So after an exhausting period of transit I was finally on a bus from HCMC (in ‘Nam) to Phnom Penh (in Cambodia). The bus stopped at the border for us to sort out visa’s etc, and then took us all the way to the Cambodian capital. Getting off the bus there was one of the few times I felt a bit overwhelmed and stressed out during my entire trip – I’d booked a hostel, but had no Riel (the official currency), no US dollars (the unofficial currency), no idea where I was and most importantly at that time no battery left on my phone. It was also blisteringly hot. We were dropped by a huge marketplace and immediately surrounded by people peddling tuk-tuks, food etc. It was chaotic and I needed to get away from it so I just picked a direction and started walking.
Luckily I found a travel agent who let me charge my phone long enough to discover where my hostel was, and miraculously I’d been walking roughly in the right direction anyway. I eventually made it and I’ve never been so grateful to check in somewhere, have a shower and relax for a bit. The hostel was owned by a really nice British expat and his Khmer wife, who were both great at helping me with where to go, how to get money out and what food to try.
I went out that evening and stumbled upon a market where I met another solo traveller – a girl called Alba from Spain. We explored together and stopped for food, then found the riverfront which was a cue to stop for some beers as night fell. We met a few other backpackers and agreed to sign up for some tours together through the hostel in the morning. As I’ll explain later, Cambodia had by far the friendliest and most social backpackers of any country I visited!
The next day I went on one of the most harrowing trips ever – first to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and then to the Choeung Ek killing fields. If you’re not aware of the Cambodian genocide, it was carried out by Pol Pot who led the Khmer Rouge, during the late 1970s. It resulted in the death of over a quarter of Cambodia’s population – anyone who was literate, considered intellectual, or even just had soft hands, were rounded up and either worked to death, or worse, tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit for which they were executed. Up to 3 million died in total.
The first stop was Tuol Sleng. A former high school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison during the genocide – the notorious S21.
Prisoners were brought in, tortured in the most horrific manners possible and then taken away to be executed. Their forced ‘confessions’ would usually involve naming family and friends who would in turn also be rounded up and killed. Of the 17,000 who passed through the prison, there were only 7 survivors. That’s a survival rate of 0.04%. Amazingly, one of the survivors was at that prison the day I visited, answering questions about his time there and selling copies of a book he wrote about his experience. Hearing it first hand just made it more real and even more horrific.
One of the most horrible things about visiting was seeing the thousands of photos of the prisoners – every single one was photographed on arrival and catalogued. There were photos of children, babies, pregnant women, elderly. All ages and genders – and all were tortured and killed. One photo of a mother holding a baby stood out as the caption informed us that after the photo was taken, the baby was taken from her arms and killed in front of her. As we walked around we could still see what looked like bloodstains on some floors and walls – as well as the crude cells people were kept in and the beds prisoners were chained to and beaten.
After such a grim morning at Tuol Sleng, it only got worse in the afternoon as we travelled to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Without going into too much detail, sites such as the one we visited (and there were many throughout the country) where were people were taken to be executed and then chucked in a mass grave. To save ammunition, they were not even shot – instead many were clubbed to death. The amount of bones and skulls was sickening – and the worst thing was walking along the paths through the fields and seeing bits of cloth, jewellery and worst of all bone poking through the soil. It was an incredibly depressing place to visit but very important to go and see, and remember as well. The fields themselves look quite pleasant if you don’t know the atrocities they conceal, so thankfully it has turned into a good final resting place for the thousands ‘buried’ there.
It was a thoroughly depressing day but I’m very glad I did it and it’s essential for any visitor to the country to go and see and learn about what happened. The tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel was quite quiet!
One thing that struck me about Phnom Penh in comparison to the other South-east Asian cities I’d been to was how poor it felt in comparison. There were almost no cars, only bikes and tuk-tuks. Litter was everywhere, there were few pavements and roads and houses were in poor condition. Of course, it had some nice upmarket areas, which were a pleasure to explore, but the definite feel was one of a country still feeling the effects of its past. In my short time in the capital I saw a lot and met some great people, but all too soon I boarded another minibus for the 4 hour drive over to the town of Siem Reap – the gateway to the magnificent old city of Angkor.