A Few Days in Phnom Penh

Hello again!

I apologize for how slowly these posts seem to be going – It’s already been almost 2 months after the fact, and I’m sitting in a hostel in central Vietnam, writing this over my holiday for the Lunar New Year.

But that’s a story for another day, one that I should work on getting out a bit faster this time…. But now, back to Cambodia.

When Pace and Lisa took off to rejoin Pac Rim, Annin and I kept going, flying from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. While we spent time in Cambodia during Pac Rim, we had been in a completely different part of the country, Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat). This time around, we decided to check out life in Cambodia’s big city, and visit a few of Annin’s relatives.

The independence monument, a short walk from our hostel
The independence monument, a short walk from our hostel

Getting off the plane it was immediately apparent I was no longer in Vietnam. For two countries that share a border, there are so many differences between them! First off, there are way more cars in Phnom Penh than in Vietnam, and Phnom Penh has tuk tuks, which are basically rickshaws with a motorbike attached.

Anyway, after traveling by tuk tuk we got to our hostel (the “Top Banana”) and settled in, then went out and about with Annin’s cousin. We had a lovely introduction to Phnom Penh’s awesome food scene with burgers and beer at an expat-run place near our hostel, and over the next few days we would continue to eat delicious food of all varieties. It really amazed me that Phnom Penh, which is both a smaller and less developed than Ho Chi Minh City, has such a vast and tasty food culture. While we were in PP we ate Indian food, homemade tacos (with real cheese!) and cupcakes, and of course a variety of Khmer (Cambodian) foods, including a delicious donut thing that I can’t quite explain, but really want to try again.

View from the hostel - a bit of new meets old, telephone wires and monasteries
View from the hostel – a bit of new meets old, telephone wires and monasteries

 

Anyway, on our first night in town we set out to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Annin’s cousin. We went to a house party, then tried to find a club, but ultimately ended up at a rooftop bar where we watched fireworks and rang in the New Year. When we got back to the hostel we quickly realized that it was truly a backpacker joint, and we weren’t really backpacker types. There was a roaring party going on till the wee hours of the morning, but luckily both of us are pretty good sleepers. We woke up the next day, if not feeling refreshed, then at least we weren’t terribly tired/angry. We also decided it was a good thing that we settled on a private room (which was still only $10/night).

 

After sleeping in a bit, we went out for Khmer (Cambodian) food that was delicious and cheap, then visited the Russian Market. Not one to ever leave a shopping venue empty-handed, I picked up a number of scarves and various trinkets to give out to friends back home (whenever I actually get home… still figuring that out, guys!). While Annin’s cousin, Patrick, was really great at helping us haggle, the market was still a bit exhausting, and so we picked up tons and tons of tropical fruit, and brought them back to Patrick’s house to sample. All of it was delicious, and even though I’ve been living in the delta for a while, there were some fruits I’d never tried. The red dragon fruit was particularly interesting…

 

A red dragonfruit!
A red dragonfruit!

The rest of the day was a lot of sitting in traffic (which Phnom Penh has, and pretty bad. Too many cars and lots of narrow streets do not mix) and eating more delicious food. That night we walked around town, from the royal palace to the riverfront, and all sorts of other places I can’t quite remember now. We walked and talked and checked out the scenery for at least 2 hours, which was wonderful. I love traveling with Annin because we have a similar attitude about what we want to do, and both of us are happiest when we can just go with the flow and take our time to enjoy things. Even though we only had a few days in the city, neither of us were interested in rushing to fit in every single museum or sight, and by just being willing to walk anywhere and everywhere, we still saw quite a bit of the city.

 

After our long walk we returned to the hostel to redeem the complimentary beers that came with our room, and took in the views from the rooftop bar. We turned in early and began mentally preparing for the next day, our trip to the Killing Fields and S21 Prison.

