Phnom Penh, Cambodia (21st Nov 2007)
We touched down in Phnom Penh at about 5 in the afternoon and although where we were staying was only a few miles from the airport it took us over an hour to crawl through the city to our surprisingly nice hotel, which has its own casino and restaurant built on the bottom two floors.
The street where our hotel was is on the riverfront and is a beautiful wide boulevard, like many of the street and is made up from fine colonial architecture and a park like riverfront with cafés and restaurants aplenty which we both thought is a reason that helps make Phnom Penh a worthwhile destination as it is not really know for its standard tourist sites, which are few. But as a place to relax, watch the street life and absorb local colour Phnom Penh, which we did on a night in one of the many afore mentioned bars or restaurants. The beggars are still there, along with a great number of street kids and kids selling tourist paraphernalia, but this is most visible in heavily touristic areas and generally the touts and kids are less aggressive and persistent than say their Indian or Thai counterparts.
With Cambodia's tourist trade on the up, the streets of Phnom Penhare developing into a chaotic mess of motorcycles, cars, minibuses, ox-carts and people all of which battle for space. Urban migration continues apace and it's not unusual to see entire families camped out on the footpath. Poverty is endemic and one not well-addressed at all by the country's dysfunctional government. Despite these lows, the city remains a fascinating destination.
On our first and only full day in Phnom Penh we did what for both of us is the main reason to come to Cambodia, we visited Tuol Sleng (S-21 School/Prison and Genocide Museum) and Choeung Ek (The Infamous Killing Fields). Firstly we headed out to the Genocide Museum and as we had all been warned to expect the worst everyone seemed in a rather sombre mood and not much of the usual chit chat happened on the bus and people we probably contemplating what they would see upon arrival. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) was a school converted into Cambodia's most important prison in 1975. More than 14,000 people were tortured here before being killed at the Killing Fields south of Phnom Penh; only 7 prisoners made it out alive. The museum is a must see for everyone interested in Cambodia's horrific recent past. The main things to see are the hundreds of skulls stacked in cabinets, implements of torture and some very disturbing photographs and paintings done by the survivors. One of the most horrendous things to see are the empty tortures cells that still have the bed and shackles and torture devices in there and above each bed is a huge A0 print of a photograph taken by the Vietnamese soldiers that found the last 14 dead bodies in their cells that were rotting and being eaten by the vultures. The picture shows the blood all over and when you see the picture and look where you are stood, you realise you're in the blood stained puddle that still marks the floor even though it has been cleaned off. Altogether, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings and the grassy play area, coupled with the chilling artefacts left behind, and wall after wall of disturbing portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst. It demonstrates the darkest side of the human spirit that lurks within us all. One of the things we found very strange, but clever if you will was how they managed to get the prisoners to kill others. The Khmer Rouge would torture people either to death, or let them join them as the people dishing out the pain. Those who joined them had a limited life span and were often killed by more people who take their place, which brings the wicked plan full circle.Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous at keeping records, something which is all too evident when walking around the grounds where you can seen piles of documents and thousands of photos of the prisoners who passed through the S-21. Along with all these documents were the plans that showed the location of all the mass graves and the killing fields, our next stop.The Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek is where the Khmer Rouge killed many thousands of their victims during their four-year reign of terror. Today the site is marked by a Buddhist stupa packed full of human skulls. The sides are made of glass so you can see the 9 or so thousand sculls stacked high into the sky and you can even see them up close and walk inside the stupa if you want, which for some reason or another we both did. There are also pits in the area where mass graves were unearthed. One of the more disturbing things we were told is how the Khmer Rouge dealt with infants that 'needed' to be killed; the killing tree is a place where the soldiers would grab a child by the legs and smash open its head by swinging it like a bat again the tree until it died. Another way that they would kill the new born is to throw them into the air so they landed on razor sharp spikes that pierced their little bodies. We could go on forever about all the disgusting and stomach wrenching ways they killed people but if you can just imagine the most horrid thing and times it by ten, you might get somewhere close to the stuff we were told by the guides there. The place itself at first is very misleading as it is such a peaceful place today, masking the horrors that unfolded here less than three decades ago. It is a serene yet sombre place.We had the afternoon to ourselves so a crowd of us headed to a Kiwi Bakery for some lunch then headed out to the Russian Market and the Central Market to do a bit of shopping.There were many things there we could have bought but we ended up with just a bottle of shampoo and a spare camera battery!At night Mark didn't feel well so Kara headed out on her own (well still with the group) to the home of our tour guide we had in the morning for what we soon realised was a feast. The group was welcomed into the home where we were told 5 families live; around 30 people in a house most people would consider small back home.There are so many families as once a couple marry, the man moves in with his wives family.We were first shown the garage where the children of all the families were having an English lesson, the children do go to school but they supplement that with an hour's schooling at home every evening. When dinnertime arrives we were lead to an open plan room on the first floor where crockery and cutlery was laid out on wicker mats on the floor. The food arrived and there seemed to be enough to feed an army, 4 people had 4 dishes between them plus rice and spring rolls, it felt rude not being able to finish but we were all absolutely stuffed. Then there was dessert........when 4 plates came out, each with 4 deep fried tarantulas on them we thought someone must be having a laugh but no it was spiders for dessert! In Cambodia they are considered to be quite a delicacy and are often enjoyed with a few beers. There were quite a few brave people in the group who tried it; with taste descriptions ranging from liquorice, marinated chicken and beef jerky......pineapple seemed like the much better option. We left saying many thanks for a wonderful meal and headed back to the hotel, all wanting an early night as ready for the border crossing the next day.