GUEST ARTICLE: This was our first time to Cambodia and oh what a time we had! We arrived in early March just at the end of dry season. The temperature was still pretty hot but still made for some great days and beautiful warm nights. We caught a cab from the airport to our hotel The Pavilion located in the historical centre.
The streets were packed with anywhere from 1-5, yes 5 people per motorbike! Along with your typical barrage of vehicles crowding the streets. Say goodbye to lanes and hello to a symphony of chaotic driving. It’s actually not all that bad once you get used to the rhythm of it all.
An hour later we were warmly greeted at our beautiful little boutique hotel. Our room was great and we even had our own private pool, not bad for $90AUD eh! Phnom Penh has quite a bit of French influence (a result of French Indochina) from the beautiful architecture to the delectable food.
American currency is mainly used but there is still some Riel used as well. The price of things are really cheap, we had quite a few dinners for two for only $20. A pint of Angkor beer only costs about 0.75 and a good glass of vino for $3 ~ perfect! Cambodian food is really good and we particularly liked a local dish called Chicken Amok.
The local Tuk-Tuks are a great way to get around and I have to say they have to be the comfiest we’ve ever been in and conveniently there’s no shortage of them. They don’t cost much and you can always do a bit of friendly haggling to get where you want. Although if you are going on a big excursion a taxi would probably be more comfortable especially in the heat.
There is a nice strip along the waterfront with restaurants boasting all types of cuisines and nightlife (The Riverfront Area). There are also heaps of cheap massage shops nestled among the local shops. When dusk settles you can find the locals along the riverfront doing group exercises and local vendors selling all types of treats. There are also plenty of boats for hire if you feel like a cruise on the river (also very nice – a one hour private boat trip in a very big boat with crew cost just $20).
There is plenty of shopping to do in Phnom Penh. We went to the Russian and Central Markets which are both really big and full of lots of goodies. Make sure you give yourself some time though and do some price comparison shopping. I noticed that prices varied quite a bit especially when it came to jewellery. Don’t fall for the ‘weigh scale,’ trick (as if the metal used is precious).
After we finished with all of the city touring we settled in for the night before our visit to S21 and The Killing Fields the next day.
Our first stop was to S21 (Tuol Sleng, Cambodia Genocide Museum). We recommend you go there first in order to learn the history before going to the Killing Fields. S21 used to be a high school but later acted as a notorious security prison used by the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime from 1975-1979. After paying our small entrance fee we hired ourselves a guide, something that is a definite must.
Our guide was excellent and being a survivor of Pol Pot’s atrocities she made the experience even more moving. She told us of the unspeakable torture that went on in the prison. From 1975-79 thousands of people were rounded up and brought to this prison to be ‘interrogated.’ Intellectuals, young children and elders were mainly targeted. If they weren’t executed right away they were sent out to the fields to work in horrific conditions.
Our guide was only 14 when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, her whole family was executed and she was sent to work in the rice fields under the watchful eye of cruel farmers who had sided with the regime. She showed us deep scars on her legs from being beaten with bamboo sticks and she still has trouble sleeping at night.
During our tour she pointed out some ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers who were also visiting the museum that day. Every one of the Khmer Rouge besides a few that were involved in Pol Pot’s regime have all been exonerated. Obviously it’s difficult for her to see them but even more so when she is asked to be their guide. I can’t even imagine how it must make her feel…
After brutal interrogation techniques were used on thousands of prisoners at S21, they were herded into the back of trucks and taken to a place called Choeung Ek. It used to be an orchard and a Chinese graveyard but it would later be known as the infamous “Killing Fields.” Prisoners were taken there and horribly executed and then placed in mass graves.
After S21 we drove to see these Killing Fields and were shocked by the giant memorial building, a Buddhist Shrine full of over 5,000 victims skulls. We hired a guide there as well and not surprisingly he was also an unfortunate victim of the regime. Behind the shrine are the Killing Fields, deep pits overgrown with grass but sadly fragments of clothing and bones were still clearly visible. Our guide told us this was one of the biggest burial sites with about 20,000 victims.
There’s a sign showing us where they played music from a loud speaker from a tree they dubbed ‘The Magic Tree.’ This was a common technique used to help cover up the screams from the victims. After the killings D.D.T was used to cover up the smell of the bodies. The terrible genocide of nearly 3 million people that occurred over Pol Pot’s 4-year regime is absolutely horrific and the destruction caused is still present to this day.
Visiting these sights was heartbreaking, it’s so hard to believe that this happened and not so long ago. I can’t even fathom what these poor people went through but I think it’s very important that we learn from it and never forget. We really loved the warm hospitality of the Cambodian people. After everything they’ve been through it’s amazing how resilient and amiable they are. The city itself was a nice surprise – clean, full of life, lots to do and very cheap.
After 3 nights, we headed off on the next step on our Cambodian adventure – a drive to Siem Reap.
This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking roads less traveled!