Phnom Penh, Cambodia
11th July 2012, 17:28
The ride from Ho Chi Min City to Phnom Penh was an interesting one. From the outset I wasn't even sure when I made it to the Cambodian border if I'd be allowed to cross with my motorbike. I'd read conflicting reports online, some people had no problems, others were refused. I wanted to try it anyway, and if I was turned away I could just return to Ho Chi Minh, sell the bike and jump on a bus to take me there instead.
It turned out to be extremely easy. I parked the bike up, walked inside and asked a border official (who, by the way, appear to be the most miserable people in the world) who told me to line up like everybody else, then wheel my bike through when I'm done. Erm, ok!
After literally walking through the border, I had only gone a few kilometres when it started raining. Heavily. This continued until I arrived in Phnom Penh, for around four hours. I was pretty depressed by the time I arrived, so checked into the first reasonably priced hotel I found, and headed straight out to the best rated pizza place I found on Trip Advisor! Pizza has become my comfort food on this trip. It's the one western dish I keep coming back to in the various places I've been visiting. Sometimes you just need a taste of home! (England, not Italy). Of course you always need to try the local cuisine, the first Khmer dish I went for was Amok. This is a mild, creamy curry with fish or chicken. It was delicious. I still cannot bring myself to get my camera out and take a photo of my food before I eat it though!
While in Phnom Penh, there were two places I really wanted to visit, despite how unpleasant I knew they would be. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21/Security Centre 21) and Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields).
S21 used to be a school but was converted into a prison, and place of torture during the Khmer Rouge era. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, lead by Pol Pot massacred over three million Cambodians. S21 was just one of many such places set up throughout the country. Words can hardly describe the feeling you experience when you set foot inside this place. The walls are surrounded with two layers of razor wire, and there are fourteen graves next to a wooden gallows in the courtyard. These are the graves of prisoners who were abandoned by the Khmer Rouge, discovered by the Vietnamese army when they invaded the country to stop the genocide. The odd thing is, if you ignore the fact there are graves and a gallows in the courtyard, you can still imagine what it must have been like when it was used as a school. Full of children running and playing, laughing with their friends. It's really quite chilling when you then think of what it became.
While countless Khmer people died at S21, it would not have been 'efficient' for the Khmer Rouge to execute masses of people here. After torturing them until they could bare the pain no longer, the victims were forced to confess to ridiculous crimes they did not commit, sentenced to death, and transported in groups to Choeung Ek - an old Chinese graveyard a short distance outside the city. Here the Khmer Rouge would unload the prisoners, and execute them next to mass graves. The bodies have since been exhumed, and the bones now lie in a monument at the site.
The bodies that were found have been removed, but as you walk around the edge of the mass graves, on the 'paths' you can still see garments, fragments of bone and even whole teeth as they are gradually uncovered by rainfall. If that weren't horrific enough, possibly the worst part for me was standing by 'The Killing Tree'. Bullets were expensive for the Khmer Rouge, so they would use alternative methods to execute people. Infants would be held by their legs and swung against the tree, then added to the mass grave with their mothers. You can't quite comprehend the evil that would be required to carry out such an act, and I was very overwhelmed not just at that particular location, but in the whole place.
Due to this only being thirty odd years ago, people are still hugely affected today. With over three million people killed, that was every one in four of the population. Every local you meet here in Cambodia has members of their family who suffered. It also strikes you walking around, just how few old people there are in the country.
On a (much) lighter note, which i definitely needed after visiting those two places in one day, the following day I booked a tour to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary. This place is commonly mistaken as a zoo, but does in fact take in unwanted and mistreated animals before attempting to release them into the wild if at all possible. I had a really great time here, made all the more enjoyable by the lovely tour guide Vathana. She's been doing the tour for years, and the people at the sanctuary are just like family, so she's allowed into all the backstage areas. We got to go into the tiger house for example, which was an unexpected treat. We also got to go round the back of the leopard enclosure, and have some very thin looking chainlink fence seperating us from them. I think this was my favourite animal overall. Vathana's favourite there is Lucky, the elephant. She's very intimidating at first, due to the sheer size of her! But you soon get used to that. Feeding her is a very slimy job though...
After the tour, Vathana invited us back to her home to have dinner (and amazing homemade banana milkshakes!) with her and her husband. On arriving, she entered the kitchen, refusing any assistance from us (apparently we would have just slowed her down!), and emerged later with an amazing homemade feast! Vathana's kindness is indicative of the experience I've had with all Khmer people since I've been here. But then I also thought that of Vietnamese people. I've since spoken to other travellers who have said Vietnamese people weren't that friendly, that certainly wasn't my experience.
The last place I visited before I left was the Royal Palace and the silver pagoda. The latter so named due to having a floor covered in silver. However, they cover most of it up with carpet and the bits that aren't covered cant be photographed anyway! Ah well, the buildings look nice outside...