Unearthing the history of Cambodia…

Well, it’s time to say Goodbye Vietnam and Hello Cambodia! We left Ho Chi Minh City at around 7.30 in the morning and got a bus with Paramount Angkor Express, to the Cambodian border – it was a surprisingly straight forward 6 hour journey, made all the easier by a border crossing that didn’t involve any security checks whatsoever! There was a ferry crossing south of Phnom Penh at a place called Neak Leoung but apart from that, all we had to do was sit back and relax on the bus, which took us pretty much door to door!

Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital Phnom Penh which, to be honest, didn’t seem much different from Ho Chi Minh, except that it marked the re-emergence of the tuk tuk! The riverside area of the city is very touristy with prices a lot higher than you would expect from a country like this but the rest of it is just like any other city – noisy, smoggy and busy.

Outside of the city, Cambodia brought back memories of India or Pakistan – not just because of the tuk tuks but the dirt roads, lack of pavements and kids running around barefoot. The fact that Cambodia is a poor country was instantly recognisable, as it is much less ‘built up’ than Vietnam – the vast majority of the landscape we drove through consisted of miles and miles of paddy fields and forests and we instantly felt back in ‘backpacker mode’.

A notable difference from Vietnam is that Cambodia actually seems more expensive! Here, they use US Dollars as their primary currency – literally everything is priced in Dollars and appears to be priced just as they would be in the US. We can’t understand how ‘normal’ people here can get by – they can’t earn much money, yet still have to pay over the odds for everything by paying in dollars. Another confusing ‘money aspect’ is that when you buy something, you are generally given change in Riels with a few dollars thrown in – nobody seems to know how much change they should actually give you! Another money-gripe we have with Cambodia is the fact that the ATMs charge an extortionate amount for you to take out your money – up to 4$ in some machines! Luckily, somebody gave us a tip that a bank called Candadia didn’t charge a penny so we hunted that out and it turned out they were right! We’ll definitely be searching out Canadia from now on!

We also found ourselves confused about the history of Cambodia, so we made it our mission over the first couple of days to find out more about it. To do this we made the trip to two of Phnom Penh’s most important ‘must see’ attractions – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek, also known as the ‘Killing Fields’.

Tuol Sleng is also known as S21 Prison and is where the Khmer Rouge communist regime imprisoned, interrogated and tortured thousands of Cambodians in their quest to ‘purge’ the country of people they deemed unnecessary. We didn’t really know what to expect from this first visit but we were sufficiently shocked when we went there! The prison actually started life as a high school, but was ‘reinvented’ when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975. They proceeded to lock up members of the general population, which included men, women and children. Relatives of the inmates were also systematically hunted down and locked up too.

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The prison basically consists of four buildings which were turned into interrogation rooms where people were strapped to metal beds, cells (made out of brick or wood) or mass detention rooms. All of the people who were imprisoned here (except for the 7 people who survived) were either tortured to death or told that they would be sent to work in the countryside, but instead sent to their death at Choeung Ek.

When the Vietnamese Army discovered the prison in 1979, they found corpses of some of the victims, still strapped to the beds where they were tortured, as well as photographs and documentation of what happened there. It is these items, as well as the beds and cells themselves that visitors to the (now) museum can see, and they are pretty harrowing.

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The Khmer Rouge took photographs of absolutely everyone, both alive and after they died from interrogation. Some of the torture equipment and instruments also remain inside the prison – these, along with the thousands of photos on display, give the entire place an extremely grim and eerie feel. You often felt like you were stepping over the ghostly corpses of prisoners – particularly in the rooms that still had blood stained floors.

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After spending a couple of hours at the museum – which also displays testimonials from former prison officers who were forced to work there by the Khmer Rouge – we went to the Killing Fields to learn more about the second part of their victims’ ordeals. Choeung Ek is about 25 minutes away in a tuk tuk, so you can easily visit both sites in one day. We wanted to go to the museum first, so that we could gain a bit of an understanding about what we were actually looking at, before going to the fields.

It is here that the Khmer Rouge executed over 17,000 people – many of which were the innocent inmates of S21 and their families. People were brought here in trucks, blindfolded, and told that they were here to be sent away to work in rice fields and other agricultural parts of Cambodia. Instead, they were killed by iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and any other makeshift weapons the Khmer Rouge ‘officers’ could get their hands on. Bullets were expensive, so they preferred not to use these!

