, but dodging flying boogers wasn’t that funny at the time… In the end she gave up on that as well and just decided to entertain us with her singing. At this point we just couldn’t help it but had to smile, which only encouraged her to sing even louder. Pretty entertaining for sure! 😊 It didn’t take too long before we made it to the border and it took even less time before the visas were stamped in our passports and we were ready to take off again. I was surprised to see a few locals standing around the bus begging for money – it would actually happen every time the bus stopped, even when we were stuck in traffic. Such a sad sight… It was definitely a much poorer country than the ones we’ve been to so far… We continued on with our journey. Soon after we crossed the border there was a lunch break and a chance to get rid of our last dongs, then a short trip on the ferry and a few hours after we were driving through the streets of Phnom Penh.

It started raining when we got to Phnom Penh and it didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon… We were dropped off at some station and straight away tuk-tuk drivers appeared out of nowhere and started offering their services as well as cheap accommodation. Hmmm… There wouldn’t be much walking in this weather anyway, so we just decided to try out one of these offers. Well, the guesthouse we were taken to turned out to be a bit pricey but then in the end it was only a bit more than we were planning to spend, it was getting dark and it was still raining, so it would just have to do for now. Our guesthouse had its own restaurant, but eating to the sounds of techno didn’t sound too appealing, so rain or no rain if we wanted to eat something we simply needed to go out. The neighbourhood we were in looked quite touristy, with all kind of western eateries around… But on a second glance there was something not right here… meaning we weren’t exactly fitting there… there sure were lots of western faces around, but all of them were men… men in their fifties or older to be exact, accompanied by young (some very young) Asian girls… What was this place? Then we looked around again… With flashy names like Heart of Darkness around and ‘hostesses’ standing at the clubs entrances, it all started making sense – we were simply in the ‘entertainment’ area… Later on I read on the internet that indeed 51 street was the place to be if you wanted to have fun… And it sure did attract quite a few people… I wasn’t expecting to see that – especially on that scale – here… It just made me feel really sad… Does everything really need to be up for sale? Are there no boundaries at all? We walked around for a while trying to find a place to eat and thought we would need to sit in between all this but finally found a lovely place at the corner, full of locals, away from all the ‘entertainment’… We finished that day with a portion of Khmer curry, lovely stir-fry and a bottle of Angkor… Each! 😉

The following day we decided to make a small tour around some of the Phnom Penh’s attractions. Since the city seemed to be easy to navigate as the streets are numbered here in sequence – more or less at least, we decided to go for a longer stroll. First we headed to the river. Passing by some of the streets and the local market I have to say it was the first time in Asia that I felt a bit uneasy… Not that I was feeling I was in danger or anything like that – I did read that you should keep an eye on your bag or better leave it in your guesthouse as there were some bag snatchers around, but it wasn’t that… I guess in every big city you have to be extra careful… I was almost robbed in the middle of the day on the commute train in Dublin, so I guess it can really happen anywhere… No rule at all… I simply felt uneasy walking around with my camera hanging over my shoulder while there were naked kids running around and playing in trash and people begging on the streets… People really lived here almost on nothing… So much poverty… But then next to all this, there were Lexus cars and all sorts of other expensive cars visible all around the streets… How is this possible that in the same country one person has nothing at all and the other is driving around in his flashy $100,000 car right next to it? I’ve never seen such a big difference in wealth or actually lack of it… So we walked around the streets until we got to Wat Ounalom set by the river. I had to laugh when a few young western girls came around, started shooting pictures, and then staring at the main building one of them said: ‘well, doesn’t look very royal to me, but I guess it will have to do, here it is: us at the Royal Palace! Smile!’… Hmmm… Should I tell them this wasn’t the place or not? I did tell them the Royal Palace was further down the street in the end, but they didn’t seem to appreciate it at all, on the contrary they even seemed to be almost offended that I was pointing them in the right direction… Haha! Some people are really funny… We walked further following the river, passing by many cafes and restaurants along the way, then walked through some more ‘entertainment’ streets (seriously I didn’t expect to see so many bars and clubs like this here!), got a blessing from an encountered monk (only Grant did actually… and a nearby monkey… hmmm… I didn’t need one anymore or my case was simply hopeless? Lol!) and eventually got to Wat Phnom… It was really humid and hot that day and walking proved to be a bit frustrating – for me at least… 😉 So we got to Wat Phnom just in time to clear our minds again – or maybe mine only… We saw some tourists unsuccessfully trying to sneak in without getting the ticket… Are you serious? You really can’t spare a dollar for an entrance fee? Anyway… Focus… Clear mind… From the Wat we strolled through the streets until we reached Psar Thmei market. It was a bit intimidating entering the main building of the market and seeing security guards with shotguns standing outside, or rather sitting outside, busy playing some games on their mobiles, while their guns were resting by their side… Safety first right? 😉 There surely was a wide range of products on the market – from cameras and phones to clothes and jewellery and even some delicacies to try – spiders, bugs and all that… Hmmm… Maybe next time? 😉 Since we would be coming back to Phnom Penh at a later stage (slight change of plans – tickets already booked to Australia…) we postponed the shopping for now, but it was definitely the place to do it… Also I couldn’t believe how honest some of the sellers were – not only decent prices of the items around but also when we asked at one of the stalls about a few phones (as Grant’s iphone started playing tricks on him) and cameras (maybe time for an upgrade for me?), the lady showed us a wide range of products but in the end said that if we really wanted to buy an iphone or a camera she would still recommend buying the originals from the nearby shops, rather the Chinese made products she had in store… Wow! She might have easily just sold us her stuff not caring whether it was going to work for a long time or not… We were really impressed with that! After that we made our way to the Independence Monument. Looking at it and knowing that it was inspired by Angkor Wat’s main tower, well… It only made us hungry to see the whole Angkor’s structure and more... We thought of going to the Royal Palace and National Museum as well, but the hot and humid weather was just calling for one thing – nice cold beer somewhere in the shade. We would be back in Phnom Penh at some stage so there was plenty of time to see these places anyway. We went back to our ‘hood to rest. I have to say that the area looked much more decent during the day than night time, even though you could still spot a few desperate men circling around choosing their pray… As soon as it started getting dark, we headed to our restaurant and called it an early night… Preparing ourselves mentally for the next day… to face the brutal history of this country…

