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At a glance…
- Fascinating juxtaposition between the modern history in the capital city of Phnom Penh and the ancient history in Siem Reap.
- All accessible by public bus.
- This itinerary: one week.
After our long bus journey from Hoh Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, we arrived in the gigantic city, feeling totally lost – Phnom Penh is certainly not built for a large tourist scene, with little to no road signs, whilst it is virtually impossible to find a decent map. After being slightly ripped off by a tuk-tuk driver, we arrived at our hotel, in the south of the city. Upon first impressions, it seemed lovely, and a big improvement on our room in Saigon, which didn’t have a window. However, within minutes of entering our room, a man appeared at our door requesting to come in and find the spider which had been reported to be somewhere lurking within. Immediately knowing that spiders in this part of the world are far from being your average British ‘Daddy Long Legs’, we began to panic. It turned out to be a cockroach in the bathroom – I’m not sure what’s worse! However, after this little hiccup, and determined to not let the confusing city stop us from venturing out, we jumped in another tuk-tuk and asked to be taken to a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant on the other side of town – but on arrival, we found that it was closed for the summer for refurbishment. Feeling very defeated, we were determined to make the most of our time!
The Khmer Rouge
Visiting Phnom Penh made me feel so ignorant. Yes, I had heard of the Khmer Rouge, and I was aware of the fact that there had been a Cambodian Genocide, but before this trip, that was the full extent of my knowledge. In 1975, an extreme Maoist group called the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, in a matter of days. Although formally named the Democratic Party of Kampuchea, and led by an ex-teacher called Pol Pot, this horrendous organisation certainly did not follow such democratic principles. Pol Pot envisioned the creation of a completely self-sufficient Cambodian society, employing an extreme form of agricultural communism. Having taken power, the Khmer Rouge immediately began clearing out all the cities, driving people into the countryside to work on the farmland. Here, the people were enslaved to work on the land for around 18 hours per day, no matter what sex or age, as poverty spread. Further to these atrocities, in a desperate attempt to ensure his power remained superior, Pol Pot ordered the execution of anyone who stood against his vision – this ranged from political activists, to teachers, children who wore glasses, or anyone who held a professional career. All of these people were barbarically seen as a threat to his plan for the future of Cambodia. Phnom Penh was left as a total ghost town, the only occupation being the Tuol Sleng prison. The Khmer Rouge remained in power until 1979, by which time 1 in 4 Cambodian people were killed, with estimates reaching as high as 3 million.
On our first full day in Phnom Penh, we got up early to visit the Cambodian Genocide Museum, at Tuol Sleng Prison. Up until 1975, the site had been a school, for both primary and secondary aged students of Phnom Penh, but upon the Khmer Rouge takeover, the school buildings were transformed into a torturous prison. Whole families were brought here if any one member posed a threat to Pol Pot’s regime – even if said ‘threat’ was simply the father’s previous job. The site was so unbelievably haunting, partly because of the fact you could tell that it certainly was designed as a school – classrooms, a playground, library etc. Upon arrival, we entered Building A, which housed the torture and interrogation rooms. The size of a normal modern day classroom, each room had a single bed in the centre, upon which the victim would be tied for various torture methods. It is here that the majority of the 20 000 killed at the prison lost their lives. Shocked, we then walked into the old school playground, which held 14 graves of the last people to be murdered, along side one of the most horrific torture apparatus – a tall wooden frame, where the victim would be tied upside down from a rope around the ankles, and whipped until unconscious, before being dipped into a pool of water below in an attempt to regain consciousness. This process would be repeated over and over. Buildings B, C and D housed classrooms that were divided up into tiny cells – around 1.8m by 90cm. Men, women and children were held here, although most only survived around 4-6 months.
However, the vast majority of murders during the Khmer Rouge era occurred at ‘The Killing Fields’. Although it is thought that there are as many of 300 of these sites around Cambodia, the largest stands just outside Phnom Penh. After our chilling wander around the prison, we found a tuk-tuk driver to take us there. It was at this moment that I had my hardest moment of the trip so far – just as I felt so upset about what we had just visited, a devastatingly deformed middle-aged man came up to us begging, and just wouldn’t leave. Cambodia remains a third world country, and this made it really hit home about the struggles they’ve been through. However, just when I felt like I couldn’t witness much worse, we arrived at the Killing Fields.
Tip: pay for an audio guide here, it’s so worth it!
Thousands of people were brought here in trucks at night, on the pretence that they were being re-homed. However, people of all walks of life were then dragged off the trucks, blindfolded and taken to a field with a big pit on one side. Here, they were brutally murdered, in whatever way was cheapest and easiest for the regime – usually with blunt farming tools – and tossed into the pit of bodies. Huge speaker systems hung from surrounding trees, in an attempt to drown out the sound of their cries. The terrain of the Killing Fields is so haunting – huge bumpy landscapes and craters of endless body pits, where grass has now grown over the top. Since we visited in rainy season, we were warned that it was quite normal for bones to come to the surface of the ground after a heavy downpoor, and one of the first things I noticed was a bone sticking out of the lush green grass. But around half way through the tour, we were taken to the worst part yet – the area for killing babies – a big pit standing next to a very large tree. Upon arrival, mothers and babies were torn apart, mothers being dragged to the normal pits, and the babies taken to the tree. Here, Khmer Rouge soldiers held the baby by his/her ankles and smashed the innocent child’s head against the bark, before tossing him/her into the pit. It is simply unbelievable to think that something this horrendous happened within the last 45 years.
Overall, I found Phnom Penh incredibly interesting, but really quite difficult to deal with at times, so was somewhat relieved when we got the 6 hour bus to Siem Reap. Here, we stayed at such a beautiful hotel, The Golden Temple, for just £5 per night – some of the most amazing service, memory foam beds, welcome drinks – we were in such luxury! Siem Reap is a much smaller city, with a key backpacker area, which we were in the heart of – so great for exploring and going to the amazing Pub Street. Of course, our main objective in visiting Siem Reap was to go to Ankor Wat, so the following morning, we sleepily got a 5am tuk-tuk to the temple complex to watch the sunrise.
Angkor Wat at sunrise was truly stunning and tranquil (although absolutely flooded with tourists!) – this was certainly one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen whilst on this trip. Having spent a few hours at the Angkor Wat complex, our tuk-tuk driver took us to Angkor Thom and the ‘Tomb Raider’ temples. Feeling a little like, but wishing we also looked like Lara Croft, we spent the rest of the morning exploring the ancient temples.
Cambodia is country of great difference between its horrifying modern history of the Khmer Rouge regime, and its serene ancient history of the temples around Siem Reap. One thing is certain, I learnt more in this country than anywhere else I’ve ever visited!