Welcome to Cambodia!
10.12.2010 - 12.12.2010 31 °C
We left our hotel in Phu Quoc at 7:30am and based on the adverts that accompanied the trip we booked. We were meant to arrive in Phnom Penh at 16:00 so we had braced ourselves for a day of travel.Thankfully the shorter ferry crossing to the mainland town of Ha Tien was very calm. From Ha Tien we took a bus (that did not have 'air con' as stated and therefore was a sweat box) to the border. Here we disembarked and made our way to the Vietnam exit which took ages. We then walked across to the Cambodian entrance and again waited for some time for our visas to be finalised. We also had to have our temperatures taken and pay a dollar for Cambodian medical cover for the duration of our stay, despite non of the travellers on our bus wanting to pay for this service, it was compulsory to gain entry. The whole process for crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia was very slow and for a couple of Swiss travellers who had overstayed their Vietnam visas, it was even slower and this in turn delayed our bus further.
As soon as our journey from the border to Phnom Penh got underway we could immediately see the poverty that exists in Cambodia. The road leading to and from the border was a really poor dust track with local traffic mostly consisting of motorbikes heavily loaded with goods. As with the other SE Asia countries that we have visited, dogs roamed the streets. Without breeding control the female dogs are normally pregnant or have a litter of puppies in tow. Dogs frequently wander around the in the roads and amidst traffic yet most seem to have the awareness to avoid vehicles. However within ten minutes of our bus setting off, one Cambodian dog made the fatal mistake of wandering into the road with its back to our bus. Our driver braked slightly and blasted his horn. Unfortunately this dog did not respond to the horn so instead of braking further our driver drove straight over the dog which yelped on impact. We were at the front of the top deck of the bus and therefore saw the dog perish and like those around us we were wishing we had chosen seats further back! We have noticed that drivers in SE Asia expect animals to respond to vehicle horns - cows that wander into the road are also tooted at, without drivers slowing down. A traveller we met said that on average over ninety people per day die on the roads in Vietnam, we don't know how many of those are moped accidents but it must be a high percentage. However with drivers expecting animals to respond to vehicle horns, it's surprising the accident rates aren't even higher.
As our bus continued through rural villages we could see that many of the homes looked much poorer than in the other countries we have visited. Rural transport frequently consisted of two cows dragging an old fashioned wooden cart along the road tracks. We also went past trucks packed with people in the back. Children were playing in the fields, many of them did not have clothes. We also saw young children working in the fields along with adults.
Our journey continued and it felt like we were making slow progress with the roads that were tar macked being damaged by large pot holes. There was evidence that the roads were in the process of being developed, with many new bridges being constructed. This meant that our bus tested the strength of the temporary bridges and although they creaked and wobbled a bit, thankfully they were strong enough.
We finally arrived at the outskirts of the capital at 21:00, five hours later than advertised! Our bus guide informed us that the bus could not enter the city of Phnom Penh without a genuine reason. Once again we were dropped off outside of the city at a random location where by coincidence Tuk Tuks were waiting!
Having had no choice but to take a Tuk Tuk into the city we checked into our hostel and immediately went out in search of food. We took another Tuk Tuk down to the river, an area that is clearly developed for tourism. We went to a Cambodian restaurant that had a link to the hostel where we were staying and the food was great. Afterwards we took a short walk around the nearby bars and restaurants and saw that 'Happy Herb Pizzas' were advertised. As we walked along the street "Tuk Tuk" drivers enthusiastically touted for business, followed by "ok you don't want Tuk Tuk, do you want drugs?"
As well as being the capital of Cambodia and a rapidly developing city, Phnom Penh also has chilling history. The Kymer Rouge, led by Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot) ruled after taking Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and implemented one of the most brutal and radical restructurings of society ever attempted. It renamed Cambodia 'Democratic Kampuchea' and it's objective was to wipe out any intellectuals in the country, dominate the country with peasants and focus on creating a giant slave labour camp. Individuals that could speak another language or who wore spectacles, were classified as intellectuals and therefore killed! Entire populations of the cities and nearby towns were forced to march to the countryside and work as slaves all day, every day and provided with meals that consisted of watery porridge twice per day. Thankfully the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh on January 7th 1979, ending the rule of the Kymer Rouge. However by then it is estimated that the Kymer Rouge had killed around 1.7 million people.
So the next morning we went on a Tuk Tuk with a Slovenien couple as part of tour arranged by our hostel to the "Killing Fields of Choeung Ek" (14KM from the centre) where the Khmer Rouge executed around 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. The four of us joined another English couple and hired a guide who informed us of the brutal and fairly recent history of the former orchard/Chinese cemetry. We started at the memorial stupa which contains more than 8,000 skulls of victims which have been found in the mass graves and exhumed. We then walked around the mass graves and saw the places where prisoners were killed, often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. It was hard to imagine the barbaric events that took place on the site as we walked through the quiet green orchard taking advantage of the shade the trees were providing from the scorching sun. As we walked around the area, the remains of human bones were visible in the ground. We stopped at a large tree where we were informed that the babies were killed, the killers using the trunk of the tree to do so. After walking around the site and reading the signs explaining the grim history we went inside the museum, watched a short and poorly narrated 'video' before viewing the photographs and exhibits in the museum.
Having returned to our Tuk Tuk the four of us and our driver went back into the city to the Tuol Sleng Museum. Previously a high school, this building was taken over by the Khmer Rouge who transformed classrooms into torture chambers and renamed the facility 'Security Prison 21' (S21). Here, upto 100 victims were killer per day and like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of every prisoner and all were photographed. Only 7 prisoners were still alive here when the Vietamese liberated in 1979. We walked through the buildings and saw the makeshift prison cells (very small) that had been built inside the former classrooms. We also saw some of the torture equipment that remains in the rooms before viewing the vast photograph galleries of the prisoners - with their haunting faces staring eerily back from the recent past.
After the chilling sights earlier in the day, we made our way to happier sights in the city which included the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The Palace contained very ornate buildings and lush, leafy gardens. The Silver Pagoda is so called because it's floor is made up of 5,000 silver tiles. After visiting the palace and pagoda we walked down the river-side and past a wealthy wedding convoy containing modern Bentleys and Rolls Royces that had police protection.We then saw the wedding party having photographs by the riverside, again flanked by tight security.
We explored further along the riverside than the previous evening and found a busy, Westernized area by river which contained modern shops, bars, restaurants, new high grade hotels in addition to many budget accomodation options. We also noticed a significant increase in single, middle aged/old western men hanging around the bars and cafes in this area and let's just say anyone in their right mind wouldn't want them to babysit!