After 4 amazing days in Siem Reap we took an extremely bumpy, 6 hour bus ride to the capital, Phnom Penh. We had read a lot about this city and the dark past of the Khmer Rouge but we had read a lot of great reviews on the area and were looking forward to exploring a new city.
We arrived disorientated, with no directions or idea on how to get to our hostel. A local tuk-tuk told us it was too far to walk "Vely, vely far, that way, I take you" oh great this s*** again! We walked on but with no idea where to go we jumped in the next tuk-tuk who agreed a $2 fare. A 20 second ride later and we arrived at our hostel…what a git!!!
So we made our way into Velkommen Backpackers, and it was bleak. It was exactly what you think of when you imagine a stereotypical hostel. As the lady opened the door to our room, the musty, damp odour was overwhelming! In the middle of the room stood a rigid wooden bed with a grey sheet which all looked worse by the bright white strip light on the wall. "It's ok?" she asked "It's fine". As she left the room, I pulled back the curtain to be faced with a window backing onto a mouldy wall, and a windowsill that a dozen pigeons were calling home. "Shall we go out?" I say to Darren, "Hell yeah" he replies.
Wandering down the riverside of Phnom Penh seemed quite pleasant. A few bars and lots of restaurants lined the busy street and further up the road the palace stood proudly but venturing down the back streets, lined with piles of trash and stray dogs, was a complete contrast and gave the whole area a distinctly bad presence. So far we weren't too keen on Phnom Penh.
The next day, after the worst night's sleep I have ever experienced (due to the kamikaze pigeons trying to break in to our room every 5 minutes) we arranged for a tuk tuk to take us on a tour of S21 and The Killing Fields. As I said, we had already done some research on the history of Phnom Penh and I feel that if you ever come here you should visit these places so you are aware of the terrible past this poor country has endured.
We arrived at S21. S21 began as a school for children but in 1975 when Pol Pot and The Khmer Rouge came into power it was turned into a prison and torture camp. Pol Pot had a vision that all Cambodians should be equal but in the sense that everyone should have nothing, live in the forests and work as farmers. He closed off both land borders with Thailand and Vietnam so nobody could get in or out and began to rid the country of any person that had more than the peasants and farmers, so anyone who could speak another language, had an education, wealth, or even wore glasses were all taken to S21 and tortured for information on the whereabouts of others. This prison is lined with the faces of every victim that faced the torture of The Khmer Rouge, many of the pictures are indeed of their corpses. No one was killed here but some did die during their torture ordeal. The Khmer Rouge was formed of young boys aged between 10 - 18 years old. As they were the poorest people of Cambodia, they had no education and were therefore easily brainwashed into believing the teachings of Pol Pot and his evil vision. Their baby faced pictures also line the walls of S21. We paid for a guide to take us around S21, this way we learnt so much more than walking around by ourselves. She also knew some of the individual stories of these victims and told us their harrowing ordeals. There were only a handful of survivors the day The Khmer Rouge fell in 1979 and they were on their way to death at The Killing Fields when the intervention came. Two of them are still alive today.
After this painful visit we made our way to The Killing Fields. This is where everyone was brought to be killed after torture. Nobody was ever freed; they were always put to death. On arrival at The Killing Fields, one can't help but notice how peaceful it is here. Nothing like you'd expect of a place with such a horrific past. We were given an audio tour and began to walk.
The history of The Killing Fields just like S21 is beyond imagination. Bullets were too precious and expensive to be used on a regular basis so instead most victims were bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit with the serrated leaf of a palm tree. As you wander through crater after crater it is hard to believe that these were once graves to thousands of people. Their bones still wash up to the surface today.
As we came to a huge tree, covered with donated friendship bracelets we learned that this tree was where babies were killed by holding their legs and bashing their skulls upon the trunk. Pol Pot would always kill entire families as he feared revenge of the child were he to spare their life. A most chilling thought; this all took place less than 40 years ago.
The final stop on this 'tour' is a huge monument dedicated to all the people who lost their lives during the rule of Pol Pot. Hundreds of skulls and bones are displayed row upon row as high as the eye can see, so that we may remember what happened here. Pol Pot was never brought to justice; he made it to the age of 88 years old after remarrying and raising a family.
After this emotional day we headed back to our hostel, got ready in our dingy, smelly room and headed out for the evening. We arrived at a local Khmer (Cambodian) restaurant. As we sat eating our Lok Lak and Amok, a small girl came to our table. She was so tiny and carried a bag full of scarves, books and friendship bracelets that was almost as big as her.
"You would like to buy?" Normally, when we are approached by vendors trying to sell us things, our immediate reaction is to turn them away but when you look into the face of a child, knowing that it is through no choice of her own that she is out in the dark night selling goods, you actually just want to help. These people are so poor and are just trying to make money for their family. We chatted to the little girl, she was quite an established little saleswoman but she was nine years old and should have been tucked up in bed. We bought a bracelet each and spent the next ten minutes giggling with her before she went on her way to continue her nights work.
Wandering back to our hostel, we took a detour down a side street. Phnom Penh just got seedier the further we looked. The whole street was lined with sleazy bars 'Sexy Girl Bar' 'The 69 Club' to name a few. Outside the bars old, western men with their little man boobs hanging out the side of their vests hovered surrounded by young Khmer women. It was quite sickening.
After our walk home, we decided we didn't want to stay in this place any longer so we cancelled our third night and booked our travel for departure the following day. Despite the seediness, the trash and the afore mentioned old men, I'm glad we came to Phnom Penh. We learnt a lot here and hey if you cannot take away fond happy memories of a place you visit at least you can leave with a bit more knowledge of its history.