 

If ever you find yourself in Phnom Penh, I highly recommend visiting these two sights. The Killing Fields in particular gives an extremely moving and informative account of the Khmer Rouge genocide that devastated Cambodia in the 1970s. I hate to say it, but before visiting the museum I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge, and walking through the Killing Fields was a bit of a shocking experience. For those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge, here is an extremely brief history:

Essentially the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) won a five-year civil war in 1975 and attempted to create an utopian society by starting over at “year zero”. Angka, (“the party”) drove everyone out of the cities and back into the countryside, because agriculture was considered the only honorable type of work. They rounded up and killed all scholars, old government officials, monks,  people who spoke a foreign language, and anyone they viewed as a threat to the new agrarian utopia. People were moved around into forced labor camps, and over the course of four years, close to two million people died either from starvation, execution, or from various diseases related to the horrible living situations. If you would like to learn more about the Khmer Rouge, you can read a bit about it here and here. I also highly recommend the book, “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, which the account of a survivor of the labor camps. It’s written in a very readable style, though the content is obviously harrowing.

Memorial Stupa for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is lined with skulls and bone fragments of the victims, each one marked to indicate how the person died.
Memorial Stupa for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is lined with skulls and bone fragments of the victims, each one marked to indicate how the person died. (You can just make out some of the skulls in the photo, right above what looks like the door)


But as I said, this was a particularly emotional and difficult visit. The Killing Fields Museum is a bit out of the city, and each visitor receives headphones to go on a walking audio tour of the actual site where thousands were killed and then buried in mass graves. The thing that really struck me, as I was walking around, were the signs that told me that due to the environmental conditions, bones still occasionally surface on the path, and please do not touch of step on them. And as you walk, you will absolutely see bones on the path, and it is a horrifying way to realize that what happened here was really not so long ago.

The Killing Tree. I was holding it together pretty well until this point. (trigger warning - this next part is gruesome). This tree was used to kill infants, because the Khmer Rouge's motto was, "Better to kill an innocent my mistake than to spare the guilty by mistake. Children were killed to prevent revenge vendettas, and in this spot they would literally grab infants by the legs and smash them against the tree, then throw them into a mass grave.
The Killing Tree. I was holding it together pretty well until this point. (trigger warning – this next part is gruesome). This tree was used to kill infants, because the Khmer Rouge’s motto was, “Better to kill an innocent my mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.” Children were killed to prevent revenge vendettas, and in this spot they would literally grab infants by the legs and smash them against the tree, then throw them into a mass grave. The colorful bracelets have been left as offerings for the victims.

 

I could keep going, but I’ll spare you more gruesome details. Suffice it to say, I walked away with a lot on my mind.

 

We went back to the hostel and took some time to process everything, then set out for the second museum of the day, S21 Prison. This secret prison was the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge’s secret detention centers, where they would torture prisoners, and once a “confession” had been given, send them to the killing fields. Unlike the Killing Fields, the museum is not particularly well managed, but the location speaks for itself. The prison was originally a school, repurposed by the Khmer Rouge, and you can walk through makeshift cells used to hold prisoners. The juxtaposition of what the building was created for, and what it became is striking. The most memorable part, however, are the rooms filled with photographs of those killed within the prison. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of those whom they murdered, including transcripts of “confessions” and photographs.

 

In the S21 Genocide Museum. Faces of the top members of the Khmer Rouge have been scratched off, presumably by survivors and their relatives.
In the S21 Genocide Museum. Faces of the top members of the Khmer Rouge have been scratched off, presumably by survivors and their relatives.

We wandered around a bit to take everything in and After the museums we had dinner with Annin’s family, and it was great to end the day with positive conversation and good company (and also homemade tacos and cupcakes). We discussed the current state of Cambodian politics (being one of the most corrupt governments around) and went back to the hostel with full stomachs and minds.

 

Our last day in Cambodia was a bit more relaxed, and mostly consisted of walking around and some souvenir shopping. At some point I realized that I had left my iPhone at a café for breakfast, which was truly unfortunate. Just when I had given up hope of recovering it and accepted its loss, I returned to the café on the off chance that they had found and saved it, and they had! I was very happily surprised, and took off for the airport feeling incredibly lucky.

 

All in all I had a great time exploring Phnom Penh, and I’m glad that I was able to learn more about the history of the region. Special thanks to Annin’s relatives for the wonderful hospitality and delicious food!

A Wat (temple) near the hostel
A Wat (temple) near the hostel
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