Phnom Pow Wow!

Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
Trip End Dec 01, 2012

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Driving through the city of Phnom Penh for the first time we were both flabbergasted by the contrast between the poor countryside we had just passed through from the Mekong, and the grandeur of the wide leafy streets and stately buildings. Coming from developed Western countries It's hard to understand how a nation’s wealth can be so unevenly distributed. This is a third world country but things are changing fast, this development seemingly often to the detriment of poorer families as is often the case. Cambodia is a country of contradictions alright. Just take for instance the beaming smile, massive waves and deafening hellos that greet you from Cambodian kids everywhere you go. Never mind the warm smiles and gracious hospitality of the countries older generations. Now consider the country’s heart breaking and relatively recent history under the rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and try to reconcile the two. It’s near impossible. We knew a little about Cambodia’s history before arriving and having followed my dear friend Katy’s experience there during a year of volunteering, it had a special place in our hearts. We had been looking forward to visiting and discovering the country for ourselves. Phnom Penh is the capital city and with 'sights’ like the Killing Fields and S-21, it’s the ideal place to start a visit to the country in order to get a good grounding in the history of the country.         

As capital cities go, Phnom Penh is fairly easy to navigate. The streets are laid out like a grid and numbered sequentially. Of course this didn’t stop us from making a few wrong turns on our first day there, but we’ve definitely learned by now that that’s more than half the fun when exploring a new place. It was starting to get dark by the time we had checked into our Guesthouse and freshened up to feel half human again after the horrendous trip in the minivan from the boat. All we needed now was a decent feed. So we headed out on our first evening towards the waterfront, Sisowath Quay which overlooked the Tonlé Sap river.  We’d read this was a hub for bars and restaurants in the city centre. Well we weren’t disappointed, the street running along the Quay was lined with places to line your stomachs and/or do some serious damage to your liver. We decided to have a stroll to get a feel for the place before plumping for one of the restaurants and so crossed over to the esplanade along the river for a bit of respite from the persistent waiting staff touting for customers. We were surprised at how busy it was. Alright we figured, this is a popular spot in a capital city but still, it seemed like every Tom Dick and Harry and their long lost cousin Bob was out for the evening. Five minutes later we heard some dance music blaring out and saw a crowd gathered. As we got closer we saw that the crowd was watching a mass aerobics routine, at least 50 people of all shapes, sizes and ages working up a sweat. Fair play and what a good idea! It appeared to be free with people randomly rocking up and joining in and as we saw the same thing a few evenings later it would seem to be a regular class. Why the governments back home don’t plug a few quid into a similar initiative I don’t know – would be a great idea to help people get more exercise. We carried on walking down to the end of the esplanade and then we spied what we worked out to be the Royal Palace all lit up. There were pictures of what we assumed to be the King all over the place and hundreds of families were sitting out picnicking on the grass in front of place. Hawkers were wandering around selling balloons and candyfloss – it was around this point that we worked out that there must be some kind of celebration going on. We wandered around soaking up the carnival like atmosphere for a while until our grumbling bellies brought us away and back in the direction of the restaurants we had passed. We picked out a small restaurant that served Khmer food whose walls were pasted with the glowing reviews and doodles of previous customers. We picked a table near the front, ideal for people watching and picked out some yummy Khmer food. Amok – curry served in banana leaf is one of the best known dishes of Cambodia and it is delicious! After a while lots and lots of pretty amazing fireworks started to go off over the river. I went out to the street for a better look and to have a chat with our friendly waitress. She explained that it was the last day of a three day celebration for the former Kings birthday, King Norodom Sihanouk .  I was pretty awestruck watching the very impressive firework show. The waitress was definitely less impressed, telling me that they are the same every year and they go on for ages. Well she was right, they did go on for ages and eventually I conceded that she was right and that I might sit back down. Sure Tom had much the same view from the table anyway but I was glad to have got chatting to her and find out what was going on.  After dinner and a couple of beers we left two very happy campers and went for some more wanderings. It was a good bit quieter now and seeing as we didn’t want to carry on drinking and write off the next morning we headed back for the Guesthouse planning out the next day’s sightseeing as we went.

