5am on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and we were driverless. Not a huge dilemma, but when you are tired and cranky, you tend not to have much tolerance for the swarming taxi drivers in these situations. We opted for the classic theory of choosing the one old guy who didn’t hassle us and we’re on our way to our hostel, Lovely Jubbly. We woke the sleeping staff and as our room was obviously not ready, we opted for a sink-shower in the bar toilets. On the advice of others, we planned just one day in the Cambodian capital, so enquired about the local day trips. We really wanted to see both the Killing Field and S-21, so booked a Tuk Tuk driver through the hostel on a tour that went to both. As we started to walk away from the desk we saw a tour that really astonished us. After the Killing Fields, one had the option of heading to the local gun range to fire weapons used by the Khmer Rouge. It seemed a little ironic but judging by the fact every agency sold the same tour, there was clearly a market for it. Each to their own?
Obviously, we skipped the gun range (where for just a little extra Cambodian Riel, you could shoot a cow/buffalo) and jumped in the Tuk Tuk with our driver and his son, a mini version of himself, and headed out to The Killing Fields. Not really what we expected, it was a small fenced area between a river and industrial estate on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We were completely shocked as to how small the area was where 17000+ people were gruesomely killed. Only when you see the memorial of the 8000 skulls, you begin to comprehend the numbers. We grabbed our audio guide and began strolling through the fields. What little we had learnt about the Khmer Rouge, namely through one of our favourite movies, The Killing Fields and an incredible book we had begun reading, First They Killed my Father, still didn’t prepare you for the stories and description that happened in this small field. Just like reading about a concentration camp in Germany, or the genocide in Srebrenica, nothing prepares you for it until you are there hearing first hand accounts.
What really is astonishing and shocking, was the brutality used by the Khmer Rouge was beyond belief, all to save on ammunition. Pick axes, shovels, bamboo through the back of the head is as dramatic as it sounds, but to hurl tiny babies into a tree trunk is despicable and the fact they are sitting in a no go area on the Thai Border without justice is truly puzzling.
The audio guide explains different areas of the field and tells the stories from survivors of the terror. One section that stood out was the small boxes that contained both human bones and clothing, with more being piled on top. We were told, still to this day, bones and clothing are continuing to wash up through the soil. It struck home as we were leaving towards the memorial, we spotted some teeth and a bone poking through the soil with fabric still attached. The remains of a long lost father, mother, daughter, son or uncle that could still be missing, now coming through the soil to hopefully give closure to any (if any) surviving family.
We hoped back onto the Tuk Tuk where we joined our driver and his son that was clearly exhausted from the waiting around that he had completely passed out on the seat. No matter how many speed bumps or potholes we hit, he still slept.
We made our way back into town to Toul Sleng Museum or S-21. It was formerly a school but, in 1975, Pol Pot had a different idea for it. It became a Security Prison for people suspected of espionage or any other falsified claim. At its peak there were 100 people killed a day here, the rest were shipped out to the Killing Fields. We tagged onto a tour in English where the guide took us from room to room, each one showing the photo of how it was discovered by the Vietnamese Soldiers who liberated the city. All the pictures were the same, a starved body strapped to a bed with the weapon that killed them lying on the floor, usually whatever was easily accessible as they tried to massacre everyone before the troops arrived. Of all the people that were imprisoned here between ’75 and ’79 only seven people survived. We actually met two of them. Both had their own story, while one showed footage of him in the International Court asking one of the leaders in Khmer Rouge (who is actually facing justice) where his family is.
Blood still stained the floors of the cells and classrooms, but what was truly shocking was every prisoner had their photo taken and these filled the halls. From a child no more than 1 years old to an ailing grandparent, all photos showed the same image. A number draped around their withering bodies with hollow eyes. Every one of them tortured into admitting they were against the Khmer or that they acted on behalf of the CIA before the inevitable would happen to them. The same thing for a few foreign journalists who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Phnom Penh is clearly a shadow of its former self. Once a beautiful french colonial city, it was sacked within a few days by the Khmer Rouge and now what stands is a decaying city with all the attributes of its post war neighbouring countries – drugs, prostitution and child exploitation. It is this reason that travellers are recommended to stay in certain area at night, but as it was early afternoon, we decided to wander the streets to see what we could find.
We stumbled into the welcoming shade of the central market and headed straight (via two complete circles of the market) to the food. We turned to our left, order a delicious beef sandwich that was finished up on a bbq, then turned right to eat a disgusting bowl of soup (we think). We spent the rest of city wandering the streets through markets, along the river and back towards our hostel. Nothing really stood out, until we spotted a restaurant called Friends the Restaurant. If you have read our blog in Vientiane, Cambodia, you would remember we tried, on numerous occasions, to eat at Makphet. Makphet was a sister restaurant of Friends so we went home, showered and headed there for dinner.
The restaurant is there to help get the children off the street and into the kitchen, hopefully away from the inevitable destination of drugs and prostitution. We ordered an ice-cold beer and a frozen pineapple and chilli margarita, which was incredible, and waited for our dinner. Everyone says that Cambodians only eat exotic food like grasshoppers, snakes and spiders, and another of their restaurant, Romdeng, specialises in these ingredients. Friends is more fusion food with local ingredients. They did, however, have one dish on their menu that was Romdeng*’s Yummy Stir Fried Red Tree Ants with Beef Filet and Holy Basil. I chose that, while Sarah ordered a calamari dish. I didn’t mind the ant dish, however, it didn’t float Sarah’s boat, but the Cambodian Peppered Squid on a Pomelo fruit salad was incredible. We had never eaten Pomelo before but it is definitely tasty.
We wandered slowly back to our hostel via the red light lit bars occupied by balding expats and girls that looked way too young. Hopefully the group from Friends are not too far from saving these kids.
If we were asked if Phnom Penh was worth it, our answer would be definitely. It is no longer a beautiful city, but if you want an insight to what the Cambodian people endured what they are trying to regain, you need to go.