The Killing Fields

Trip Start Jul 27, 2003
Trip End Jul 26, 2004

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Where I stayed
Mealy Chenda

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, May 16, 2004

Monday 10th May
We had heard about a great little Bakery near where we were staying called the Kiwi Bakery so we made our way there for breakfast. It was a lovely air conditioned cafe area with copies of the local paper and the Bangkok Post on offer. The coffee machine looked pretty good so we took a chance and ordered cappuchinos and a couple of Danish Pastries from the huge range in the glass cabinets. The coffee was heavenly and served with fresh milk instead of the usual condensed milk. We sat reading the papers and enjoyed our breakfast before heading out to explore the local area.

We wandered round the city centre of Phnom Penh for a couple of hours and had pretty much covered the main centre with nothing much of interest to report. We bumped into Agnes and Amer around 3pm and they also didn't think there was a great deal to see. It was just a regular impersonal city centre. We decided to hire a Tuk Tuk for the afternoon with Agnes and Amer and go and se the sights by the river, the lake and also the Russian Market which is supposed to be good for cheap clothes. We managed to haggle down a Tuk Tuk driver to $4 for 4 hours for all 4 of us for a Tuk Tuk and a nice driver called Suran.

Our first stop was the Russian Market. Gap, Next, Columbia, Quiksilver and a bunch of other stores have there clothes made here in Cambodia and The Russian Market is where a lot of it ends up. We spent an hour wandering round the heaps of stalls where Gap tops were $1 after the obligatory haggle and trousers around $2-3. The currency here is the Cambodian Riel but it may as well be US $ as everything is priced in dollars and cents. The only difference is that they don't have cents coins so any change less than a dollar is given in Riel. You start seeing Riel as Cents, ie. 1000 riel is 25cents. Cambodia is slightly more expensive than the rest of South East Asia for food, drinks and shopping like shampoo and films are about 25% more.

Saying that the food is great! We were going to turn veggie when we got hear as we had heard some dodgy stories. No need. Cambodian (or Khmer) food is just like Thai but with fewer spices. Fish Amok is a particular favourite. After the Russian Market our driver took us to the Riverside, an area stretching along the Tonle Sap River, it was lovely hear and more of what we had expected of Phnom Penh. We had a beer in a little bar overlooking the river. The local brew here is called Angkor Beer - hardly surprising. The temples of Angkor are the symbols of Cambodia and the Khmer people. Images of the temples appear on the National flag and every single denomination of the Riel note has at least one example of some of the more famous temples.

We took a walk along the river and then asked Saran to take us to Boeng Kak lake. It was approaching 6p, and the sun was about to set when we arrived down the little pot-holed lane that ran along the lake. Guest houses, bookshops and restaurants lined the lake with terraced balconies stretching out far across the water. We went to one of the guest houses terraces overlooking the lake with the sun setting on the other side. The terrace had a bar, a seating area and half a dozen hammocks. We fell in love with the place and booked a room each for the following day. We got back to the Tuk Tuk after watching the sunset and got Suran to drop us off at the Kiwiw Bakery where we ended the day where we had started drinking delicious coffee and eating apple turnovers feeling much better about Phnom Penh. Amer suggested we head up to the riverside for a few beers so we headed off to get showered and then all met up later. We took two motos (mopeds that carry 3 people) to the riverside which came alive at night with numerous restaurants and bars and sampled more Angkor.

Tuesday 11th May
We were up early to check out and move to our lovely new GuestHouse on the Lake. It was called Number 9 and $4 got a double ensuite with a lake view! We went to sit on the large terrace and ordered some breakfast. American Wedding was on Sky so we sat and watched that and then moved the five feet to the hammocks where we read books for the rest of the morning till lunch. We then moved the five feet back to the comfy seats to have lunch (Fish Amok again!) and then headed back to lull in the hammocks. This was pretty much the order of the day although I did get up to teach Amer how to play Shithead! Before long the sun was setting and a nice breeze was sweeping across the terrace and I thought how nice Phnom Penh really was.

Wednesday 12th May
Enough lazing about. We decided to go and see some of the darker sides of Cambodias recent past. We got up early and headed to a nearby bike rental to hire a motorbike for the day. The motorbike/moped is the family car and delivery van in South East Asia and it is very rare to see someone having the luxury of a whole bike to themselves. We have seen allsorts, a family of six on one moped, a woman breast feeding her baby while sitting side saddle, crates of bananas balancing precariously on the back and even one guy carrying half a dozen stainless steel kitchen sinks complete with side drainer balancing on the handlebars with his chin on top for balance. The bizarrest of all is no licence is required.