We were staying in a great big room, we had thought upon checking in that it made a pleasant change to be staying somewhere so bright and airy after getting used to rooms with tiny windows and no view or natural light to speak of. We found out the next morning that the sun rose and shone straight into our room and we had way too much ‘natural light’ than we knew what to do with, the see through curtains meant that we were awake and boiling hot just after 7am. Well actually Tom was up earlier and downstairs chatting away to Mary on Skype before I had even woke, but you get my point! There was little respite from the fan in our room and we had to have 2 cold showers each before leaving the Guesthouse that morning. Later in the day, on the way back to our room, I poached what I took to be a spare fan from under the stairs and so it wasn’t quite as hot after that – also we figured out how to open the windows haha. Over breakfast at the Guesthouse we had got chatting to one of the staff who worked there Lonh. He was super friendly and especially keen not just to practice his English with us (which was excellent) but to ensure we had some Khmer phrases under our belt to see us through our visit to his country. He taught us some phrases and without fail every time we saw him in the Guesthouse he would put us through our paces which we loved. Have to say, it was so nice to see a friendly face every day (other than Toms). We also learned a lot about the way of life in Cambodia from Lonh and found out how hardworking Khmer people are. He worked 12 hour days with 1 day off a month and earned US$100 a month. He was saving to go to the University in Phnom Penh to study tourism and seeing as his family lived over 70Km away, he didn’t get to see them that often. It’s when you have an insight like this that you realise that you should count everything you take for granted as a blessing. Munkel another guy in the Guesthouse we were friendly with told Tom that he didn’t get any days off.  

We had set out to visit the Royal Palace late that morning but we got distracted along the way just taking in the atmosphere of the city and watching people going about their day to day business, that by the time we neared the Palace I realised that according to our guidebook it closes for lunch and so we had to wait till 2 for it to reopen. So we passed the time with more wandering, lunch, and relaxing back at the Guesthouse before heading back to the Royal Palace. The Palace grounds are separated from the city by a pristine white wall and the high afternoon sun was bouncing off the walls and glistening off the golden rooftops of the palace buildings. Approaching the Palace, Monks strolled around the outside, their Saffron robes popping against the white walls. It was all very beautiful and certainly felt very regal. We were faced with a bit of a queue for tickets, which were double the price that our Lonely Planet gave at US$6. We had to cover our arms and knees to enter, having been caught out on this in the past, we were prepared with shirts this time and despite the heat I had put my legs away for the day! The Palace grounds and building were amazing, absolutely immaculately kept and beautifully ornate. It wasn’t as enchanting or romantic as the Forbidden City in Beijing, nor as decadent and dazzling as the Grand Palace in Bangkok but it definitely holds its own. About half of the grounds were fenced off, we assumed because of the recent celebrations for the Kings Birthday but that still left more than enough to explore. After passing through a little arch way and rounding a cobbled bend which seemed out of kilter with the spacious open plan courtyard we had first explored, we came through to another section of the grounds which housed the Silver Pagoda. The Silver Pagoda is so named because of the 5000 silver tiles lining the floor, each one weighing 1kg. It also houses a solid gold Buddha covered with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats!! It was pretty cool walking around in there and ogling the sparkly Buddha wondering if they’d miss one or two out of the 9584! The gardens in this part of the Palace grounds were more natural and to the back of the buildings we found a miniature version of Angkor Wat surrounded by its own moat filled with (life-sized) fish and turtles. We bumped into the English group that we had got chatting to on the Mekong Delta tour again and told them we’d probably see them later since it’s inevitable that you bump into familiar faces when you are all in a city to see the same sights. We left the Royal Palace, and decided we had enough time if we got a jiffy on to go and have a look round the Central Market. This daytime market opens until about 6 and as it was only slightly out of the way walking back to the Guesthouse, we thought we’d have a quick look! After about 15 minutes of walking we spied the Market from afar. It’s impossible to miss it as it a huge yellow and white 1950s art deco building which stand s out a mile from the conventional concrete city blocks that surround it. I was much more impressed with the building that the market itself and probably spent most of the time there taking photographs! I make a couple of purchases as well though which involved Tom leaving me to try haggling on my own…which I did with moderate success. That is until Tom pointed out to me afterwards that I had got the lady down to 9 dollars and then getting mixed up at the end concluded, great 10 dollars it is….so my hard work was wasted haha! Ah well I’m learning. We bought some food from a street stall outside the market – it looked delicious, all freshly made salad with a chilli dressing. Neither of us realised that there were a couple of crab claws in there as well however until Tom started munching down on one which ruined the food on him, but take it from me it was yum! That half put us on so that we could make it back to the Guesthouse for a quick freshen up before heading straight out for dinner. Normally we’d try out some of the street food but we both wanted to have a comfy spot to do some people watching and so we picked out a table outside a bar/restaurant on a corner of Sisowath Quay. Well we were sitting ducks. The number of kids who try to make some extra money for their families by selling books to tourists is unreal. They mostly have excellent English and are pretty persistent. Through experience they have an answer to pretty much any excuse you could think up for not wanting/needing a book. Having just picked up a few new books we managed to hold our nerve, on this occasion anyway (a few days later Tom caved in to a particularly enterprising little chap who kicked his ass at rocks, paper, scissors to boot). There was also a mix of victims of landmine explosions and beggars looking for some tourist dollars as well….I wouldn’t say it was the relaxing evening that we had in mind but we certainly got our fix of people watching alright.

