The Long Road to Phnom Penh

Trip Start Nov 30, 2012
Trip End Jan 14, 2013

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Where I stayed
Lucky Star Hotel Phnom Penh
Read my review - 3/5 stars
What I did
Cao Dai Temple Tay Ninh
Read my review - 3/5 stars
National Museum Phnom Penh
Read my review - 3/5 stars
Royal Palace Phnom Penh
Read my review - 2/5 stars
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) Phnom Penh
Read my review - 5/5 stars
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Phnom Penh
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 1

Our boat was booked for 08:00 which meant our pick up was at 06:50. We grabbed an early breakfast, settled our bill & made our way to the port.

We got on the boat & it absolutely flew to Ha Tien. We couldn't believe how quickly we got there. We had a pick up waiting for us who took us straight to the Oasis Bar to sort out our Visa's. They charged us about $12 more than what we should have paid but it was nothing for the piece of mind we had that it would get sorted without any hassle. With three hours to kill before our pick up we had a little look around the town then went back & grabbed something to eat before the journey.

The minibus set off about an hour later than it was supposed to. There were twelve of us crammed in with all our luggage as we headed for the border. It only took about twenty minutes to get there & when we did we just strolled across without our passports & back into our minibus that was waiting on the other side. A Cambodian guy done a quick head count & that was it. We had read about a little scam they had going where you have to have a medical as you get into Cambodia & sure enough the last thing we needed to do was pay $1 each to 'pass' it. Lisa had her vaccination book with her so didn't have to worry about it.

This country works in U.S dollars, which is strange. They have their own currency, the Cambodian kriel, but the dollar rules everything. Even the cash points pay out in $USD. The only time you ever get kriel is if they need to give you change for less than a dollar.

We set off into Cambodia along a gravel track that seemed to go on for ever. Neither of us could believe some of the things we were seeing. It was such a poor country. We had read about not venturing off into rural areas because of land mines from 30 years ago but here you had kids playing in dirt & rubbish & farm animals that looked like they could do with stepping on one just to put them out of their misery. Now, obviously they know these areas aren't a danger but we had never seen poverty like this first hand before.

After about two hours of bouncing up & down in our seats we reached Kampot. It was a little riverside resort that seemed quite popular with westerners. We couldn't see the attraction. To be honest though, at this point we couldn't see the attraction with Cambodia full stop.

With six people jumping off at Kampot we had much more room on the bus. We set off on a better made road for Phnom Penh. The journey from here took us about another 3 hours & it was on a long, pot hole covered road all the way.

We arrived about 18:00 & jumped in a tuk tuk for the 15 minute journey to our hotel. The driver might as well have put his hand in our pocket & taken to money for what he charged.

By now we were hungry & nothing we had seen on our way to the city had appealed to our appetite other than KFC. I know it sounds like we're eating a lot of junk food but we're not. There was absolutely nothing appealing about the Cambodian cuisine whatsoever. If anything you wanted to stroke it, not eat it. We tucked into some of the Colonels finest at the City Mall that was just round the corner from us before going back to the hotel. There was nothing here in the way of trips or excursions so we planned our day for tomorrow ourselves before getting some sleep.

Day 2

We were out of the hotel for 09:00 & headed down to find a tuk tuk for the day. We were told we could get one to chauffeur us around for the day for about $15. We found one, Mr Wood (clearly not his real name), & off we went.

First stop was Tuol Sleng. It was a school that was converted into a prison in 1975. It's one of the saddest things either of us have ever experienced. On our way in we were confronted by a man who had half of his face burned & was missing an eye. He spoke really good English & was begging for money.

There were four buildings with each building split into three floors. The bigger rooms on the top floors were used as cells for large numbers of people whilst some of the bigger rooms on the bottom floors were turned into cells for single occupancy. The rest of the rooms had just a single bed in them without a mattress. Some had a table & chair as well. This is where people were taken to be tortured. They were beaten, electrocuted, water boarded, anything & everything you could think of in terms of degrading, torturing & harming these poor people. Outside there was a structure that the children used to use for gym class. The Khmer Rouge had turned it into a torture device, stringing people up with their hands tied behind their backs. It wasn't nice to see.

