After a night on a rickety old bus, we arrived at sunrise in the beautiful river city of Phnom Penh. We had decided to walk to our hotel, but as neither of us had any form of internet connection and hadn’t bothered to buy a local sim card, we ended up walking aimlessly around in circles for a good while until a tuk-tuk driver approached us.
We knew our hotel was only around the corner and bargained with him until he eventually agreed on $3. However, we didn’t expect him to have no clue where he was going either and he proceeded to ask three different tuk-tuk drivers which direction to go in.
Eventually we arrived at our hostel and discovered we had no change meaning we would have to part with our $5 note. This was followed by the receptionist telling us we couldn’t check in until at least 12pm – it was 6am – but that we could lay on the couches in the rooftop bar. Despite being exhausted, this was beautiful and lifted our spirits and so we decided not to waste the day sitting around but to go to some of the sites Phnom Penh had to offer.
The day began with the most amazing hot chocolate at ‘Browns’ café around the corner from our hostel. On the way there, a tuk-tuk driver stopped us and offered to drop us for breakfast then pick us up to go to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison.
The Killing Fields was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of the trip as I hadn’t heard much about the terror that Cambodia had faced not so long ago.
After the Cambodian civil war of 1970-75, Pol Pot – the leader of the Khmer Rouge (the communist party in Cambodia) – gained power in Cambodia and was responsible for the cruelty that occurred in what is now known as ‘The Killing Fields’. These fields consist of various mass graves that a mapping programme at Yale University believe to contain approximately 1,386,734 victims. However, throughout the years in which the Khmer Rouge, more than a quarter of the Cambodian population at this time (1975-1979 – though this can be disputed) were executed.
We decided that an audio tour would be beneficial as we wanted to learn more about the country we had fallen so deeply in love with. This was bittersweet as though we learned a lot, it was very difficult to listen to some of the sections. One part in particular was very thought provoking; the tape described a large covered in bracelets and bands which had been renamed ‘The Killing Tree’ as officers used to kill mothers then hold children and babies by their feet and throw their heads against the tree, brutally killing them. Admittedly, though probably not surprisingly, I was in tears at this point.
In the afternoon, we were escorted to Tuol Sleng Prison. This was no less upsetting than our first trip of the day and again, we opted for an audio tour.
Walking through the prison blocks, both Jamie and I were in tears listening to stories of innocent people who were wrongly imprisoned and forced to make false confessions so that the Khmer Rouge had what they believed to be a way to justify what went on there. In one story, one man spoke of his brother who had set sail around the world with his friend and entered Cambodian waters accidentally. When making his false confession he used everyday names that the Cambodian officers may not understand but that hopefully if anyone else heard his confession, they would know that he had not been broken. He also referenced his mother at one point which caused his brother, naturally, to break down in tears.
Although this day was not full of the happiest memories, it was full of important messages and we learned a lot of things that we didn’t know about the country we were staying in. This was the ultimate goal for our trip – to learn about other places in the world and to be less ignorant about countries out-with our own.
We had burritos in a quirky restaurant called ‘Cocina Cartel’ – which I thought was a brilliant name – and then headed into the city centre to see what the city itself was like.
On the road there, a giant grasshopper gripped onto my hand and I don’t think Jamie had ever seen me jump as high in my life. But this scare was balanced out by the buzz and beauty of the centre of Phnom Penh – it was filled with families enjoying dinner together in a large park and the side streets were lined with market carts selling all kinds of food and knick knacks. We walked along the river and then explored the night markets before heading back for the night before a very long bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City in the morning.
Cambodia was so much more wonderful than we could have ever imagined and it completely exceeded our expectations. I was very sad to be leaving this beautiful country behind and I made a promise to go back and learn more about it.
I know this post has been very delayed but I had lost the motivation to write over the last few months. I hope you enjoy reading about this wonderful city regardless of the time – my image of this place is still as vivid as it was back when I was there, I will truly never forget it.