Having seen some of the ‘lighter’ sights of Phnom Penh we booked ourselves onto a Tuk Tuk tour for the following day. These tours are one of the biggest tourist cash cows in Phnom Penh and everywhere you walk in the city you have Tuk Tuk drivers touting for business. For what we made out to be a standard price of US$15 pp you availed of your own Tuk Tuk and driver for the day who would take you to any number of sights around the city and the outskirts of the city. We booked one from our Guesthouse and mapped out a route with the helpful staff there. We were to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the Russian Market, S-21 and then Wat Phnom. Normally a stop to the Royal Palace and the National Museum would be included but we had seem the Palace already and decided that we’d prefer to take our time over fewer sights anyway to get the most from the experiences. Given the harrowing incomprehensible nature of the histories of the Killing Fields and S-21 we definitely wanted to be able to take time out to pay our respects, reflect and consider. So after a hearty breakfast the next morning, we made friends with our driver and climbed aboard our Tuk Tuk for the day. The first stop was the Killing Fields as this was the furthest of our destinations out of the city centre, abut 15K south. After 30 minutes or so we turned off the main road and headed down a side road, with paddy fields either side, we’d hit the countryside! The road became lined with cafes and Tuk Tuks, a sure sign to us that we were near a tourist attraction and we were right, at the end of the road was a big gateway indicating that we had reached the Killing Fields site. I don’t know what I had been expecting but this wasn’t it. The place was so quiet and serene. We paid for our tickets and to my delight we were handed a free audio guide. I’ll say it right now – this was one of the best audio guides I’ve ever had. I couldn’t believe it when I say people heading off without one, armed just with a little leaflet. As well as informative, the guide was set apart by its inclusion of personal accounts of victims and perpetrators of the atrocities committed at the Killing Fields. We listened to all of them and it added a lot to the tour for sure. We discovered that the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, was, prior to 1975, an orchard and a Chinese Burial Ground - hence the peaceful setting. In the years of the Khmer Rouge reign 1975 – 1979, at least 17,000 people were executed and buried at Choeung Ek. There is no official figure but estimates range from nearly a million to 2.5 million deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. As with the other victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, these people included men, woman, children and foreigners. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge had a vision of an entirely self-sufficient Communist Society in which the majority of the population worked to farm the land, producing food for the masses. Cities were emptied of its people nearly overnight; families split up and those who weren’t executed immediately were sent to interrogation (torture) camps or sent to work in the fields.  Educated professionals were seen as a threat to the new regime, a person would be executed for wearing glasses or for having genteel hands deemed unused to manual labour. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders were paranoid to the extreme which explains the executions of educated people who may be capable of threatening the reforms. Also many members of their own party were executed over the years suspected of traitorous behaviour. One of Pol Pots many sayings was ‘Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake’ and ‘No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out’. Truly a mad man if ever there was one.