The Khmer Rouge kept records on every prisoner, taking a photo in the process. A lot of the rooms in the lower floor of the second building showed some of these photos. You could see their hands tied behind their backs & pure fear in their faces. There were men, woman & children kept prisoner & tortured here. There were also 6 foreigners, one of which was from Newcastle. They didn't have much information about him, just a name & date of birth.

The people who committed these crimes were pretty much given a choice. They either done as they were told or they join the prisoners. The only thing these prisoners ever done wrong was to get an education & show signs of intelligence. Pol Pot decided that all intellects should be rounded up & put in prisons like this all over Cambodia. In total, up to 20,000 people were murdered at Tuol Sleng.

We were wondering how the rest of the world were kept unaware of what was happening as it was only 33 years ago that it all ended. It turns out that Cambodia closed all of it's borders, not allowing anyone in or out of the country. It wasn't until the Vietnamese invaded that the regime ended.

Mr Wood was waiting for us outside so we jumped on the tuk tuk & headed for Choeung Ek, the killing fields. They were nothing like we had had imagined them to be. The land was owned by a private company so they had done a fair bit of work to make it look more like a museum.

We were given a headset each & headed off to the first talking point. Each one lasted just a few minutes but the stories that were told were chilling. Every night a bus of 50-60 men, woman & children were taken to the fields. They were blind folded, put on the bus & told they were going to work. To begin with that's exactly what they did. They farmed the surrounding land & were told they had to triple the rice harvest, something we were told was impossible. When they became too tired to work or when it took the fancy of one of the guards these prisoners were murdered.

The murders only took place at night. There is a tree in the middle of the fields that used to have speakers hanging from it. From there it would bellow out music to drown out the screams of the people being murdered. The headset we were given played the music then added the sound of the diesel generator to it that could also be heard to give a harrowing example of what was played every night.

As we walked around we could see mass graves everywhere. Some were sealed off with a wooden structure over them whilst some of them were closed of with just a piece of rope. The reason for this is because they are still extracting bones from the site. Every time there is a heaving rain shower it unearths more & more bones.

We carried on round until we came to a lake with a perimeter fence running alongside it. On the corner was a man with a leg missing, begging. It was hard to ignore so we gave him a hand full of notes in the local currency. He didn't seem very appreciative & it's probably because, once we had worked it out, it was only about 25p! They have 1p notes over here though so it seemed like a lot at the time!

We carried on round the lake until we got to the other corner of the fence. This time we came across a family living in a house they had made out of scrap wood. It was so sad. We had some sweats in Lisa's bag that we planned to give to some kids & Lisa saw this as the perfect opportunity. We handed them over & they were so grateful its untrue.

We went round the lake until we got to the tree where the music would be played from. Just beyond that was another tree with hundreds of little bracelets hanging from it. This is the tree where they murdered children. They would grab them by their legs & smash their heads against it. The Khmer Rouge didn't want to waste ammunition on these people as it was too expensive so bullets were never used. Every other method you could possibly imagine was though. Their reasoning behind killing babies & children was so that no one could seek revenge in later life. Their saying was 'if you are going to cut the grass, remove the root'. We left there quite sickened by what we had seen.

By now it was 13:00 & we were a bit hungry. Neither of us had really had an appetite since crossing the border but we thought we'd grab something on the move so we asked Mr Wood to stop at a bakery. We grabbed something that looked like a pizza, a bread roll & drinks for us & Mr Wood. When we paid we used a $10 note the girls in the shop were so shocked at seeing it. The pizza was ridiculously spicy so we gave it to Mr Wood & we shared a bread roll!

Next stop was the National Museum. We were in there about half hour before deciding we had seen enough. It was OK but a lot of it was to do with Angkor Wat which is where we are going on Friday.

A quick stop at a temple & we were dropped at the City Mall. We decided to let Mr Wood go at this point. I got the $15 out to pay him & started going on about wanting $20. We'd been nice to him as well the cheeky tw*t. As soon as I questioned it another 3 tuk tuk drivers came over so we just paid it & went on our way.

We went away the shopping mall & ended up grabbing something else to eat before heading to the bank to change some money.

We looked around a few more shops then headed back to the hotel for a bit before popping out again at about 20:00 for some food. Phnom Penh was a good experience but we both agreed that one day was definitely enough.
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