After a 80-minute flight from Hue I was back in Ho Chi Minh City for a quick overnight stay. I met up with my school friend Ashley again before getting a surprise message from Nick I had met in Myanmar who was in Ho Chi Minh also (This is my favourite part of travelling). Naturally we arranged a beer and I got to enjoy the nightlife on Bui Vien Street one last time. Next up Phnom Penh and the killing fields.
The following morning I boarded an early bus at 7am for Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I was quoted a journey of only 6-7 hours and to be honest it wasn’t far off. We firstly took the journey to the border and asked to get out of the bus and walk into what looked like a warehouse building. Inside a Cambodian who said for $35 he can arrange our visa for us and this made things so much simpler for getting into the country. After no more than 30 minutes I was waived through two checkpoints and had a passport in my hand with my Cambodian visa. Nothing compared to the horror stories I had read on the internet.
After a few more hours and a quick lunch stop I arrived at the Phnom Penh bus station. I had been talking to a German guy on the bus Ramtin who was staying in a hostel across the road from mine so we both took the 10 minute walk through the city and arrived. My digs for the next couple of nights was at The Happy House Zone, recommended to me by Alex and Ollie from Vietnam. Most people coming to Phnom Penh have the same itineraries and that is to visit the S21 Museum and The Killing Fields. Both Ramtin and I had the same plan so we arranged that for the next day.
For what was now coming up to early afternoon we both decided to have a quick breather before taking a walk around the city for the afternoon. The city itself sits on a river and with the sun shining it was perfect conditions to take a walk and explore. Armed with our maps we set off.
Phnom Penh had an abundance of monuments and scenery to enjoy. We started at the independence monument before then coming to a statue of King Norodom Sihanouk set in the middle of a park. As we walked towards the river we came across monument after monument and then the National Assembly Building until finally reaching the rivers. With the clear blue sky the view over the river was a good one, a island was close by and looked to have a number of hotels on it.
The path led us to walk along the Mekong Shore Boardwalk passing much smaller temples and wat’s along until we got to the Royal Palace. This was the main place of interest for the river area and further along you can find streets filled with bars, restaurants and hotels. Having worked up a bit of an appetite a bite to eat was needed so after checking out a few menus along the riverside we came across a street food stall that had the plastic tables and chairs lined in the street you see all over South East Asia.
The food was incredible, I had a bowl of Pho (Noodle soup with beef) and for the small cost of £1.20. I certainly would be eating in the local restaurants here instead of the more expensive western style restaurants. Daylight was coming to an end and as it had been an early start we decided to return to our respective hostels and have a couple of hours relaxation before meeting for a happy hour beer at a bar across the street.
The local beer in Cambodia is called Anckor you can get a draught beer for as cheap as £0.25. Not the best beer I will drink in South East Asia but certainly refreshing and enjoyable. After a little bit of research we had located the main nightlife areas for backpackers and took a stroll in that direction. Walking around for 20 minutes or so and visiting what looked to be a high end bar it was particularly quiet but then we came across Blue Dog Bar and was packed to the rafters with locals and tourists. The happy hour was on all night with beers costing no more than £1.50 for a draught. To top the night off I was lucky enough to watch Tottenham vs Swansea (We won’t talk about the result) and Barcelona vs Real Madrid. The night concluded with a late night snack of beef rice and then to bed for the museums in the morning.
A tuk tuk through my hostel was arranged for $15 and this would be our transport for the day. Our first stop was to The Killing Fields for what would be for me one of the toughest experiences I have ever had travelling. Its about 30 minutes from the city and the entrance fee is $6, which includes your ticket and an audio tour. If I first give you a brief background first, a man named Pol Pet had successful managed to gain control of Cambodia and set out to eradicate the cities populations. He recruited his army from the poorer countryside areas convincing to rebel against the people in the city. He firstly imprisoned people before starting to transport prisoners to the fields as the prisons were getting overcrowded. This for me was the one of the worst cases of genocide I have ever come across.