There isn’t much remaining structurally at Choeung Ek today. After the Khmer Rouge was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1975, people, desperate and starving looted the site and took anything of any worth – sure even the wooden huts could be broken down for firewood. This wasn’t an act of disrespect for the victims, the nation were at this time unaware of what had taken place there, or at any of the Killing Fields. This was discovered later when the stench of decaying bodies gave it away. Anyway the tour instead takes you round the sites, sometimes there is something to look at, and other times there is just an information board with the audio tour filling in the blanks. The tour started at the point where people brought to Choeung Ek were unloaded from the wagons and registered. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous record keepers and as such there is a record of everyone who entered Choeung Ek and ultimately met their end there. Some people were executed straight away, others were set to work on the rice paddies and farm within the Choeung Ek grounds were they were either killed at a later stage or worked to death. You continue round making various stops until you reach the first mass grave. It wasn’t as large as I had been expecting, no more than about 10 sq foot and was a bumpy patch of grass to the side of the path marked off by a low rope fence. Listening to the audio guide you were told that while excavations have taken place over the years, small bone fragments, teeth and pieces of clothing are still surfacing especially after rainfall. Some graves are still to be excavated. Staff at Choeung Ek periodically collects these every two months for safe keeping. Now I hadn’t looked down that much especially up to this point but as the audio guide now suggested I did, paying special attention especially to where I stepped. On closer inspection, some cloth and teeth could be seen in the mass grave and as I walked away along the path, I suddenly noticed cloth every 2 foot or so peeping up out of the ground. It gives you the worst kind of goose bumps when you realise that the cloth once belonged to a person and had been worn by them at the time of their brutal death. This continued as we walked around to some of the other points and saw more mass graves. Words truly fail me when I try and describe how I felt (trust me I’ve been sitting here quite a while now trying to think of how to express it). Well I don’t think I have to – I’m sure you can imagine just how harrowing the experience was. We sat by a lake within the Choeung Ek grounds for a while listening to some of the personal stories on the audio guide and just reflecting on what we had seen, learnt and felt. We walked back round to the tour trail and realised that possibly the most horrific part was before us, the Killing Tree. The Killing Tree is famous. This gnarled Chankiri tree, about 4 ft around is one of the stops on the tour of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. To the side of the tree is another mass grave, with a difference. The infants and babies of those adults detained in the Choeung Ek camp were killed here. Another twisted logic of the Khmer Rouge was at the root of this – the reasoning being so that the children "wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' deaths". That young innocents, sometimes just months old, were killed is terrible enough but learning that the Khmer Rouge soldiers used to kill them by holding them by the legs and hitting their heads off the tree, or throwing them in the air then spearing them on a bayonet……well it leaves you shell shocked. We stood looking at the tree and at the mass grave, both of us very shaken. That was close enough to the end of the tour; we went on to look at the huge memorial stupa which towers over the site. You are greeted by this on arrival as it stands facing the gates but it’s recommended that you leave it until the end. It was definitely the right thing – the Buddhist stupor, was erected to provide a place of peace for excavated bones to lie and for people to pay their respects. It is has many levels inside on which the bones lie, a few shelves filled with skulls rest at eye level, above them larger bones and so on, each level categorized in this way. There simply isn’t the resource to identify individuals and match up bones and so recovered remains are ordered in this way. The magnitude of how many lives were lost is driven home when you stand craning your neck as far as you can and all you can see are bones, knowing that this is only the tip of a very large iceberg. I’d heard about the display of the bones and wasn’t sure how it would make me feel but I’m not sure that it is any more shocking than the rest of the tour that precedes it. By the time you reach the end and visit the stupor you are already dumbfounded by what went on. Also without identification, the remains can’t be buried in the conventional way and so this scared resting place does seem befitting. We ended the tour with a visit to the small museum and watched the short video being played there about the history of the site. All in all, we were glad that we did go, I know a lot of people are uncertain about whether they want to – it makes sense that it’s a very personal decision, it’s not like deciding whether to visit an aquarium or something for instance. But we felt it is important to learn as much a country while you are there and this was a massive part of a turbulent and recent history and so very relevant.