We organised with ‘our’ tuk-tuk driver to take us the next day to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum. He was hanging around the guesthouse ever since he brought us from the bus station on day one hoping we would use his services again… what can I say? We just couldn’t say no…In the morning our driver said that probably it would be best to go to the Killing Fields first as it was meant to be raining in the afternoon and we had to go through a dirt road to get there. We knew the history of both places anyway, so it really didn’t matter which one we were going to see first, so we agreed. It became very clear what he was talking about as soon as we left Phnom Penh as from here it was only a very dusty and uneven road all the way to Choeung Ek. When we arrived at the memorial site, we bought the tickets, got audio guides and started our tour of the place... It was really heart-breaking listening to some of the stories while walking around the mass graves and seeing scraps of clothing and bones scattered all around… Some of the graves were so shallow that with every rain more and more of humans’ remains would come up to the surface… Thousands of lives were exterminated here by Khmer Rouge during their rule… I think everyone with a common sense would understand that it’s a place where you should behave and dress appropriately if only to show respect to all the people that lost their lives here… Well, it wasn’t that clear to everyone as there were quite a few tourists around, mostly girls, barely wearing anything… Really disrespectful… We finished our tour of the Killing Fields with a visit to the museum where we had a chance to find out even more about Khmer Rouge and its leaders…

Later on we headed back to Phnom Penh, to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. What once used to be a high school filled with joy and laughter, during Khmer Rouge’s reign turned into a site of interrogation and torture, as it was used as a Security Prison 21 (S-21)… Classrooms became tiny prison cells and torture chambers… barbed wire hanging all around the buildings to prevent the prisoners from escaping… An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here in 1975-1979… When the prison was liberated in 1979 only 7 people were found alive… All the prisoners were photographed, questioned, tortured, forced to confess to whatever crimes they were charged with (to their ‘treacherous ways’) and name their family members and associates and later on killed in the prison or sent to the Killing Fields to be exterminated there… Today at the Museum apart from the tiny prison cells and some of the torture equipment that was used here, in several rooms you can see thousands of photographs of the prisoners… You can read the stories of the survivors at one of the rooms as well – it looks like the only thing that saved them was Khmer Rouge’s leaders’ love of art as all of them were artists… Next to the prisoners’ pictures you can see photos of some of the guards and staff that was ‘taking care of’ the prisoners during that time as well… So many very young people among them – some kids really… and yet made to interrogate and torture their own countrymen… In the end some of them became the victims as well when eventually the paranoid leaders turned on their own ranks…

Our last evening in Phnom Penh was very quiet – reflecting on the brutal history of this country… You can read and hear about it over and over again, yet it still seems unbelievable that so many people followed one mad man’s twisted ‘dream’… It happened before… Let’s hope it won’t happen again? It was time to leave Phnom Penh and learn a different part of Cambodian’s history – more glorious part… find out about the Angkor and walk through its beautiful temples… Next stop: Siem Reap!

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21st February 2014

lexus city!
We had a very similar feelings to you about the disparity between rich and poor - it was hard to come to terms with. Looking forward to your thoughts on Siem Reap :)
25th February 2014

Lexus City
Thanks for reading guys! I really didn't expect to see differences like that and it sure was disturbing... and sad to watch... Regards!

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