I guess this could be described as my first visit to an “undeveloped” country.
My trip to Cambodia started from the small port town of Ha Tien in Vietnam. I was the only person on the bus that took me to the border crossing to Cambodia, going through at a quiet crossing point the process was quick and easy. I think there was a bit of a scam in place as after obtaining my visa, I was led on to the ‘ministry of health’ where a laser was pointed at my head and after they were satisfied the laser showed that I had a regular temperature, and they’d asked me if I had malaria (I said no), they let me pass after I’d paid a $1 tax. Now, everyone I spoke to that passed at the more conventional border crossing points didn’t even have to see the health minister, but I guess I had the last laugh as I paid the tax in nickels, dimes and 5cent coins – coins are next to useless in Cambodia as denominations under a dollar are then counted in the local currency, Cambodian Riel. He thanked me for the “souvenir” before sending me on my way.
I changed buses a little while later when I was dropped off at the side of the road and told to flag down the next bus. Fortunately, it arrived almost as I was unloading my bags so managed to jump straight on. From there, it was a short(ish) 150km to Phnom Penh, but this took nearly 5.5 hours due to the condition of the roads (or rather dirt tracks) that spanned the country side.
Phnom Penh creeps up on you as you’re approaching the city. You find the side of the dirt tracks to become increasingly busy with houses, shops and people, before turning onto a Tarmac road and hitting rush hour. You’ll hit rush hour whichever hour of the day you arrive.
On my trip to the hostel, I couldn’t quite believe the rich/poor western/traditional dichotomy that made up the capital. I’d turn off a street full of expensive jewellery, electronics and even car shops, past the costa coffee on the street corner, and be met with a huge pile of rubbish stretching the length of a road with a tuktuk driver urinating into it at the top of an alley way of run down buildings. This pattern continues throughout the city.
Still, it always felt like a nice, safe place to be. I spent much of the first night in the area around the hostel – a common area for travellers close to the river front which I think was probably a little cleaner and upmarket than other areas. After checking into my hostel I was a little hungry so ordered a beer and a cookie. I’d just stopped by the atm and all it gave me was a $100 bill. The barman rolled his eyes as he gave me my $99.50 dollars change – the beer was free!
The next day I wanted to get the heavy stuff out of the way, so I took a tuktuk to the genocide centre (or “killing fields”) which is just 1 of an estimated 300 sites of mass graves from the era of the Khmer Rouge, fronted by Pol Pot. It was hard to believe the brutality that this regime imposed on the country. It’s ultra communist target of making the country entirely self sufficient went as far as murdering anyone thought to be a threat to the regime (including anyone educated, anyone wearing glasses, anyone with soft hands). They also took self-sufficiency as far as medicine, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people with treatable diseases such as malaria.
An estimated 1.7 million out of Cambodia’s population of 8 million are thought to have lost their lives under this 4 year regime, which only came to an end just 10 years before I was born in 1979. I learnt more about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge at the S-21 museum – the former site of a torture prison that the condemned would be held in before being taken outside of the city to be executed. I’m not going to write anymore about what I learnt at these places, but it is definitely worth reading about to try and understand how these horrors could have occurred so recently in our history.
I went to the market for a beer to take the edge off at the end of this, and was kicked out of a restaurant because the police were coming, and they weren’t licensed to stay open after 6. It was 6:30. I’d finished my meal but one of the people I was with hadn’t, so she had her plate whisked away and went hungry for the time being.
The next day I spent ‘site seeing’ in the city. This included a trip to the museum, which was largely filled with relics and information from the Angkor period (nice before my upcoming trip to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor), the independence monument and a walk round the royal palace and silver pagoda, both of which were closed for visiting.
I got a tuktuk driver to take me on a tour of the rest of the ‘sites’ – Wat Phnom, followed by a drive over the river to another temple and to feed the local monkeys. Unfortunately, the heavens opened before I had time to see the ‘Golden Temple’ but to be fair I was all templed out for that day anyway so went back across the river to try some local Khmer food.
I fancied a chilled out night before leaving the next morning and had heard of the German-Cambodian Cultural Centre near to where I was staying. This included a rooftop, open air art house cinema which happened to be showing an interesting documentary film about humans seeming destruction of the planet. I think it’s worth mentioning because the film was made in the early 80’s, but when I stepped back out onto the streets in this quiet part of town, I seemed to have stepped back in time to what the film was suggesting about the U.S. almost 35 years ago.
I like Phnom Penh, and believe that things will change here rapidly. It’s hard to believe the atrocities they faced so recently but I think the industry of tourism is lifting them out of that dark background and everyone here is looking towards a brighter future.
A colourful memorial at the site of one of the killing fields mass graves