We took an early morning bus to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. We had made reservations at a hotel which was owned by the brother of the guest house we stayed at in Siem Reap. We arrived at the hotel and realized it was still under construction. The reception area wasn’t even finished and the temporary reception was located on the last floor. We were told the room would cost us $6 per night but it turned out to cost $8. Maybe not a huge deal but we have been trying to keep our budget in check. We decided to stay there as they would be taking care of our visa to Vietnam. Everywhere else we would have to wait 3 days to get the visa but the hotel manager was able to do it in 1 day for us.
We went out walking and soon discovered there is no real charm to Phnom Penh. Mainly because there is no specific area that you could pinpoint and say “you should go there”. There is a section by the waterfront which has a lot of small restaurants but that quickly loses its charm when you are constantly approached by tuk tuk drivers even while you are eating. We were craving something other than rice and decided on an “Italian” restaurant, by the waterfront. Even as we were trying to decide where to eat there were tuk tuk drivers asking if we needed a ride. The difference between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is that at least in Siem Reap they listened when you said no. Unfortunately in Phnom Penh they didn’t. They just kept following you around. This one tuk tuk driver continued to pester us even after we had received our food and were eating. He wanted to know where we were going tomorrow and that he could take us there. Finally I said “we’re eating” but he continued. I repeated myself a couple more time and finally he said “I know you’re eating but tomorrow I can take you where you want to go”. He was quite annoyed with me, but so was I. At least Andrew was calm so he just told him “no thank you, we don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow”. Somehow he got the hint. All this would have been enough for an experience but the meal itself was interesting as well. We ordered Spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce. What we received were spaghetti noodles with a ketchup/sweet chili sauce topped with some ground meat. Needless to say we were disappointed in our spaghetti. We spent the rest of the day walking around searching for a McDonalds. We were convinced they must have one since it’s the capital of Cambodia. We were disappointed once again. We did find a mall which had some restaurants in it, mainly BBWorld which is Cambodia’s answer to McDonald’s. The food wasn’t great but at least they had wifi, which is something we have been unable to find in Cambodia. We went back to our hotel, bought a couple of cold beers and watched some TV.
The next day we hired a tuk tuk to take us to visit the school which was converted to a prison during the war with the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge was the name of the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who were the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by a man by the name of Pol Pot. Pol Pot studied in Paris in the 1950’s and it was at that time when the Khmer students organized their own communist movement. Some of those students would return to Cambodia and end up taking control of the communist party, and eventually rename Cambodia to the Democratic of Kampuchea. By the 1960’s Pol Pot had risen to the rank of leadership in the communist movement. The Khmer Rouge goal was to eradicate any kind of city life as they believed it corrupted society, and for all citizens to essentially become farmers. Of course they wanted to achieve this through a communist government. They were successful in wiping out almost the whole city of Phnom Penh. Their view was that engineers, bankers, business men as well as any other educated people were corrupting society. And they wanted to eradicate the corruption and control the country. Imagine someone with the ideology of Hitler except his ideology was aimed towards the corruption of city life.
The school we were touring is in the middle of Phnom Penh and was renamed to S-21. It was used to house and torture prisoners. Anyone who wasn’t killed was brought to the prison to be tortured for the purpose of obtaining information about other traitors. As we toured the facility it was almost like walking through the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Of course the genocide done by Hitler was on a much larger scale, but wiping out a whole city, the capital, is no small feat and requires a lot of sick individuals to do some bad things. The pictures hanging on the walls were very graphic and showed in detail the different forms of torture used in the school. One of the most disgusting ones shows an officer standing under a tree while holding a baby by its legs. The “soldiers” killed babies by smashing their heads against a tree. And just like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented every single person who was imprisoned at the S-21 prison. The walls are hung with thousands of mug shots of the prisoners. Many of them children. What annoyed me were stories posted in one room from people who used to be soldiers. A lot of them said they joined the Khmer Rouge because they were afraid for their lives. That I can understand, but to torture people for me is unimaginable. A lot of those soldiers are now living normal lives. As I said before, it’s easy to say I was made to do it after the fact. I won’t get into the history too much but the Khmer Rouge was removed from power in 1975 after it was invaded by the Vietnamese. During their time in power, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people; 1/5 of the total population of Cambodia. Their motto was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” I would like to encourage everyone to learn more about this horrific history. What I describe here is a very brief account and I am by no means an expert in this area or a historian. What got to me was this is very recent history. The Khmer Rouge continued to operate as guerrillas in Western Cambodia until 1996! We all think about Hitler and it all seems a distant memory. Most of us weren’t alive back then. But 1975, and 1996 are very recent events, and most of us don’t know about them. We can’t imagine letting Hitler to live freely after 1945 if he hadn’t killed himself. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998 never having been put on trial.
