15th May 2012 - 20th May 2012
Caught By The Fuzz
If you fancy having some fun or just need cheering up, then Phnom Penh probably wouldn’t be high on your list of places to visit. On the other hand if you want to learn more about the history of Cambodia, and get a better understanding of the atrosicities that happened in this part of the world, then this is definitely the stop for you. It’s hard to believe that not that long ago the people of Phnom Penh were evacuated from the city by the Khmer Rouge and were forced to march into the countryside to work like slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. The conditions in which they were made to live their lives, along with the tortures and killings that took place around this time, all make for a pretty harrowing history lesson. And to think this all happened in my lifetime. That’s something all those gap year bloggers won’t able to write!! … I feel old!!
Two of the main sights to visit whilst in Phnom Penh are the Toul Sleng Museum (commonly referred to as S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. I knew both were going to be hard hitting and decided to do them early on during our time in Phnom Penh. Emma decided to sit them both out as she knew she would be affected too much by seeing the sites, and reading about the things that happened at both locations. A good decision on her part for sure. Although I would describe both sites as ‘must sees’ they’re both far from easy viewing and more than once I had a tear in my eye. For me the harder hitting of the two was definitely S-21 which was previously a school before being taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. After this it used as a prison, with many of the occupants being tortured for confessions and then killed. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of everyone who passed through the prison and some of this information, including pictures of victims, is displayed within the museum. The buildings with the makeshift cells are also open to the public, which gives an insight into the small spaces where people were held. Once I’d lost the noisy Korean tour group at the beginning of my visit, I was fully able to appreciate the site in the way I felt it should be. And going on a dark and rainy afternoon almost definitely added to the somber atmosphere.
The morning after visiting S-21 I got up early to head off to the Killing Fields (Choeung EK). Emma stayed back at the hotel and wrote up one of our blogs. Well, not before she’d joined me in search for a cheap tuk tuk for my journey. As always it wasn’t going to be an easy task!! The first few tuk tuk drivers we asked wanted $15 for the ride … sometimes coming down to $10 … but this was still too much as far we were concerned, so we kept asking. Eventually we got a $5 deal, although even this ended up being $8!! I thought the initial price was a bit cheap, so wasn’t too surprised when the tuk tuk driver stopped 300 metres into the journey and said to me … ‘you go and come back?’ … Me : ‘yes, go and come back.’ … Mr tuk tuk : ‘Not 5. Go and come back 8.’ Cheeky git I thought, as I was pretty sure that I’d made it clear from the off that it was a ‘go and come back’ deal. Still I was happy enough at $8, as that was what I was prepared to pay in the first place. I hope I don’t have any further nonsense from this guy, I thought to myself. Just after this he put on a pink crash helmet, which made me even more sure I could have him in a fight if things got nasty!!
The Killing Fields are 17kms out of town and on the way I saw much more of Phnom Penh than I had seen previously. Most of the way it was crazy busy with traffic and there was a real mixture of people, vehicles and animals all sharing the roads which reminded me a little of India. After a 45 minute ride we were at the site, and after paying my entrance fee and grabbing my audio guide, what was the first thing I came across?? Yep a group of Korean tourists!! This time taking smiley pictures in front of the stupa memorial. A memorial which contains over 5000 human skulls that have been recovered from the site. It might just be, but I’m really not so sure that happiness is the right emotion to be expressing at a site where so many lost their lives. Again, I made sure I lost this tour group as early as possible so my experience didn’t get ruined. At Choeung Ek there are a number of information boards where former buildings were located, or at points where events took place leading up to prisoners being killed. There are also a number of burial sites within the grounds where thousands of bodies were discovered. From time to time bones or fragments of bone still come to the surface, especially after heavy rainfall. Luckily I didn’t spot anything, but the pieces of cloth in amongst the plants and dirt was enough to fully bring home the horrors that took place at this site back in the 1970’s. Again … like S-21 … overall a very somber experience. After just over an hour at Choeung Ek I’d finished listening to the audio guide, visited the museum and was ready to head home. The 45 minute ride back gave me enough time to cheer up again before meeting back up with Emma.
After going it alone for parts of Phnom Penh it was time for us both to go sightseeing. One afternoon we headed over to one of the markets, and then onto the Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda. The market was ok, but a bit like temples I think we’ve seen one too many in the last few months!! And The Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda also wasn’t all that great. Maybe if we’d visited it earlier in the day we might have enjoyed it more, but we left it until late in the afternoon and within 10 minutes of buying our ticket it poured down. So much rain came down it almost got to the point where I thought we might end up swimming around the site rather than walking!! After seeing everything we’d planned to, we ended the day by walking along the river … passing by some outdoor aerobics class on the way!! … before grabbing something to eat. Something a bit more ‘normal’ this time rather than the frog dish I’d eaten the night before. I thought I’d try something new, but frog wasn’t just frogs legs …. It was all bits of frog!!! I won’t be rushing to have it again!!