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After they were killed, the prisoners were buried in mass graves and there are over 80 of these at this one site. Killing Fields were placed all over Cambodia and it is estimated that there were over 300 of them altogether.

The biggest grave here had 450 bodies in it but by far the most disturbing was the mass grave for women and children – right next to the tree that babies were smashed against before being thrown into the grave next to their mothers. A painting displayed at Tuol Sleng depicted this part of the Khmer Rouge’s activities and it really does make your stomach turn.

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In a strange way, Choeung Ek itself was quite a peaceful, almost serene place, despite the horror that went on here. The sun was shining when we visited (and it had rained the whole morning beforehand as well as the whole afternoon after we left), casting a lovely warmth over the whole field. In the middle of the main field stands a beautiful memorial Stupa, built in order for families of the victims to come and remember them.

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Inside, the bones of the victims are displayed on 17 shelves – from skulls to arm and jaw bones. A very strange sight – even though you are looking straight at them and can reach out and touch them, your brain can’t quite comprehend that they are the bones of actual human beings and definitely can’t comprehend what happened to them, even though you have seen the evidence at Tuol Sleng.

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Also on display are the clothes that the victims were wearing when they were killed. Items of clothing are still being found even now, and as you walk around the fields you can see bits of cloth scattered around or poking out of the ground as they are worked up from the ground by the rains.

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There is a really useful onsite museum at Choeung Ek which explains the Khmer Rouge and their aims in detail. A short movie is also run several times a day. We decided to hire a guide there too, which we found to be really helpful as he could answer all of the additional questions we had. There is a guide office next to the ticket counter and you just need to leave a donation in order to benefit from their services.

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are pretty gruesome and you can’t help feel a bit affected when you go there. Despite the downer it may put on your day, you can’t really come to Phnom Penh without visiting these two places. They are completely vital to understanding the country you are in and it does help you become a little more tolerant of the people around you – this is all still recent history and just about everyone you meet on the streets in Cambodia have been affected by what the Khmer Rouge did.

In an effort to lighten the tone a little, one other thing we did whilst we were in Phnom Penh, was get our visa for Laos! Once again we decided to bypass the offers of the hostel to obtain this for us and went down to the Embassy ourselves. The tuk tuk driver we hired for the day to take us to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek kindly added the embassy into our itinerary for the same price, so it was easy peasy! Unlike the other visa applications we’ve made on this trip, we had to hand over 3 photographs and fill in two forms instead of just the one. But the procedure was pretty much the same as all of the others.

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If you want ‘normal service’ (i.e. 48 hours) it’ll cost UK (and most European) passport holders $40. You can get an express visa for $10 extra – and this enables you to pick it up 12 hours later (or the same day like us, if they’re not busy!). The embassy staff are really friendly and speak English so you can just turn up there between 8-11.30am or 2-5pm and get your visa without any need to pay a ‘surcharge’ to your hostel!

So, we’re all set for Laos and can just sit back and enjoy the rest of Cambodia before we make our way over there.

Our last day in Phnom Penh was spent catching up on our blog, doing some website maintenance and researching our next stop – Sihanoukville. This is on the coast of Southern Cambodia, facing the Gulf of Thailand. Lots of sunning and swimming planned here – our last chance of a beach for at least another month so we’re going to make the most of it!!

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3 Comments

  1. October 20, 11:45 #1 margaret D.

    Dito xxxx

  2. October 19, 17:02 #2 Auntie Pat

    Hey Ais

    Probably not the most suitable blog to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY on but hey you’re alive and having the time of your lives, unlike many lost souls so HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I don’t do facebook so I hope you read this on your actual birthday. Thinking of you both every single day and still fascinated with this hopefully soon to be best selling novel. I Will wreck my brain for an excellent title and I want to be the proof reader when it goes to print!! May St Christopher guide you always necklace or no necklace. xxxxx

  3. October 18, 07:29 #3 Charles

    Hi you two! Staying glued to your blog which is fascinating even if rather grim reading recently! We’re in SA staying with my brother in Simons Town just south of Cape Town having a great time. Sorry to read about your Saigon incident but hope all’s going well for you. All best Charles and Penny.


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