After the S-21 prison we went to see the Killing Fields. These are fields which were discovered after the Vietnamese invasion and they were and continue to be mass graves for those killed during the Khmer Rouge reign. We experienced a couple of dramatic moments while there. The first one is the monument which was built to commemorate all those who died. It’s a 7 storey glass building which holds the skulls, bones and remains of those who were killed. It’s obviously not everyone who was killed, but it does put into perspective what the number 1.5 million actually looks like. The display also has the skulls segregated into sections of male and female as well as male/female children. It describes how based on the size of the skulls they can determine the sex and the age. The second dramatic moment we experienced was standing in front of a tree. It looked just like any other tree there. It’s hard to get emotional about large holes in the ground because it’s hard to imagine them being filled with human remains. But this tree was different. This was the tree which was used by the soldier to kill the babies. Standing in front of that tree I actually got goose bumps. I was standing in front of the exact tree which was used to kill hundreds if not thousands of babies. I could picture the soldier standing there. I could see the picture from the prison clearly. I felt sick. It was hard to believe the tree was thriving even though it had seen all this death around it. I don’t want to suggest trees have feelings or that the tree should have died with those kids. But when we picture death and such horrific acts we picture them to be carried out in horrific and bleak places, not a park like setting. Needless to say we were in dark spirits when we left. We spent the rest of the day walking around the city.
The plan was to leave the next day to Vietnam. We had obtained our visa’s and all we had to do was book the bus. Unfortunately by the time we made the decision to book the bus it was already sold out. We could have gone somewhere else in Vietnam but we wanted to go to Phu Quoc Island in South Western Vietnam. So we were stuck in Phnom Penh for one more day. That sucked because we really didn’t know what else to do there. We decided to find a nice café with wifi access and just hang out there for the day. That was easier said than done because wifi access was not easy to come by nor was a nice café. But we did end up finding one and just hung out there until mid-afternoon. After that we went for a walk to the riverfront, but until most days we headed to a different side of it. A nice hotel was there and they had a nice casino. Right behind the hotel was a bridge which took us to a small island. We weren’t sure what was there as it looked like a modern Exhibition Place; a few large buildings with some smaller ones. We were walking around and noticed a sign for an Import/Export show. We decided to check it out and learned we could get in for free. We made up a fake import/export company when registering and walked right in. It was a typical trade show but with all the different things you can import. The funny thing was how seriously people took us. We were literally the only white people there so everyone thought we were investors from the US. Most things you could find in our dollar stores, but we did come across one cool item. It was a water filtration tower, just like you would have in your kitchen, except it was also a dehumidifier. It used the water collected from the room or apartment and turned it into drinking water. At first I thought it was kind of gross but they gave us a sample straight from the machine and the water was really good. We thought this was a fantastic idea especially since fresh water is such a scarcity in a lot of countries and it will be a big problem for the world one day if we don’t come up with some ideas soon. We spent a good 40 minutes talking to the inventor and his sales staff. The catch was that the machine currently cost $9000. Apparently they had a big market in Singapore. We explained we were just travelling and weren’t interested in an investment but they were happy to talk to us anyway. One other cool thing we came across was a booth which was showing how they make silk. We got to see how the silk worms were boiled in a liquid and the silk extracted from the worms and then spun. We were excited because tours were sold in Thailand and Cambodia to see how silk is made and here we had a free show all to ourselves. Other than that nothing of interest caught our attention. We left the show and went to pay for our tickets, which were not sold out as we had reserved them over the phone the previous day. We found a grocery store, bought some Johnny Walker and got drunk in our room.