Our next stop in this amazing country was the capital: Phnom Penh. We weren’t certain how long we would stay here for but just decided to play it by ear and see how we felt on arrival. After we left Siem Reap Kayleigh and I were happily seated on a very uncomfortable coach trying desperately to sleep but with no luck. The journey seemed to take forever. I can remember being flung from left to right as the coach sped over pot hole after bump after pot hole and thinking to myself ‘Why do I like backpacking? Why?!’. I was so tired and just needed some shut eye!
Suddenly we came to a halt. ‘What now?’ I asked myself, dreading the answer. It took a while for me to figure out what was happening as all the shouts from the driver and staff were obviously in Cambodian, but once the left side of the coach jolted up in the air and woke any sleeping folk from their dreams I cottoned on that they were changing a flat tyre. With everyone still on the coach. There would have been no point at all in trying to explain to them the potential risks involved in propping up a double decker coach full of people, so instead I let go of any anxiety and took the opportunity to doze while the coach was (a bit) still.
When the tyre was changed and the coach was back on the road I woke up. The roads out there seem to have very few rules and guidelines, I often saw people riding their mopeds on whichever side of the road they felt like, and a gap no matter how big or small is always enough to encourage any driver to overtake the one in front. I did notice though that no one seems to have road rage over there. In England I find it amusing to watch people in traffic jams banging their fists on the dashboard in a self-important rage. I never saw anything like this in Asia, yet there is always plenty of traffic and collisions on the road. Anyway, the point is our coach was suddenly flooded with the head lights of an oncoming lorry. It was quite frightening but he swerved out of the way just in time as per usual. Kayleigh let out a prolonged scream (she’d been asleep so it was more of a shock for her), I didn’t realise it was her and wondered to myself what silly panicker had just screamed!
We arrived in the city at about nine o’clock in the morning and were both in foul moods due to lack of beauty sleep. To begin with, I sent our tuk tuk driver the wrong way and we both nearly lost our temper with him when he insisted on turning around. We quickly realised it was our (my) mistake and bit our tongues. Then we discovered the hostel we had planned on staying in was a complete dive, I could barely see the reception desk through all the chairs, bags and piles of what looked like washing lying about. Our driver took us to a much cleaner place around the corner – but they only had one twin room left. We saw the room eventually – the guy at the hostel had to wake up the handy man who was having a little nap in there, very strange! It was a decent room, except the ceiling was abnormally low. We looked at each other and silently agreed we wouldn’t be staying in this place long, so decided to just take the room. At least it was clean, that’s always the most important thing in my book!
I agreed with Kay that it would be best to get straight into action, so after a nap and some food we booked a tuk tuk and headed for the killing fields. I didn’t expect the experience to be a happy one, but I also didn’t expect to feel as affected as I did. The first thing that struck me was the tower full of clothes, bones and skulls of the victims of the Pol Pot regime. Kayleigh and I quickly went quiet and slowly took it in. All of these skulls that belonged to real, innocent people. You can see marks and breaks where they’ve been hit in the head with something in order to kill them. I didn’t take any pictures of these bones, a lot of people who go there do but for me it felt wrong to do so.
After seeing this we moved to the fields, which consisted of many filled in mass graves. There is a box in the middle of the grounds full of small bones and clothes, after reading the sign attached to it we learnt that after heavy bouts of rain the remanants of the victims will often rise to the surface. If you come across any they ask you to place them in this box. Then we found ‘the baby tree‘, next to which was a small line of teeth, presumably belonging to some of the children killed here. I felt disturbed to be standing next to a tree upon which countless babies and children had been murdered only a few decades ago. You will probably know how the murders were committed at this tree, but if you don’t, the babies were held at the ankles and swung against the trunk. They were then thrown into one of the many mass graves.
A short while later we were seated in the information centre to watch an educational video about the killing fields. While it was informative the English voice over was just awful! I really don’t know who decided his voice was the right one for the film, the guy’s voice just dragged in an awful monotone throughout the whole thing. I have to admit I was glad when it came to an end, his bored voice almost seemed a bit disrespectful!
Feeling drained, reflective and quite sad we both hopped into the tuk tuk and asked the driver to take us to S-21 prison located in the city. He took us back through the dusty and incredibly busy roads of Phnom Penh and dropped us off just outside the former school and later prison. Well, I thought visiting the killing fields was hard, it was nothing compared to this. We entered the first block and walked into the first room. Each room (or classroom rather) has a picture on the wall of a prisoner that was once kept there. The beds and much of the equipment are still there. The school chalkboards are still on the walls. The stains are still on the floor. Barely able to speak and feeling a strange sensation of sickness I began to walk slowly from room to room, taking time to look at each image.