We picked up our bike and made the 15km trip out of town to Choeung Ek or more famously known as the killing fields. We arrived and paid our $2 entrance fee and were greeted by a temple with a glass housing seventeen stories high containing 8,000 skulls of men, women, children and babies. Surrounding the temples are 129 mass graves containing 17,000 bodies of people killed during the reign of Prime Minister of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party. Pol Pot ordered that anyone thought to be educated be killed. This included anyone who spoke a foreign language or even wore glasses. He didn't want to waste money on bullets so most of the 17,000 were clubbed to death. All but 43 of the mass graves had been exhumed. It is a bizarre place, you are walking around the mass graves stepping on old clothing and bits of human bone which is lying all over the floor, yet you are in beautiful countryside. No one knows exactly how many were killed during the Pol Pot regime but estimates stand at between 1 and million. Cambodian genocide engineered by the Khmer Rouge ran from 1975 to 1979 when Vietnamese forces seized Phnom Penh and Pol Pot carried on in the jungle strongholds. The rest of the world was silent in the face of the senseless mass killings. I think the most shocking thing about this is how recent this all was. Pol Pot died in 1998 having never faced any charge and stated he had a clear conscience!

We left the Killing Fields and made our way back to Phnom Penh and to S21 a prison used by the Khmer Rouge for interrogation. This is now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Its not a museum as such as it basically remains as it was found by the Vietnamese in 1979. Tuol Sleng was a high school but the Khmer Rouge were eradicating schools and hospitals and it was soon turned into a prison. We walked through the detention centres and torture chambers as if they had been used yesterday. The cells were thrown together in the huge classrooms and were less than a metre wide. The walls are all lined with hundreds of photos that were taken of each victim on arrival. Only 7 prisoners survived S21 and were found by the Vietnamese troops. Just before that S21 was claiming 100 lives day. It is quite an horrific museum and not for the sqeamish.

It is amazing the Cambodian people have recovered so quickly and are the friendly life loving people they are. There are only some signs today that are reminders. The fact that doctors were killed and today Cambodia still has a very poor healthcare system (put it this way our insurance states evacuation to Bangkok is covered should we fall ill). There has been little in the way of Arts and Entertainment in the last 30 years as artists were classed as intellectuals and were killed. That said a new generation of Khmer people are now in their twenties and amongst them are painters, scriptwriters, doctors and others with huge opportunites ahead.

It was nearly 4pm and we had missed lunch so we headed to Mamas for some lunch/dinner before taking adrive around town one last time including a circuit of the lake. We dropped off the bike and headed back to Nuymber 9 we sat on the terrace and watched Snatch on Sky and then lay on the comfy hammocks some more.

Thursday 13th May
We got up early and left our bags at reception and caught the 6.45 bus to Sihnoukville which is Cambodias seaside town. It was a 4 hour journey and we arrived to the pouring rain! Sihnoukville has 8 beaches and from where we stood on Serendipity Beach it looks like it is set for big things. Even in the pouring rain it looked beautiful. As it was raining we decided to stay 3km North toward town. We stayed in a lovely hotel called Mealy Chenda and for $5 even got cable TV. We headed to the hotel restaurant which has a huge undercover balcony looking towards the port and Victory Beach. We sat eating lunch while the rain teemed down outside. We caught a moto to take us back down to the beach and took a walk along Serendipity Beach in the rain. There are loads of islands off the coast and I give Cambodia 10 years before it reaches top 5 as one of the most visited holiday destinations. Right now it is perfect. The government have started to section off the land in a bid to sell it off to hotels and resorts in the near future. A couple of big resorts have had a head start and one has just opened while another is still designing its huge golf course. The islands are still untouched except for a few day trips but time will change that.

We walked to Occheutual beach a couple of kilometres down the beach which was completely deserted. We headed bac to our hotel and chilled for the rest of the day. We had a wander round town in the evening and stopped at a bar called MASH for Happy Hour and a couple of games of pool.

Friday 14th May
Sihnoukville is pretty spread out so we hired a Honda Wave for the day, We decided first to do a tour of all the beaches. The weather today was just gorgeous with blue skies and no sign of rain. We started at Hawaii Beach and made our way South to Koh Pos beach, Independence Beach, Sokha Beach (now taken over by the Sokha Beach resort), Serendipity Beach Occheutual Beach and then the best Otres Beach. They were all pretty much deserted. Serendipity and Occheutual Beaches have a few bars and restaurants with loungers and umberellas but Otres was completely empty. 2km of white sand and empty blue sea. The water was really warm and we had a swim to try and cool off from the hot sun. We took a dirt track into town and we had a wander round the market. We headed back to the hotel to avoid the midday sun.

Early afternoon we headed back out and toured around Sihnoukville some more. We headed down to Victory Beach and walked along towards the port which is undergoing some major work at the moment. We biked around for a bit longer and then returned to our guest house where the owner was playing Cambodian Checkers. It was very similar to chess and he taught us to play. We played for an hour while the sunset over Victory Beach while we headed out for dinner.

Saturday 15th May
After breakfast we played chess with the guy from the Hotel for a few hours before we caught the bus back to Phnom Penh. We got back at 4pm and rechecked into Number 9 and sat on the terrace and sorted out a bus for tomorrow to take us to Siem Reap. It would take about 7 hours. We ordered a Fish Amok and watched the sunset and then had an early night.
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