After a couple of days in Phnom Penh we headed to the beaches at Sihanoukville. This is Cambodia’s premier seaside resort and has a number of different beaches. All with a slightly different feel and different clientele. Talking of clientele … the area where we ended up staying, Serendipity Beach, definitely has a slightly seedier side with a few ‘girly bars’. This became obvious early on when one of the first things we noticed was the amount of fat middle aged men walking around the area. Yep they were there for the sun, sea and mostly the sex!!! We weren’t originally going to stay at Serendipity Beach, but ended up there after a tuk tuk driver wanted a stupid amount of money to take us to another area. In hindsight not such a bad thing as on the main road in Serendipity we found a restaurant selling the Vietnamese speciality of burger, sweet potato chips and onion rings. And boy was it good!!
For one reason or another, we were pretty knackered most of the time in Sihanoukille and weren’t really appreciating our beach stop as much as we should have been. Maybe the travelling was catching up with us a bit, or maybe our infected mosquito bites (antibiotics eventually sorting those out) were leaving us feeling a bit rough. Still we used the time to chill out and spent quite a bit of time on the hotel balcony. The sea view being as close as we got to the beach for most of our stay. Having just said that though, it wasn’t all lazing about, and on our second day in Sihanoukville we did go out and about on a motorbike to explore the area. First stop was the Vietnamese Embassy to get our visas for Vietnam. We’d heard a few people mention that it was easy to get them in Sihanoukville as they are processed there and then. This turned out to be good advice, and within 20 minutes we’d handed over our completed forms, passport photos and $40, and in return had another visa in our passports. They’re starting to fill up nicely now with visas and stamps. Not quite in the chronological order they happened, but I think I’m being a little fussy expecting that!! Anyway, once we had our visas the next thing on our list of things to do was find the local post office to buy stamps and get some postcards sent. This turned out to be harder than expected and meant a few circles of the town centre before finally spotting it. And junctions out here just don’t work like back home. You don’t stop!! Except I did, as I was too scared to just keep going and join the flow of traffic. Mind you, stopping at a junction and waiting for a gap in the traffic doesn’t work either!! As you can imagine I was pretty happy to get out of the main town area and head back along the coast road. The things we do to get those postcards sent!! Oh, and I’ve forgotten to mention, we had our first brush with the law before we found the post office. Driving along one of the main roads we got pulled over by some police officers stood on the side of the road. Damn, or words to that effect, were uttered as I slowed and pulled into the kerb. Our guidebook had mentioned that for ‘fund raising’ purposes police had been ‘cracking down’ on tourists driving without a Cambodian licence, and we were about to add to their pot. Reason for being pulled over … the main headlight had been left on by the previous rider and I hadn’t noticed. After a brief exchange with a couple of officers which mainly involved them saying … ‘show licence’ and ‘pay money’ … we offered up $5 and were sent on our way. I think we might have been able to get away with less, but we are rubbish at bartering anyway, so doing it with the police really didn’t appeal!
Today, we are just chilling out (some more!!) waiting for our overnight bus to take us into Vietnam. First stop … Ho Chi Min City … or Saigon as it’s still called by a lot of people. With time to kill we could have made more of today perhaps, but a severe lack of sleep last night has put paid to that. A combination of football, beer and construction work are to blame. Yep, last night was the Champions League final, and with the time difference out here the kick off ended up being 1:45am!! With the extra time and penalties our heads didn’t hit the pillow until gone 5:00am. I’m guessing the local workmen renovating the hotel next door weren’t up watching the match as come 7.00am this morning they were hammering and sawing away … right next to our room!! This morning of all mornings!! To be honest I wasn’t all that bothered about watching the match, but we bumped into a couple of people we’d previously met in Don Det and after some food we all headed to a bar to watch the game. It was a fun night in a pretty packed bar with a decent atmosphere. And it was all good practice for the Euros as our last group game is about the same time of the night/morning whilst we’re in southern Thailand. Hopefully there won’t be construction work the morning after that one as well!!
So as it’s time to move on from Cambodia, we say goodbye to some of the friendliest people we have come across so far on our travels. We also say goodbye to the dual currency of the US dollar and Cambodian Riel. Confusing, but eventually you get used to your change being in a mix of currencies. Goodbye to Angkor beer. And maybe even goodbye to seeing women walking around in their pajamas during the day!!
Vietnam here we come …
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