Phnom Penh, July 23
As we crossed the Mekong River on a small vehicle ferry, we anticipated our arrival to Phnom Penh to meet up with our long time friends and travel companions Andrew and Nicola. Although we only parted ways in Argentina a short three months ago, it seemed like a year had passed.
Our bus from Vietnam arrived the typical two hours later than expected, so we quickly jumped into a tuk-tuk and were on a mission to sort our accommodations in the city. Because we arrived before their flight from Bangkok, the plan was for us to find a place and quickly email them the location. We settled on an old colonial building named Angkor International Hotel; air-con, private bath with hot water, cable television, and a fridge for only $12 a night (we had a feeling we were going to like the prices in Cambodia!).
The hotel had a great street level patio with big comfortable chairs, the perfect setting to relax and take it all in. It was interesting seeing such great French colonial architecture as the backdrop for endless street vendors selling everything from roasted duck to mystery sausages, not the most sanitary conditions but it is Cambodia after all! Phnom Penh is a dusty and dirty city that feels more like an overgrown town in need of a facelift. We hit the local market and caught up with Andrew and Nicola over typical Cambodian noodle soup and Angkor Beer. It was nice seeing familiar faces again and swapping stories from our recent adventures.
Our first day in Phnom Penh proved to be an emotional one. The agenda included hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day and visiting Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, the high school turned prison during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79. Many people know little about the genocide and war crimes of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge; I know that we were limited in knowledge about the atrocities before arriving in Cambodia. To be brief, it was a devastating and horrific period for the people of Cambodia, and mankind for that matter.
When we entered the memorial at Choeung Ek we were greeted by a large Buddhist stupa, a monument to the thousands who were executed at the killing fields. The stupa is filled with thousands of victim's skulls that were dug up from many of the mass graveyards only meters away. To say that witnessing thousands of human skulls was overwhelming would be an understatement. It was amplified by the traditional Cambodian music quietly playing in the background, a gut-wrenching moment. The skulls, many of which were shattered by pickaxes to save bullets, send an extremely powerful message to anyone that visits the memorial.
We left Choeung Ek speechless and headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng (S21) is the infamous high school that was turned into a security prison, the site of countless tortures before the victims were transported to the killing fields. It was terribly sobering walking the halls and entering the tiny prison cells, envisioning the terror that the victims must have gone through. The Khmer Rouge had documented many of the prisoners and had taken several photos, many of which are on display in the museum. It was particularly sad looking at all of the photos of the victims before they were executed, many only kids of teenagers. You could actually see the horror and fear in their eyes… it was an emotional experience for all of us.
The museum also contained detailed information about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, as well as the events leading up to, during, and after the regime had taken control over Phnom Penh. It has actual torture equipment on exhibit, as well as several victims' skulls and clothing. The people of Cambodia are still picking up the pieces from the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror and massacre, but it is encouraging to see the signs of economic growth in the country. An interesting fact, close to 50% of the Cambodian population is less than 20 years old, primarily due to the genocide during the Khmer Rouge's tyranny. We encourage you to take a moment and read up on S21, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, just go to Wikipedia and you'll get a good overview.
We finished our 'sightseeing' for the day and figured we should shift gears and enjoy a Cambodian lunch. We went to a local restaurant that was slowly roasting a cow over a large barbeque on the sidewalk; we still think the carcass was too small to be a cow but the staff assured us that it was not a dog, I guess we'll never know! We enjoyed a hot pot soup with fresh crab and vegetables, along with fried noodles and imported Dutch beer. On that note, it should be said that we thoroughly enjoyed Cambodian food… maybe even more than Thai food?
The following day we visited the Kingdom of Cambodia's Royal Palace, which has several beautiful residences, pavilions, temples and pagodas throughout the beautiful grounds. We visited the Silver Pagoda, housed several national treasures such as the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia and a diamond crusted, life sized Buddha statue with over 9,000 diamonds. Wandering around the picturesque palace was a refreshing change of pace to the previous day's agenda. We capped the night off at a fairly nice restaurant that had Jenga and Connect Four board games to entertain us before and after our meals, a fun and relaxing way to spend the evening!
Phnom Penh was a pleasant surprise. Neither of us really knew what to expect from the city, and many of the guide books suggest that you just use the city as a hub and get out as soon as possible. We had a much different experience and could have easily stayed a few more days. But time always seems to be against us on this journey around the world, so the next day our team of four packed up our bags and said goodbye to Phnom Penh.
We took a bus six hours north to Siem Reap, the city that connects the world to the spectacular Temples of Angkor!