Our next stop was the Russian markets and so a complete change of scene and mood. Contrary to popular belief – OK my initial belief, the markets do not sell Russian goods or souvenirs. Thinking about it, that would be quite random given that we are in Cambodia. In fact the markets are actually named Psar Toul Tom Pong but nicknamed the Russian markets because they were popular with Russian shoppers back in the 1980s. I suppose at this stage of the trip markets aren’t stirring the same sense of excitement and delight that they were at the start, or maybe we were just a bit sombre after the trip to Choeung Ek, probably the latter, anyway we weren’t overly impressed with this indoor market and weren’t really in the mood for shopping. We looked at a lot of Buddha statues and in the end I bought a pair of pants in a style I’d been meaning to get for ages. With a purchase made we felt that we had given the market its due and headed back to the Tuk Tuk. I think to be honest the driver was relieved to see us back a bit earlier than expected since we had taken long enough at Choeung Ek.

If the markets had lightened the mood any it didn’t last for long as our next stop was at S-21.  S-21 (Security Prison 21) or Tuol Sleng, formerly a high school in the Phnom Penh city centre was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979. The prison could hold up to 1500 prisoners at a time who were repeatedly tortured to try and extract information including confessions and the names of family and friends who in turn were arrested. The people captured and held there included professional people, engineers, monks, soldiers and government officials including politicians from their own party all suspected of treacherous activities against the Khmer Rouge. Since the buildings used to be a school, the layout had a familiar feel, 3 blocks of classrooms surrounding a courtyard which would have been used for sports. The tour allowed you to wander round the cells (converted from classrooms) and look at many photos taken of the atrocities – as I mentioned the Khmer Rouge liked to keep their records up to date. Some of the instruments of torture were also on display. One of the blocks had rooms filled with photos; there was a photo of every person who passed through S-21 (the people were photographed upon arrest as part of their registration). It was a haunting experience wandering through those rooms with all those faces staring back at you. Children belonging to the adults arrested were not spared in accordance to Pol Pot’s paranoid philosophy and there was a room filled with photos of children who had died there. The visit here was just as shocking as that to the Killing Fields that morning. The methods of torture described were horrific, hanging, electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, fingernails being removed, skin peeling off….the list goes on and on. We were very very subdued leaving and were glad that the last port of call for the day was Wat Phnom. This Buddhist temple is at the highest point of Phnom Penh – all 27m of it, and is a peaceful oasis within a circular park at the centre of a large roundabout like junction. It was a really nice end to the day and we were glad that we could switch off wandering round the gardens and up and down the steps, give our heads a bit of a rest and reflect on everything we had learned about that day. Tom had managed to break one of his flip-flops on the way back from S-21 to the Tuk Tuk and was setting off for the Wat barefoot. Our Tuk Tuk driver, lovely fella that he was, saw this and insisted that Tom took his instead. We couldn’t believe it but Toms size 12’s were the same size as this little Cambodian mans but they were and given the bumpy paths around the park it was a good job! The Wat was OK – not one of the more spectacular ones we’d visited but it was a nice way to end the day.