In the next block there were pictures of all the prisoners, every single one. You can look over every individual that died or was murdered here. Some look as old as eighty, others younger than one. There are also pictures painted by one of the survivors depicting the torture methods that were employed here. Since it used to be a school some of the gym equipment was adapted for torture, very sinister. Here I did take just one picture, I wanted to remember how I felt looking into their eyes:
When we got back to our room we both lay on our beds and agreed that although the day hadn’t been a pleasant experience we were glad we now knew a lot more about Cambodia’s history. I felt it was incredible for a country to have such a dark and recent history, but to be resiliently full of the nicest people. Of course I’m sure not absolutely everyone in Cambodia is great, but there was something about this place that made me feel happy. Just before I went travelling the first time in 2010, someone said to me ‘But the world is full of dangerous people.’ While that’s probably true, it’s also full of amazing, kind, good and beautiful people and travelling has only confirmed that for me. Cambodia is one place in particular that I came across many people like this.
Kayleigh had learnt from her guidebook that there was a restaurant very close by called Friends Cafe, which is run by the charity Friends International. They take on children from the street and train them to cook, assist in kitchens or wait tables. They employ them and when they eventually leave they are able to earn a proper living rather than going back to the streets. There was also a shop next door and a beauty salon, again all the employees were former street kids. We thought this was a fantastic charity and were keen to contribute to it in some way, so in order to put a positive spin on a negative day we decided to eat dinner at the restaurant. If I remember correctly I had a pork salad, and waffles for desert. The food and service was excellent – and I am NOT just saying that. The decor was lovely and the place was squeaky clean too. I got a real sense of the positive energy running through this place and felt much happier by the time we left.
That night we each hit our heads on the dangerously low ceiling more than once, cursing each time. Then at about four o’clock in the morning I became wide awake for no apparent reason. Bizarrely, seconds later Kayleigh stirred and began to shout my name. She then shot out of bed and smacked her head violently on the ceiling once again. I asked if she was okay (stupid question really) and she told me she had been dreaming of being locked in a temple full of of baby bones!
The following day we did a spot of shopping at a boutique and in the Friends shop, and Kay treated herself to a pedicure (which was later ruined when we had to climb over a landslide). We were booked to leave in the morning and had spent two quick and busy days in Phnom Penh – we were ready to go somewhere quieter. So in the morning it was another day, another ridiculous bus journey. Drivers often beep their horns just to warn other road users of their presence, but this guy was really going too far. I think he beeped his horn at least every five to ten seconds. After half an hour I wanted to scream. Luckily we didn’t have any breakdowns or other potential mishaps of any kind – every cloud!
We arrived in Kampong Cham, a town overlooking the Mekong river. Feeling like we needed a bit of TLC, we checked into the Mekong Hotel and got an awesome room. The reviews I’ve linked to of this place are quite average but personally I loved staying here. It’s probably just because we’d been deprived of any real luxury for a while by this point. We had an en suite, a television with a movie channel, AND we had a balcony with a fantastic view of the Mekong river. We bounced around the room (literally) for a bit like two excited children and tried to think what we should do with our free afternoon. Nine times out of ten, if you ask me: do you think local food beats Western food? I will say YES I DO with confidence and conviction. But one time out of ten there are exceptions and this was one time. Turning left out of the hotel we began the search for food and eventually found a very local restaurant, clearly for very local people. There were no menus but the smiling owner was more than happy to give us a taster of a standard dinner, we shrugged and obliged because a) we didn’t speak Cambodian and b) we were extremely hungry. What arrived at the table was a mixture of some ‘pleasant’ dipping sauces, some cooked and soggy green leaves, plain boiled rice and meat. Yay, meat! Oh hang on, it’s fatty meat. Wait, no, it’s fat. Pure fat. Little giblets of pig fat. Is that a bit of bone too? Yes, yes I think so. Sooooo … after a filling meal of plain boiled rice we walked up the road to the river side and discovered a long line of restaurants serving everything from pizza to curry to English breakfasts. Note to self: next time turn right out of the hotel.
The road running along the river looked quite busy so we decided to take a stroll. Families who passed us on their mopeds got their children to wave and shout ‘Helloooo’, a lady carrying a basket on her head gave us the biggest and kindest smile I’ve ever seen, and up ahead we caught sight of what looked like an outdoor zumba class. When we got nearer we realised that it was an outdoor zumba class! We joined a French family (later learnt that the father of the family had left Cambodia and moved to France years earlier, where he had met his wife. They came to Cambodia with their three children on holiday nearly every year) in watching the class of over one hundred totally unembarassed locals busting some moves according to the almost cartoon like class leader. He had that crazy, spiked anime hair going on and kept shouting presumably motivational phrases into his microphone. During the walk back to our hotel I saw two ladies sat overlooking the river having a good old natter, they looked like old friends (and appeared to be wearing pyjamas), I grabbed a quick picture of them: