Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Our tuk-tuk driver

Tuol Sleng prison

A typical cell

One of the torture rooms

One of the many galleries showing the pictures taken of the victims...

The stupa at the Killing Fields housing thousands of skulls and bones...

Seemingly harmless and picturesque scenery - the holes in the ground are...

Driving back to the city and the lovely paddy fields spread out...

The amazing museum building

One of the buildings at the Royal Palace complex

The silver pagoda

Buddhist monks drink coke too!

November 29, 2009

Leaving Vietnam, we had just a short flight to get to Phnom Penh (PP). As I have said, Vietnam was great and it is definitely somewhere I would like to go back to. However, we were moving on to another country and were looking forward to that just as much.

We were picked up at the airport and got a ride through the city to our hotel. The city seemed nice and open and some of the buildings were beautifully presented. The quality of driving here was a lot better than Vietnam, too, with much less horn-blowing!

We checked into the hotel and lazed around before heading out for a walk. Our hotel was on the edge of the Tonle Sap River and so we walked along the riverbank for a way. We headed towards the Chrouy Changvar Bridge which was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during their time ruling the country in the late 1970’s. The bridge was rebuilt with the help of Japanese aid and is now also known as the Japanese Friendship Bridge.

We’d pigged out a little bit in the lounge at the airport for an early lunch but were feeling a bit hungry (well, I was!) so we stopped at a café for some beers and snacks. The Angkor beer here went down really well, even better considering happy hour had just started and it was only 75 cents per beer! We also had some lovely fresh spring rolls.

The weather here is just as warm as Saigon but the humidity was much lower, making it a much more comfortable heat to walk around in. It was well over 30 degrees during much of the afternoon so it was nice to stop for some beers.

In the evening, we headed to a typical Khmer restaurant to try some local food. We both picked traditional dishes. Mine was called Lok Lak which is lumps of stir-fried beef with onions and peppers. Elizabeth had a beef stir fry too and both were really good, a nice little taster into Cambodian food.

November 30, 2009

Today was probably one of the most harrowing days we’ve had on this trip as we visited Tuol Sleng, a security office used for detention and torture by Pol Pot and his followers, and then Choeung Ek, the “Killing Fields” where the inmates of Tuol Sleng were bought to be executed and dumped into mass graves. Both of these sights are now museums and constant reminders of the genocide in Cambodia.

We took a tuk-tuk to the museum and it was a nice way to get through the city. It is quite hot here and the open tuk-tuks give a nice breeze.

We arrived at the Tuol Sleng museum first. The site was formerly a school which Pol Pot’s men turned into a large cell block. The main courtyard to the museum gave no clue as to the horrors inside, with a nice open, green area greeting us as we bought our tickets.

As we arrived, the documentary was just beginning at the museum. The video told the story of some of the people who were affected by the regime and told tales of relatives going missing or being tortured or killed. The worst thing about this film was that they interviewed survivors talking about loved ones they had lost, including a very emotional mother who had tried her best to keep her daughter away from the trouble but had ultimately failed. Both the girl and her husband ended up in Tuol Sleng (known as Security Office 21 or S-21) and were executed. The story was amazingly sad and the fact they had interviewed people fairly recently for the documentary really bought home how real and how recent this tragedy was. When the Vietnamese finally took over the capital city it was 1979 so pretty much everyone over the age of 30 now has lived through some of these events.

The rest of the museum was equally eerie. We walked through a number of photographic displays, one of which showed some of the people who were forced to work at the prison and their accounts of the time there. There was also an entire floor of one building full of pictures of people who had been executed here, some 20,000 of them it is believed. The thing that sets this prison apart from many of the others around the country who executed people was the methodical way it maintained records of detainees and took pictures directly prior to execution. There was no hiding the evidence.

Another room had a board on one wall showing the mass graves they have discovered around Cambodia. One such grave was thought to contain over half a million bodies with an estimated three million people killed in total during the four year regime.

A couple of four main buildings were left exactly as they were – one with individual prison cells where you could still see traces of what looked like blood on the floor and walls and another with large rooms with beds in the middle. These rooms were used to torture the prisoners and there were still many items here that were used to torture.

The whole complex was quite disturbing and almost felt a bit haunted, particularly when I walked through some of the cell blocks. Elizabeth and I didn’t speak much at all walking through here, only passing comment once in a while on something we’d noticed in particular. It was strange seeing people taking pictures of so many of the items here, including some of the skulls and bones and clothes that had been excavated from the mass graves. Why would anyone want a picture of that and how often, really, are you going to want to look at a picture like that?

Walking through the complex near the main entrance a tuk-tuk driver had been hassling us which had really annoyed me. I told him we didn’t need one as we were still looking around. I can’t believe in such a solemn, dark place we were being hassled. Still, worse was to come from this gentleman.

Having finished at the museum we crossed the road for some lunch and whilst doing so the same man continued to hassle us, almost following us to our table. This time I warned him that if he hassled us again we would use someone else and he appeared to get the message. I didn’t want to use him at all given the lack of respect he was showing.

For lunch we found a nice little café, set in a leafy courtyard directly opposite the prison site. We both enjoyed a cold drink and a sandwich before heading out to the killing fields whilst talking more about what we had seen. We both agreed that the atrocities carried out here were unbelievable, with Pol Pot being so worried about betrayal he even executed many of his own men if he feared they were stepping out of line.

As we left the café, the same man hassled us again and so I told him we weren’t interested. I walked straight passed him and bargained a fare with another driver. As we got into the tuk-tuk, the first man came up and started swearing at me, telling me to fuck off and sticking his finger up at me, shoving his hand right in my face. I didn’t say anything as I now felt even more justified in not taking his vehicle. Elizabeth got a bit annoyed and said something back. She needs to realize in these situations that it is me that is likely to get punched and not her so I quickly told her to just not say anything more!!!

The drive to the Choeung Ek site was quite pleasant. The weather was really hot now but the breeze into the open cab of the tuk-tuk was nice and the scenery was lovely too. It was still quite weird though, almost feeling like we were taking the same route that so many prisoners had taken 30 years ago on the way to their deaths.

The site here was nowhere near as harrowing in what you saw, but every bit as bad in what you imagined. We visited the stupa first, where some 7,000 skulls and various other bones and clothes are kept as a shrine to those that lost their lives. Just the sheer number of them was amazing and gave you an idea of the scale of the atrocity. Even so, the 20,000 or so people who were killed here is small compared to those around the country.

Around the site were various signposts indicating the buildings which were here before but most of them were dismantled in 1979 and were mostly houses for the guards or weapons. As you walked around, there were lots of holes around that had been dug into the ground, each one being one of the mass graves here. There have been 129 mass graves discovered here and three of them were specifically noted. The first contained over 450 bodies and it was hard to believe so many could be buried in such a small space. The second contained remains of bodies without any skulls. Given that there wasn’t anything noted about beheadings, this was particularly strange. Finally, a grave with over 100 women and their children. Next to this pit was a tree which was used to kill the children – the killers would throw the children around and smash their heads into this tree. It was absolutely disgusting to see the way they mistreated so many people.

Walking around the site was a weird mix of emotions, like entering the prison at first. The grounds here were beautiful, with a lovely large lake area and it was hard not to admire the beauty. But all the while, in the forefront of your mind, you thought about the people who suffered so terribly both here and during their torture at the prison.

The small museum here told similar tales to that at the larger museum we’d visited earlier and had further descriptions about the men and women responsible for this act, including the man who was in charge at the prison and was tried for his crimes.

After leaving the grounds, we headed back to the city and back to the hotel so we could laze around a bit before heading out for dinner.

We headed to a place called Chiang Mai which served a sort of Thai/Cambodian mix of dishes and I had a nice Cambodian curry. I wasn’t feeling great and didn’t have much of an appetite but I still managed to eat a fair bit of it!

December 1, 2009

I awoke this morning still feeling really bad, with a raging headache, feeling nauseous and aching all over my back and shoulders. Neither of us had slept very well as the air-con on our room seemed to be making us both quite bunged up and stuffy. It wasn’t a good night!

We had a trip planned to an animal sanctuary today but I decided not to go – I didn’t think going over 40km outside the city in an open truck and spending all day in the sunshine would do me much good so Elizabeth went on her own. I think I’m having an adverse reaction to the anti-malarial tablets we’re taking.

So, I spent the day doing nothing and I’m sure you’re really interested in reading that!

By the time Elizabeth got back, I was still feeling bad and hadn’t eaten all day. I thought I should try and eat something so we headed out to an Italian place. I had a small pizza and managed to eat most of it, eventually!

December 2, 2009

Our final day in PP and we decided to hit a couple of the museums close to our hotel. I was feeling a little better but unfortunately Elizabeth was feeling a little worse. Still, the museums were close so we could always quit early and head back when we wanted to.

After grabbing breakfast, we headed to the National Museum. We were torn between visiting this one or waiting to visit the Angkor museum in Siem Reap but chose this one as it was $3 each to get in rather than $12 each! Honestly, we also thought this one would show us more of the statues which were in the Angkor temples and it had plenty of those.

The museum building itself was amazing and looked just like some kind of Khmer temple. The main building surrounded a lovely courtyard with plenty of greenery. Inside, there were hundreds if not thousands of statues of various gods and other important figures from Buddha himself to Vishnu and Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth.

