I can’t say exactly why I fell in love with Phnom Penh. Was it the adorable, affordable boutique hotel I had found with a pool, wine and chic color schemes I plan on copying in my future home? Possibly. Was it the joyous journey on the Mekong Express bus with free wifi, snacks and Life of Pi on my iPad? Those elegant travel accomodations are hard to come by here. Was it the fact it was my first solo trip, to date, of this nature? The freedom of doing whatever I wanted, whenever was exiting and liberating. Or was is it learning about a piece of history and a people I hadn’t known existed. Learning the incredible tragedy that took place and meeting the people and faces who had lived through it. Seeing their optimism in the growth of the city and width of their grins. Yeah, that was probably it. But the wine and wifi didn’t hurt.
I arrived in Phnom Penh late in the evening, with an excited nervousness humming through me. I stepped off the bus and towards a group of tuk tuk drivers looking at me like a litter of puppies. “Madam, tuk tuk?!” “Where you go!” They all shouted at once. I just replied all, “The 252”. “Oh, I know! I know!” That’s when I saw him, standing to the side wearing a dress shirt and a scarf. I knew this was my guy. I walked towards him and he said “Okay, this way! Please keep your bag and belonging under your feet, safety first!” Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
We drove through the crowded city and I could already tell it was completely different Siem Reap. This was a city, the capital of Cambodia and it was in the process of growing. Construction, high end shopping, stop lights. It had all the elements of a city Siem Reap had lacked. I liked it immediately. The buzz, the lights, the traffic. Reminded me of Bangkok or New York, but a fraction of the size.
My driver, who I came to know as Lan, dropped me off at The 252 and asked if I would like a ride the next day to what many white people come to the city for: to see the Killing Fields and S21 museum. I went on a leap of faith and a gut feeling I liked this guy and said sure why not. We would start our day together at 8AM the next day. I walked through the gate of the 252 and knew this was going to be a good trip. The people were warm and inviting, the hotel looked like a big white wash estate with a pool, cabanas and a bar. The room was even cuter with a south beach/anthropology feel. The minibar was stocked with Angkor beers at $1.50 a piece and the shower had great pressure. The bed was only mildly more comfortable than my concrete plank in Chonburi, but other than that, no complaints. It’s amazing the attention to detail you have when you have no one to talk to but yourself.
I ate at the hotel, feeling very worldly and grown up being solo with a glass of wine and a book. And oddly at peace. Just sitting, enjoying the surroundings and my thoughts. I am typically a person who always wants company, whether the accompanying party likes it or not. I used to ask my roommates in college if we could all do our work together in the living room of our apartment just so we could all hang. They politely declined after learning this turned into an excuse for me to talk to them and distract myself. So it was refreshing to enjoy this solo dining experience and time, research what I would do the next day and then get some rest.
Lan was right on time, as I expected. He greated me and gave me a little speech about the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge. He had only been 6 or 7 at the time they came to power so remembers very little but was affected by the atrocities under their reign. Many people in his family lost their lives and his father was a nurse so he was arrested. I had known absolutely nothing about the Khmer Rouge prior to planning a trip to Cambodia and am sure many people from the Western side of the world are unaware of what went on. So, again, I will turn to old faithful, Wikipedia, to give you a historical glimpse of the genocide that took place just a little over 30 years ago and the force behind it.
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam. It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian Genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide. By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, while the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was being established. The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer Rouge) still had a seat in the UN at this point but it was later taken away, in 1993, as the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later thousands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty. In 1996, a new political party the Democratic National Union Movement was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for all of his roles as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge. The organisation itself was officially dissolved sometime in December 1999.
Off we went to the Killing Fields, about 20 mins outside of the city. When visiting PP (it’s just easier to type) it is typical to go to the Killing Fields in the morning before it is too hot (they open at around 7:30/8am) and then go to S21, which is a high school in the city that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison where they interrogated and detained people before sending them to the Killing Fields. It is now a museum and is largely intact from the way it was found. It takes about 5 hours to do both, longer I think if you get a tour guide at S21. A tuk tuk will charge you about $15 to take you to both and wait for you. Just an overview should you decide to make the journey. I realized I knew nothing about this before going and was relying on Lan not to screw me.
On the way to the killing fields is a lot of construction, dust, and exhaust from the traffic. Lan was nice enough to buy us both face masks for the journey on the way. I had officially become an Asian tourist. It was exciting and terrifying. I wore the mask with foolish pride and thanked god for it as the traffic became denser and the road turned to dirt.
$5 at the Killing Fields gets you admission and an audio guide in your language of choice. And a map. The audio guide is extremely well done, it is narrated by a survivor of the genocide and takes you to about a dozen “stations” around the grounds, which now looks like a manicured park with a memorial stupa in the middle. It is solemn and unpretentious and eye opening all at the same time. Walking around, listening to this man explain what went on there as well as around the country was heartbreaking and astonishing. It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz while studying abroad. The meticulous science of it all, blind hatred, brain washing, sheer numbers of the people tortured and killed that you just couldn’t wrap your mind around. The thing that really got me though was that I had NO idea this had happened. You learn about the holocaust in school, time and time again. How did I not even know what the Khmer Rouge was? That almost 1/4 of a countries population was killed. That the insane mastermind behind all of it lived out all of his days, free as a bird, never ever having been on trial for the countless murders he committed? It was mind blowing.
