Our flying visit to Phnom Penh... From Siem Reap we got a coach to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The journey took about 5 hours but was a comfortable journey as the coach had air conditioning and reasonably comfy seats. We did however have to endure the cheesiest Cambodian Karaoke video for the duration of the journey. Apparently Karaoke videos are the rage in Cambodia!
When we arrived at the coach station in Phnom Penh, we were greeted by CK the tuk tuk driver who was holding up a sign saying 'Welcome Jame (sic) and Laura.' This had been arranged by one of the tuk tuk drivers from our hostel in Siem Reap who was friends with CK and heard we were heading to Phnom Penh.
We had pre booked our hostel in Phnom Penh so CK took us straight there. The hostel was called Me Mates Place and it definitely lived up to it's postive reviews on Hostel World. A young Cambodian lad called Ricky checked us in, he spoke absolutely excellent English and was a real joker. His trademark saying was "lovely jubly!"
CK waited whilst we checked in and got ourselves sorted then took us to the Tuol Sleung Museum which was about 3km away, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
For a bit of background on Tuol Sleung, in 1975 Pol Pot's security forces turned the former Tuol Svay Prey High School into a Security Prison 21 (S-21). This became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Almost everyone held here was later executed at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 is now a museum documenting the atrocities that were committed there.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed an estimated 2 million Cambodian people, almost one third of the entire population. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rough wanted a classless society and the vast majority of the country's educated people were relocated to the countryside, tortured to death or executed. Thousands of people who spoke foreign languages or wore spectacles were branded as 'parasites' and systematically killed.
Walking through the museum was a chilling experience. In Block A, the former classrooms are still laid out as they were with the beds in the middle of the room and the torture implements on display. There are pictures on the walls of the victims after they had been tortured and blood stains remain on the floor. There are 3 floors of cells on display - the large classrooms were reserved for high ranking governemnet officials whilst the smaller wooden and brick cells were for everyone else. Children were detained and tortured here too.
In the grounds, there are gallows which used to be for the students exercise. The Khmer Rouge used them for torture and interrogation, tieing prisoners hands behind their backs, hanging them upside down and plunging them into barrels of water. We found the museum really difficult to comprehend, especially as all of this happened within our lifetimes and we had very little previous knowledge of it.
In Block B, there are photographs of all of the prisoners that were kept at Tuol Sleug. There are men, women, children, young and old. The photographs are haunting and very upsetting. Many of the prisoners relatives only found out what happened to their loved ones when they were told that someone had seen their photo in Tuol Sleung musuem.
In one of the rooms in Block C, there are pictures of the Khmer Rouge leaders on the walls. There are testimonies from Khmer Rouge soldiers that are still alive today claiming that they only did what they were told to and that they had no choice or else they would have been killed themselves.
We spent a couple of hours there trying to process what had happened. I don't know if we ever will. We felt that we'd seen enough and decided to head back to our hostel.
Although visiting Tuol Sleung was a harrowing experience we both agreed that we were glad we had been as it made us appreciate what the country had been through and the remarkable journey it had made to get to where it is today.
On the way back to the hostel, CK took us for a tour of Phnom Penh in his tuk tuk. It was early evening by then and the city had really come alive. By the river front there was a area of grass where all the locals were playing badminton and a random game where you have to keep a shuttle c*** like impliment in the air but pass it around a group of people.
By driving round Phnom Penh we noticed a vast difference to Siem Reap. It felt so much more city like and there were a lot more cars around. It definitely had the hustle and bustle like feel of a city.
Upon returning to the hostel, we went to the bar for some drinks where we got chatting to the young lad working behind the bar. He also spoke brilliant English and was bit of a character. He was really talkative and kept leaning on James and reeling out his English sayings. His favourite was that I was James's "sister from another mister!" He told us that he went to High School in Phnom Penh and proudly showed us his report card with all his grades on!
Ricky later came over to join us. He told us how he was born to a very poor family in the countryside and that his family had sent him to live with his father's friend so that he could go to school and hopefully have a future. He was really grateful that his parents had done this and he told us that he had worked really hard to get to where he was today and that he was about to go to the best University in Cambodia to study English literature. At this point he showed us a picture of an Irish man called John who he explained had been a guest at the hostel a while ago. Ricky explained that he had taken John for a tour of Phnom Penh and spent the day with him and that at the end of that day John had told him that he was a wealthy business man and he wanted to help Ricky. John is now paying for Ricky to go to University and once he graduates, John is going to take him to Europe! It was a really lovely story and Ricky seemed so grateful.
That evening we went to a lovely riverside restaurant which Ricky had recommended. It wasn't exactly within the typical backpackers budget but nonetheless we had a lovely meal with a beautiful view of the river. There was a lady doing Cambodian dancing'in the restaurant.
The next morning CK picked us up early and took us to The Royal Palace. This is a complex of buildings which are the royal abode of the King of Cambodia. It was built in 1866 and is a good example of classic Khmer architecture found in Cambodia today. We spent a couple of hours admiring the architecture before heading off to the Russian Market.
The Russian Market was a little way out of the city cente so CK drove us there. We were surprised at how big the market was, they literally sold everything you could imagine! It didn't smell too pretty though! Although James didn't buy anything I got 3 bracelets for a dollar! Bargain! We headed back to the hostel after the Russian Market to check out.
When CK dropped us off we asked him how much we owed him for the past 2 days. He said we could pay him whatever we wanted and when James jokingly said $1? he said ''ok''. We did pay him more than that but we couldn't believe how honest he was, especially considering that he is more than likely extremely poor by Western standards.
Overall we had a good time in Phnom Penh although I don't think we'd have wanted to stay there any longer than we did. We were glad to be heading to the coastal resort of Sihanoukville where we could relax for the next few days!