This is only 1 of over 300 they have so far found in Cambodia and the museum for educating people on this countries terrible past. The tour starts by showing you where buildings used to exist and explained that prisoners were blindfolded, transported and told they would be taken to a village for a new life. Smaller numbers of 40-50 people would arrived daily and be killed not long after arriving but as numbers increased to over 300 per day structures were build to house them in complete darkness until they would be killed.
His regime brutally killed by beating using items ranging from bamboo sticks to garden hoes. This meant the killing process was slow but far cheaper than using quicker means. The tour continued with locations of pits where after being killed the bodies would be buried. Only bones coming to the surface was the reason these sites had started to be discovered. As I listened to the audio tour it got harder and harder as time went on. It leads you to walk around a river where you here the story of a teenager who was captured at a young age, witnessing family and friends being killed as well as raped before a stranger sacrificed his own life for this teenager to be released. He has spent his life trying to locate this persons family but has still to this day not been successful.
Continuing past further pits that had been discovered I had reached what was the most difficult part to hear. There was something called the Killing Tree and mothers were firslty raped and killed before being thrown into a pit to the right of the tree. Their children who could be as young as babies were then grabbed by the legs and had their skulls repeatedly smashed into the tree before being thrown into the pits along side their mother. It was the first time I had witnessed visitors break down in tears in a museum before.
The audio led us past glass containers filled with bones and items of clothing found before reaching a tree where speakers would hang playing propaganda music to drown out the screams when the killings were taking place.
The tour finished with a monument built to honour those that lost their lives and inside are over 9000 skulls that experts have looked at pinpointing the tool used to kill them based on the damage to the skull. This again just brought to life the scale of what had happened. We both silently concluded at a small museum near the exit and made our way back to the tuk tuk. As hard as it was I am glad I came here and will be researching further into this once I return home. In total he killed ¼ of the countries entire population during his time in power.
Next up was the S21 museum which was a former school used to torture and house people before they were eventually transported to the killing fields. Not much remained here apart from the structures themselves and some items used for torture. This would range from being beaten to being hung upside down until you would pass out and then dropped into a barrel of water to revive you. People were tortured until they willingly signed a confession that usually stated they were spies. Most would eventually sign after days and days of brutal torture and anyone who didn’t was killed.
It was impossible not to imagine what happened here as we walked through the empty rooms still with markings and writing carved into the walls. Pictures of some of the prisoners were found upon discovery of the place and you could see in their eyes the fear of what was about to happen.
There are reports that people did manage to escape and get released but no official figure has ever been recorded. There wasn’t much in terms to see here but I took the time to read the information, survivor stories and just try and take in what happened.
After what had been like I had said one of my toughest days whilst travelling we returned back to the city, taking a further walk around checking out the sights before grabbing a late lunch at another fantastic local eatery. It was then back to the hostel taking a few hours to ourselves sorting out onward travel arrangements before meeting once again for dinner and beers. This would be my last night in Phnom Penh before heading south to Otres Beach. Ramtin had been speaking to a two people in his hostel and they joined us for dinner.
The four of us firstly went back to the same place we had previously eaten lunch in and enjoyed some more tasty and cheap food! That evening there was a night market so that would be our destination. The first part of the market, which was clothes and souvenirs, was of little interest to me it was the food market I was most concerned about.
Even though I had just eaten dinner this did not stop me getting plate after plate of kebabs, sausages, spring rolls and anything else that took my fancy. I had even found a woman selling beer to keep my thirst quenched. The food was all local and prepared freshly on every store whilst also being friendly on my wallet.
We had all originally planned to hit a few bars for some beers but it was decided to return to the hostel for an early night. This suited me as it was an early morning departure for Otres Beach the following morning.
My first taste of Cambodia had been enjoyable. Yes the history of the country is shocking to learn about and very difficult to understand how something like this is allowed to happen but it has rebuilt itself into a fantastic place where you can enjoy quality food and beer on a budget. On a recommendation of a friend I was making my way south to a town called Sihanoukville before reaching Otres Beach for a few days of relaxation.