The statues here were really impressive but there was not much explanation about the significance of them. As a result, we had finished here pretty quickly and after a quick water and a wander to the Royal Palace we discovered that they really do have a break for lunch from 11am until 2pm! Unfortunately for us, we weren’t hungry as we’d only had breakfast a couple of hours before. Given we weren’t feeling too well, we headed back to the hotel and lazed around until we were hungry.

The trouble with the hotel room was we both felt worse when we were in it than when we weren’t so after about an hour or so we were both ready to get back out again into the heat! We walked around to find a place for lunch and eventually found a place called Friends, which is another restaurant which helps train street kids for jobs in hospitality. It was nearly 2pm by the time we got there but the place was really busy and we had to wait a while for a seat inside – the seats outside for ridden with flies and we thought it was worth the 10 minute wait!

The restaurant was a tapas place so we ordered a few dishes to try getting local fish and potato cakes, stir-fried vegetable, zucchini and cheese fritters and beef tacos (for Elizabeth, of course!) plus a couple of yummy shakes! Like all of these places, they are comparatively expensive but the food was good and worth the wait.

From there we headed back to the Royal Palace. The price to get in was a whopping $6.25 which seemed excessive but we had nothing better to do and we’d waited around a while to see it. When we presented our tickets, we were initially refused entry as they reckoned Elizabeth’s skirt was too short! Their rule is it has to reach your knees and Elizabeth’s didn’t quite. They were quite intent on turning us away until we asked for a refund then magically they imagined Elizabeth’s skirt to be longer and let us in! It was quite over the top and seemed even more so when we saw the children running around inside with no underwear on. I guess that is respectful, huh?

Anyway, the Royal Palace was a bit of a bust – the buildings were quite cool from the outside but not anything of much note inside. Our ticket also included the Silver Pagoda which was also a bust. It is called the Silver Pagoda as the floor is covered with 5 tons of silver, made up of around 5,000 tiles. However, to “protect” them the majority are completely covered up. Now, I understand you need to protect such things but this room was packed with display cases which stood around the walls directly on the silver floor yet the entire central area was covered with a tatty rug. Personally, I don’t see why they can’t just have a carpeted walkway around the edge and leave the polished silver exposed in the centre.

Feeling slightly annoyed and guessing there must be more, we tried to head back to the Royal Palace to view the gardens. As if by magic, a guard had appeared and told us we couldn’t re-enter despite their being no signs telling us that and said we’d need to leave by the far gate or pay again to enter. We told him in no uncertain terms what we thought of this and were not the only ones to do so. Whilst he was dealing with another group, Elizabeth and I ducked past him and back to the main area. Not only was there no sign saying we couldn’t come back in but 20 minutes earlier there was no-one by the gate telling people they couldn’t come back, either.

We headed towards the garden area but were met by a sign saying entrance prohibited. All of the large garden area was closed off so we only had the small area to walk around by the main palace. We were feeling a bit ripped off and decided to head out having seen all we wanted to.

Back at the hotel, we got our stuff packed away while we waited for hunger to kick in again. At the start of our trip, we were cramming in loads of sights and doing lots of things but after a few rubbish museums and a fair few over-priced tourist traps we have started to be much pickier about our choices. As a result, we have much more time doing nothing which can be a good thing in some places but not so much in others. Here, we just felt like we had done everything we wanted to, didn’t fancy walking around much and felt a little confined to our room. Of course, we weren’t confined, we could do anything – just there was nothing we wanted to do! We only had 4 nights and 3 full days here but we could’ve easily done less given Elizabeth wasn’t over-impressed with the trip yesterday and today hadn’t been much better! The question is though, if you only want to spend one day in a place, to do one thing, is it really worth the cost to get there and do that one thing?

Anyway, in the evening we went to a small bar next to the hotel. I have no idea what it was called but they served beers for 50 cents and the food was decent enough, too and at a third of the price of our lunch!

The evening was rounded off by one of the customers having a go at one of the street kids. Three of them were talking to two girls who were in the restaurant and the man opposite them didn’t like it. He told the restaurant owner to kick the kids out and when one of the kids left I think he said something to the man. As a result, the man told the kid to “fuck off”. Now, I don’t know what the kid said but he was only about 10 or 11 and I didn’t see any need for the man to have him removed (none of the kids had even approached this man to buy one of their books) let alone swear at him. I guess it makes him feel big and clever to swear at little children. At least these children are trying to make some money for their families by doing something other than just begging on the street. At the end, I gave each of the three kids some money and one of the girls told me I shouldn’t as the kids were being rude to them – I didn’t believe this for a minute as the girls were laughing and joking with them and even bought a book from one of them. Elizabeth and I felt sorry for these kids knowing that even giving them a few dollars wouldn’t help much as it would probably go into the pocket of the parent or guardian who puts them out on the street each day.

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