I spent about two hours, taking it in, slowly trying to process what I was hearing about these peaceful grounds I was seeing. It was an extremely sad and somber experience and I recommend anyone and everyone to experience it. I will say one thing however, it’s a bit graphic. If this same thing was in America, I don’t think it would be presented the same way. The memorial stupa for example is a huge tower you can go into and pay your respects to the dead. But in it is all of the skulls of the people they uncovered in the mass graves. Labeled with the sex and age and the were grouped on shelves accordingly. I wasn’t expecting that. Nor was I expecting the audio guide to tell me to take note of the cracks in the skulls where people may have been beaten over the head to death. It was all very hard to swallow and look at.
I left having an astounding sense of grief and respect for the Cambodian people. Their resilience was amazing. Anyone in the country over the age of 35 had lived through this horrific period in their country’s history and was mostly likely unfortunately touched by its events. Yet there they were, smiling, carrying on, talking about it, sharing, caring, living. I mean I know it sounds ridiculous, people were going to carry on with their lives after this, but having spent two hours listening to a man recount horrific events and shed light on a country that was on the brink of breaking, I couldn’t help but look at everyone differently.
So off Lan and I went to S21. The high school turned prison turned museum. During the KR (abbreviations all around) people were no longer allowed to be educated. They were forced out of the cities into the country to farm and try and increase rice production by 300% or something. So the schools were turned into prisons. And like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took meticulous record of all of their victims. Photos, testimonials, belongings. You walked through the buildings seeing how people were held, reading testimonials, photos, etc. I hear you can get a guide but I was drained from the Fields and it was getting very hot, so I decided to just do it on my own. It was interesting but the fields hit me in a different way.
Sticky with sweat and sadness, I decided to continue on my path of Cambodian oppression and visit the Daughters of Cambodia, a shop and cafe that was created to help give Cambodian girls a way out of the sex industry through job training and education and counseling. If you visit PP you must go to this shop for a look around or lunch. Food was great, had some neat gifts and I got a manicure/pedicure for $8. It wasn’t the best I’ve had but it was still good. What was hard though is most of the women working there were my age or younger. And had been forced into the industry to help support their families. There was a video you could watch to educate you on the cause and what Daughters mission is and my heart broke. For the 100 time that day. Anyway, some lunch, goodies and fresh nails and I was ready to take a break from the heat and my strung out emotions, so Lan took me back to the hotel. On the way back we were pulled up next to a group of women in a tuk tuk with babies. Old women and young women and toddlers. As we pulled up next to them the grandmother smiled at me, I smiled back. So she showed me her grand child. She smiled at me. Then the grandmother told the other women to show me their babies and say hello. It was one of those silent interactions between strangers that is so heart warming and reminds you of the goodness of people. And it’s something I’m not sure would have happened if I had been in a group. Being alone I was looking around, smiling, observing and taking in all the faces and places. I could have easily missed that if I had been in a group or with my family. I relished in the moment.
I know, I know, I’m droning on like a regular Socrates over here, as if I am the first person to travel abroad, alone. But this was a big deal for me, okay? So shoot me for being all flowery and philosophical.
And that pretty much wrapped up the major events of the day. From there I went swimming and had Lan pick me up at night so I could see the riverside and famous FCC bar for a beer. I walked around the shops and did a bit of shopping and had a drink overlooking the river. On the way home, realizing I wouldn’t see Lan again, I got the courage to ask him more about what he remembered and what happened to his father being he was a nurse and educated. Lan then explained they don’t know wha happened to his father. Shortly after his father was arrested his mother got scared they would come for them, which they normally did, so she took him and her sister and they fled for the jungle. He said he doesn’t remember much but that he was on his aunts shoulders for what was probably a few days, walking. They made it to the jungle and hid out fr almost 2 years. They met someone later who had been in prison with his father and had said the last time he saw him he was very very skinny and ill. Due to the monstrosities of the Khmer Rouge and lack of documentation for the deaths, they have no idea what happened to him. So, there is a slight glimmer that he is somewhere. Most never give up hope if the death is never confirmed. And that’s how my trip came to an end, talking about the injustices of humanity with my cab driver. How crazy the world is and people are.
The next day I took a cab to the airport and slowly watched the city shrink beneath me. I said goodbye to Cambodia and silently promised to return one day. My time was short and sweet and I would love to go back, so please, anyone ready and willing to go, let me know.
I am now in Vietnam, lets see what this country has to offer. I have just finished 10 amazing days with my parents and was so sad to see my mom go! My dad and I continued on for a taste of Saigon, wish us luck!