We arrived in Phnom Penh by bus, a mere six hour drive (including customs and visa formalities at the border) from Saigon. We travelled by ‘luxury’ tourist bus and found ourselves once again considerably disappointed at what we received for our $12. Much like my experience on Aeroflot Russian Airlines, it was nothing like what the brochures and posters promised. I sat squished into my uncomfortable, non-reclining seat and was forced to listen to a hideous Vietnamese karaoke DVD on repeat. I passed the time by counting the bugs scuttling past, willing myself not to need the on-board bathroom (revolting beyond belief) and glaring daggers at the poster stuck to the window proudly proclaiming the company’s ownership modern fleet of top-class red luxury tourist buses. Ours wasn’t red, nor did it boast any of the other features proclaimed on the poster. However, one can’t be too choosy I suppose – considering we made it in one piece I should be thanking my lucky stars it didn’t fall apart entirely en route.
It is hard to believe that two of the most popular tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are an old school and a bit of farmland on the outskirts of the city. Although seemingly insignificant, these two places have in fact been the sites of some of Cambodia's most horrific war crimes. We spent a full day exploring the S-21 Genocide Museum and killing fields – a sobering experience but one I would recommend to any visitor to the city.
Cambodia's history has been a long and fairly bloody one - in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took power under the leadership of Pol Pot and began a backwards social revolution of sorts. His goal: re-starting civilization from ‘Year Zero’ through a form of agrarian socialism. He drove city dwellers out into the countryside where they were forced to work – those who didn’t or couldn’t were shot dead on the spot. Those in the upper classes were shot, as were the educated or those holding any power in government. Many Cambodians were captured and tortured in S-21 until they confessed to working as spies for the US government – even where this was not the case ‘confessions’ were given simply to put an end to the torture which in some cases went on for months. In total, over 17,000 Cambodians were sent to S-21 – ultimately only seven survived. That’s a 0.04% survival rate – not good odds, really.
Fortunately, Pol Pot did not succeed in his mission to revolutionise Democratic Kampuchea and despite estimates of up to three million lives lost to the Khmer Rouge regime, today the country is slowly rebuilding itself. Poverty is still rife – you can see it in the living conditions, the begging and the horrific levels of child prostitution that still exist today. Modern-day Phnom Penh was no exception – every night that we ate dinner in the city we were approached by no less than four or five children selling books, bracelets or other worthless trinkets. They are proficient in English, masters of manipulation and, as we discovered upon refusing to buy their products, have a wide and rather colourful vocabulary which may either be presented in full word form or spelled out and accompanied by a middle finger.
A couple of days in the city proved to be enough for the three of us. Kristin moved on to Battembang and Billy accompanied me to Sihanoukville, a coastal town 5 hours away on the Gulf of Thailand. There we spent two nights staying in a small bungalow near the beach, relaxing on the sand, exploring the peninsula by bike and soaking up the lively nightlife. The last morning we were there, I was both horrified and delighted to find that my pre-purchased snacks for the long bus trip back to Phnom Penh had been mauled by rats. I had woken up the previous night convinced I could hear packets rustling and in my sleepy state assumed it was Billy with a case of the munchies. When I couldn’t see him, I then decided it was the rain outside and promptly fell back to sleep. Come morning, there was not one individually-wrapped packet left untouched and it was clear the local rat population had dined like kings whilst I slumbered. I mentioned earlier that this also delighted me – primarily because upon inspection of the bungalow, the only possible entrance point we could find was situated in the wall right above Billy’s bed. I was tickled to think that in his alcoholic, absinthe-induced catatonic state he inadvertently provided a small tribe of rats with a human obstacle course.
We returned to Phnom Penh to collect our bags and stay one more night before heading north to Siem Reap. As it turned out we were sharing a dorm room with two other EPIK teachers from South Korea who, as it transpired, I had met at orientation a year ago and Billy had met in downtown Daegu. Small world! They ended up getting the same bus as us to Siem Reap and we’re currently staying at the same hotel here.
This week we spent two days exploring the temples of Angkor. I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say it has been incredible – the temples are absolutely mind-blowing. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed up the main tower of Angkor Wat as I wasn’t suitably clothed (you could see my knees – hussy!). I did however climb one temple called Pre Rup which was spectacular. On reaching the top, I was struck by the number of people who were just sitting there, enjoying the view and contemplating life. After a few minutes of doing the same, I began to wonder whether they were actually still contemplating life, or whether their thoughts had moved on to more pertinent matters such as “how the hell am I going to get back down those f*cking stairs”. There’s only so long I can pretend to enjoy something, so eventually I was forced to hand my bag over to Billy “They Named A Goat After Me” Stevenson and began my slow and clumsy descent. Let it be said, I have not had an aversion to heights or stairs since I bungy jumped and threw myself head first down a flight of stairs in London, breaking my femur. Clearly those two events were not simultaneous, but both have left me very nervous of heights and precipitous staircases! I noticed several people bounding past me down the temple face like mountain goats, but I would venture to say my movements were more sloth-like. Anyhow, I made it to the bottom safely and in one piece, so I guess that’s the main thing.
My two favourite temples so far have been Ta Prohm (the temple in which parts of Tomb Raider were filmed) and Kbal Spean – a river and waterfall located deep in the jungle around 45 kilometres north east of Ta Prohm. It isn’t strictly a ‘temple’, but rather a series of carvings in and around the river dating back to as early as the 11th century. It pre-dates Angkor Wat by almost 200 years, making it one of the most ancient sites in the entire region.
Right now I’m kicking back in my hotel room relaxing – it’s 33 degrees outside and 70 percent humidity which doesn’t make for ideal daytime exploring conditions. I’ve also managed to pick up some sort of cold or flu virus and eye infection so am trying to get a bit of rest before we head into Laos on Friday. Siem Reap is a hedonists paradise – a good meal out will set you back around $3, cocktails $1 each and a one-hour full body massage anywhere from $3. Our hotel is situated less than five minutes walk from the central district (ingeniously named ‘Pub Street’) and the night markets – my bag is quite literally bulging with dresses right now. I think I need to book myself into Dressaholics Anonymous after the purchase of my tenth and eleventh dresses last night. Although to be fair they aren’t all for me… (well, 2 aren’t).
More from Laos soon!