The Pearl of Asia or the centre of misery dealt by the Khmer Rouge?

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
April 29th 2014
Published: May 16th 2014
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Phnom Penh… pronounced by stifling a sneeze, mumbling the consonants and aspirating heavily out of the nose, or at least that’s how we like to pronounce it! PP, otherwise known (or previously known) as the Pearl of Asia, it was once considered a significant beauty in Cambodia due to its gorgeous and historical French inspired architecture. That is until it was sadly ravaged by war and the hideous Khmer Rouge regime.

Exchange Rate $1USD = 4000 Cambodian Riel

After 8 hours of bumping along highways in a bus, snoozing and listening to tunes, we arrived in PP to the usual horde of tuk tuk drivers hanging off us like leaches asking us “where you stay, where you go?”. Once again with google maps as our saviour, our trusty iPhones told that us our hotel was a mere 3km drive away, so negotiating the price was much easier. Although our driver tried to tell us our place was “very far away” we could confidently tell him it wasn’t and we agreed on paying $2.

We stayed at the Teahouse in PP for 4 nights, and we couldn’t recommend it highly enough. For a 3 star budget hotel it really over delivered. The rooms were perhaps a little small, but they were very comfortable, nicely decorated and had everything we needed. The staff were very friendly and helpful and the buffet breakfast was just perfect. We explored the centre of town by foot and weighed the location up as a potential ‘base camp’ for the next month. We are quite keen to find some longer term routine in places where we can settle in and get to know the people, culture, and daily life a little better.

Amid the 38-40 degree heat we wandered down many streets, past the myriad of food (including meats!) drying on bamboo trays, food carts bursting with local produce and the chaos of both moving and parked tuk tuk’s, motorbikes, cyclists and cars alike. Whilst there was a huge array of action down every street the only down side was that you couldn’t walk up on the footpaths to get around town. Instead you literally had to walk on the road (praying you didn’t get hit by a passer by) as the footpaths themselves were jam packed with the aforementioned items and activities. During our exploration of the town centre and all it had to offer we also inspected an apartment that we had found on airbnb (an accommodation booking application). It was a really nice apartment that was located in the french quarter, and even though our immediate impression of PP wasn’t all that crash hot, this apartment made us want to really start to give the town a fighting chance. So we decided to ponder our decision for a few more days and then decide if we were going to set up camp in PP or not.

Another specific outing included a viewing at the local cinema/bar/cafe complex to learn more about the history of the genocide in PP and Cambodia. The cinema was showing daily runs of the 1984 movie ‘The Killing Fields’, based on the true story behind an American journalists anguish of being granted permission to leave the country after being trapped in the French Embassy in PP, but unfortunately having to leave behind his great friend, a Cambodian journalist, with the evil Khmer Rouge. Educational and much recommended movie aside, the concept of the cinema itself was great. I guess it’s kind of like the ‘gold class’ experience you have at the movies back home in Australia, but without the bells and whistles. Basically, you have a cosy upstairs home cinema room where you can spread out on mattresses or chairs, tiered up to only about 4 cosy levels. You can also order food and drinks that they bring to you at your chosen time. Downstairs is a little local bar area where you can chill out and chat with other movie goers, or wait until the next movie.

After getting a better understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime, we then headed to the Tuol Sleng High School museum which was turned into a prison camp (S-21 prison) during the Cambodian genocide. The monstrous Pol Pot (leader of the Khmer Rouge) and his henchmen subjected Cambodia to an extreme social reform in the mid to late 70’s, attempting to create full national self sufficiency and eliminate any capitalist activity. This basically meant that any educated citizens, workers with ties to opposing local or international governments, people residing in cities, foreigners and even people who just wore glasses (as they were assumed to be educated!) were persecuted or killed. The Khmer considered these people as traitors and threats to the communist way. At the S-21 Prison Camp itself, the Khmer Rouge regime subjected those innocent people to hideous acts of violence, torture and degradation. The prisoners were rarely given food, and as a result, many people died of starvation. Many others died from the severe physical mutilation inflicted on them. S-21 is now a museum that you can walk through and catch a glimpse into the suffering that went on here. The buildings are filled with a feeling of emptiness and misery. As you get to the higher levels within the buildings (prisons), the balconies are closed off with razor sharp barbed wire. This was an attempt by the Khmer Rouge to prevent prisoners from killing themselves by jumping over the edge, the monsters wanted to ensure that they had full control of peoples suffering. As you walk through the grounds it is quite eery, even though there are many visitors around, the silence and respect for those who suffered is overwhelming. Many of the rooms show hundreds of the faces of those who were imprisoned and you can’t help but look into their eyes and see their hopelessness.