We headed back to the Guesthouse with our Tuk Tuk driver and booked on to a tour the following and last day that we were to spend in Phnom Penh. We had been talking to the man in the hostel who ran this tour and he was literally the most enthusiastic person about any tour that we had met on the trip. He was passionately Buddhist and keen to share the beliefs and history of the religion with anyone who shared an interest. His tour that we were sold on was to the temples of Udong, about 40K north of Phnom Penh. Udong was the former capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866 until it was sacked by the Thais. More recently it was blown up by the Khmer Rouge. We settled into the Tuk Tuk for our journey – 40K in a Tuk Tuk takes a while. We were loving the journey though as we passed through the suburbs and then out to the countryside watching the locals around us going about their daily business. About 10K away from Udong the cart in front of us slapped on his breaks suddenly and Munkel had to pull off what was the most impressive emergency stop I’ve ever seen. Breaking and swaying from side to side finally coming to a halt no more than 2 inches from the back of the Tuk Tuk. It was properly one of those moments when time slows down – everything seems to happen in slow motion. I guess I’d have been scared but there wasn’t time and Munkel seemed so shaken up we were too busy reassuring him that we were fine and trying to distract him by congratulating him on his Tuk Tuk handling skills. We carried on and arrived without any further drama at Udong. The main complex of temples there are relatively new due to the repeated destruction, and you can tell. The temples were gleaming they were so clean and the grounds were immaculately maintained, barely a leaf out of place. After being shown round these newer temples by Munkel and giving an offering to a monk in return for which we received a blessing, we headed over to another part of the Udong temples, where the original structures still stood. We were faced with a beggar-lined stairway of 509 stairs and Munkel having brought lots of small change with him of 100 Riel (about 2c) stopped at every single beggar to talk with them and give them some money. We had noticed him doing this at the other temples with the monks and with children who approached us as we walked around. His generosity astounded us, especially as we knew from talking with Lonh already that the staff at the Guesthouse don’t bring in huge salaries. He explained that he does this everytime he visits and that it gives him joy as it is following the Buddhist ways. Towards the top of the stairs he started to run out of money and so Tom and I gave him some which he changed for smaller bills to carry on giving something to those obviously in need. Experiences like this restore your faith a little in mankind, although I have to admit that it made Tom and I feel quite bad for watching our travellers purse strings so tightly. The stupas and temples at the top of the hill were beautiful, like something out of Indiana Jones! The views over the surrounding countryside were also jaw dropping. Munkel left us to our own devices up there to explore which we took full advantage of. The sun was unbelievably hot that afternoon and seeing as we were tiptoeing around in our bare feet (you have to take your shoes off before entering Buddhist temples) we were feeling the heat even more. We found Munkel sitting in the shade with an old lady selling snacks and two little kids and they urged us to join them – they didn’t have to ask twice. Munkel was chilling out in a hammock and we sat down alongside him sharing some fruit. The kids were messing playing and providing entertainment for us and before we knew it about an hour had passed and it was time to go. Down the steps we went – a little easier this time and we were away in our Tuk Tuk back through the countryside to the city. We packed up that night for our bus ride to Battambang the next day and got an early enough night needing it after packing such a lot into the last few days. We loved our time in Phnom Penh and our introduction to Cambodia didn’t disappoint, we were especially struck by the warmth and charm of the Khmer people and looking forward to seeing more of the country.


You just cant come to terms with what happened in Cambodia. The fact that people are so warm and generous and friendly makes it even harder to believe that less than 40 years ago one of the biggest and most terrible atrocities that man has ever inflicted occurred here. Walking around you have to keep reminding yourself that almost the vast majority of adults walking around lived through the events, either as victims or members of the Khmer Rouge. I found this fact especially sobering. I had heard a lot about the killing fields from some friends who had been before, so I had thought I had prepared myself for it. I was very wrong. It was one of the most disturbing and well moving places I have ever been in my life. As for S-21, I felt physically shocked walking around. I found myself just taking photos of the walls and walls of mugshots of the victims just as a way of keeping their memory, ridiculous really. It still makes me feel very uneasy just thinking about the whole place. Don’t get me wrong it was still completely worth visiting and something I will never forget.

The people are just so ridiculously nice though, where else in the world would someone give you their flip flops without a second thought. Its still one of the nicest things anyone has done for me. And all the guys at the hostel were never short of chat, just really great people.

As for the little kid that sold me the book, I had to hold my hands up and say fairplay to him he deserved his money. Cheeky little ********!!!

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