I had been told that Cambodia was the seediest of all SE Asian countries before I started traveling, so I was prepared for all out chaos in the streets. I didn’t really understand what everyone was talking about until I arrived in Phnom Penh. Sure I had seen poverty, prostitution, and even children hawking goods, but I had yet to experience the creepy white men stories are told about…. That is until I left my hotel for dinner after arriving in the city. The place seems to be crawling with them. They’re the kind of guys who make your skin crawl and hair stand on end without even looking at you or striking up a conversation, and trust me, I should know. I routinely get hit on by creepy men of all nationalities while traveling.
The worst was the man who blatantly tried to seduce a little girl selling books out in front of the restaurant I was eating in. I had spoken with this little girl not 10 minutes before. She gave me her best sales pitch and we joked around a little before one of the waiters ushered her out into the street for bothering the customers. As I watched this man saunter over to her and try to offer her his kabob (the one he was eating not the one in his pants) before striking up a conversation and moving dangerously close to her. I felt sick to my stomach. I was on the verge of getting out of my seat to make a scene as she nervously looked past him in hopes of finding a way to escape. I seemed to be the only person noticing. How wasn’t anyone else seeing this? I waved for the waiter to see if he might assist me, and just as soon as I had raised my hand, the guy turned and walked away.
I made the decision right then to get the hell out of Phnom Penh as quickly as possible. I even paid my hotel extra to have my Vietnamese visa rushed.
I had made a deal with my tuk tuk driver to have him take me to a few sites in the area, so I was up early in the morning to meet him outside of my hotel. My first stop of the day would be the S21 detention center in the middle of Phnom Penh. I’m sure this name means absolutely nothing to most of you, and it didn’t mean a lot to me either before seeing it, but it’s an important sight in Phnom Penh, and gives you a better understanding for both the Khmer war and the famous Killing field nearby.
The thing that makes S21 exceptionally eerie, is the fact that the buildings were used as a school before the Khmer Rouge took them over and converted them into a prison. You can still see chalk boards hanging on the walls, and uniformity throughout the classrooms as you walk among cells and beds that use to house the thousands of people who passed through this prisons walls. I opted not to do a tour of the facility, out of sheer cheapness, and ultimately I’m happy with my choice. While I’ve heard great things about the tours, I wasn’t up to hearing all the depressing details that no doubt accompany the depressing rooms I walked through. I didn’t need someone to tell me what had happened here. I could see it clear as day all by myself.
While I was there I was able to meet one of the 7 (I think this is the right number) survivors found in the prison when it was liberated. He didn’t speak a whole lot of English, but was more than happy to tell me what little he knew from his book sales pitch. His granddaughter filled in the rest of the gaps for me. While he was there he lost his wife and child and was only spared because he was able to paint. If you passed this old man on the street you’d never be able to guess the horrors he went through or the things he saw, and I’m not sure you’d want to anyway.
After S21 I found my tuk tuk driver and we made our way to the killing field. The order of my tour is definitely the way to approach these two places, as prisoners were taken from S21 by trucks, and later I believe by train, to the killing fields where they were either killed as soon as they arrived or placed in holding cells until they could be dealt with. My ride to the killing field was much more light-hearted and relaxing than the victims of the Khmer Rouge experienced, but probably contained the same amount of dust. My driver was nice enough to stop and buy me a surgical mask along the way to aid in my breathing.
The great thing about the Killing Field is the free audio guide you’re given at the beginning of your individual tour. It’s a nice way to mix personal stories with history as you wander through the grounds at your own pace. When you first see the Killing Field, it’s hard to imagine that anything horrific has taken place. There are large shady trees, grass lawns, and even flowers dotted around the grounds. It’s not until you begin walking around that you see the remnants of the horrors that took place there. If you set aside the mass graves outlined in fences with millions of Ibracelets hanging off of them, the clothing and bones peeking through the surface of some of the pathways are more than enough to give you a sense of what took place. I listened to every audio option available before leaving the grounds, and don’t feel like its appropriate for me to share some of the stories I heard. The pictures above are more than enough to give you a sense of my experience. I left feeling heavy-hearted and very much aware of a subject I had rarely ever heard about before.
I slept in a little bit and eventually headed out to the National Museum to see what it was all about. Essentially its just a large museum with artifacts on display. It’s pretty cool if you’re into that sort of thing, which I just happen to be, but otherwise this might not be worth your time.
Afterwards I made my way to the Grand Palace and the temple housed within. There just happened to be some sort of ceremony taking place inside, so both buildings were closed to the public. It was a huge bummer to say the least, but it was incredibly hot outside, so I really didn’t mind heading back to my hotel room for a little relaxation in the air conditioning before dinner. I had plans to meet 4 English guys for dinner. I had met them in Siem Reap, and literally ran into them again the previous night just after grabbing some dinner. Since I had no idea where I was going, I hired a motorbike driver to take me there and ended up on a 30 minute tour of Phnom Penh. It turns out that their hotel, which was where I was meeting them, was only a few blocks away from where I was staying.I could have walked, but instead I found myself driving through the streets of Phnom Penh at night laughing at how lost my driver was. They say travel is an adventure, and this night certainly didn’t disappoint.
I spent most of the day hanging out with my English friends. We went to the mall, to a bookstore, to the post office where I had a hell of a time trying to mail some stuff home, and on a small tour of the city I had already seen the night before by motorbike. We also purchased movie tickets for later that evening at the local mall, and couldn’t wait to see the latest Star Trek installment. Geeky sure, but incredibly awesome. It wasn’t an overly exciting day, but was still enjoyable by all accounts. My Vietnamese visa had already come through, so I was booked on a midnight bus out of the city. I had just enough time to make it back to my hotel after Star Trek: Into Darkness ended, before having to check out and head to my bus. I wasn’t sad to be saying goodbye to Phnom Penh. I had had my fill in the few days I had been there, and really don’t plan on making it back any time soon.