The following morning we ventured to the Killing Fields (oh and a tip for other travellers, we left at 7am in the morning to get there right on opening time to escape the scorching Cambodian summer sun, and the mass tourist buses - a very good idea). Prisoners from S-21 were taken in the middle of the night to the Killing Fields, only being told that they were moving to a new home, thus giving people false hope that maybe things would get better. Horrifically this was not the case at all. They were taken to the Killing Fields and brutally executed in the middle of the night (whilst loud music played to mask the sounds of the horror ensuing). They were not shot in the head, as the Khmer Rouge decided not to spend needless money on bullets. Instead they were bludgeoned and hacked to death with old farming tools, sometimes only within an inch of their lives and then left to die in a shallow grave, buried and covered with a corrosive acid to mask the expected putrid smell of rotting flesh. It is estimated that over 1.3 million people were murdered at various Killing Fields around Cambodia, and when seeing the remainders of both the mass graves and the bones and teeth of the victims, it is so hard to comprehend the number of bodies that engulfed and still to do this day engulf this land.

As we walked through the Killing Fields we saw countless contortions in the earth where mass graves were dug and bodies were simply piled onto one another. The audio guide informed us that at one point during the massacres the Khmer Rouge were sending so many people to the Killing Fields that they couldn’t keep up with the executions, so they imprisoned them here, in the dark for days, awaiting their fate. Today the Killing Fields (although a staunch reminder of the hideous acts that occurred) feel quite calm and almost strangely at peace. Maybe it is the buddhist memorial that is towering over the grounds attempting to cleanse and heal the land. Or maybe it is the birds and sounds of other wildlife, symbolising new life and renewal. Whatever it is, I only hope that that same feeling of peace is with those who suffered here and their families.

During our time in PP, albeit somewhat seemingly focused on the Cambodian genocide, we did manage to experience the regenerated Pearl of Asia of today. We had beers in a funky riverside bar where we met a fellow Australian-Canadian traveller named Mike who we chatted with like old friends. We had lunch at a beautiful little organic cafe (Cafe Naturae) for some much needed fresh healthy salad and wrap options. And we experienced the organised chaos of the PP night markets. At the night market we came across what I would call the local ‘food court’. Woven floor mats covered an area about the size of a tennis court and it was filled with locals and curious foreigners eating from stalls surrounding the mats, so of course we just had to give it a go as well. We perused the stalls seeking out the most hygienically prepared and tasty looking food. Suz went to snag a mat to park our butts on while Vince took on the hunter-gatherer role. While Vince was looking at the options, he accidentally walked fully shoed straight across one of the woven mats, which was a hilarious faux par on his part. Locals glared at him like he had just walked across their kitchen table (which he basically had!). Vince soon realised the boundaries and stayed clear of any further mat encroaching! Fifteen or so minutes later Vince returned, and this time removed his sneakers before entering the mat area, with fistfuls of food including stir fried noodles, vegetables, fresh rice paper rolls and deep fried money bags/dim sims, all topped off with a freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. This meal broke the bank at a whopping $3.25, now if that’s not a cheap dinner I don’t know what is.

On our final day in PP we continued with some more exploring and completed some mundane activities such as booking bus tickets and waiting for our Vietnamese visa. We ate more fresh food at Naturae, and we also experienced what can only be described as a comical local gym session at V-Friends gym, then had dinner at Friends Restaurant. There are lots of organisations like Friends that have popped up in Asia. Basically it is a training ground (very closely supervised) for former street children and marginalised young people to become qualified in a certain field and set them up for ongoing success. A magnificent concept to help build the futures of the young people in these countries. As well as some more traditional favourites, we also tried the local specialities including smokey eggplant coriander and garlic dip and stir fried beef fillet with salad and red tree ants. Yes, you read correctly ANTS! Now even I must admit that ants are not the most appetising of dinners, however we had to give it a go! Surprisingly, the dish tasted quite good, maybe a tad overpowered by the lemongrass, but overall not too bad.

The following morning we awoke at the crack of dawn (as was becoming habit for our travelling days) to get the local bus from PP over the Vietnamese border to Can Tho. We had decided that although an experience, PP was not the place for us to settle down for the longer term. So it was off to Vietnam to firstly celebrate our belated sixth wedding anniversary (a surprise organised by Vince) and then to explore Vietnam to see if we can find a little town to call our own for a while.

Favourite Food Finds:-

• Night market food stalls and bamboo mats
• Fresh salads and wraps at Naturae cafe
• Tapas at Friends restaurant (shittake and herb risotto balls in particular)

Favourite Exercise Experience:

• V-friends gym and watching the locals on the “fat wobble” machines - honestly guys that isn’t a workout!
• Holding on for dear life in our tuk tuk bouncing down the pot hole filled dirt roads leading to the Killing Fields.
• Sweating out 10kg of water weight a day walking around in the Cambodian sun….again!

We'll Remember This Place For:

• Our hilarity in how we pronounce PP (we think we’re funny anyway)
• Lessons in the history of the Cambodian genocide
• Our first glimpse of the Mekong river
• Jam packed inaccessible footpaths

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 30


'Fat wobble' machines'Fat wobble' machines
'Fat wobble' machines

The Cambodian people's much loved "work out" apparatus.

19th May 2014
Window of emptiness - S-21

Fantastic photo!
I didn't see this wall/window when we were there...but I think I was a little overwhelmed so probably shut down a bit.
24th May 2014

Ah HA!
You DID put the photo of the ant in the teeth in - I just hadn't seen it. Great post guys.

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