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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Written on: Friday December 14th, 2007

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Upon our entry by bus from Saigon, across in to Cambodia and west to the capital Phnom Penh, there was a noticeable difference in the wealth of the people. Vietnam of course has it's very poor areas outside of the cities, but even the minority villages, with their bamboo houses, hole in the ground for a toilet, and cow tassled to the nearest tree, all have a satellite dish attached to them, so that they know exactly what's going on in the Premier League. In Cambodia however, you are first greeted by children begging, or selling rotton fruit, or very sadly by amputees, pulling themselves along the ground, most of them victims of the hideous landmines left by the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the Americans and the Vietnamese between 1975 and 1980, that makes Cambodia #1 in the top ten list of countries that still have uncleared landmines. The number of landmines still laying in this country is so bad that all the guide books warn you not to stray far off the beaten track as more than people are 2000 people are injured by them every year still now.

We'd received a tip-off of a great little place to stay in Phnom Penh, and the tip-off proved correct, as our room for $4 a night on the lake couldn't have been better value. Joining us at Number 9 Lakeside, were two English guys, Pete and Will who also joined us the following day on our tour of the main sights of the capital.

We began the day brightly, with the almost worryingly good English speaking, Khmer tuc-tuc driver, Jake. He had a perfect Australian accent, and constantly uttered the catchprase, "I'm not taking the piss mate". He took us 20km or so outside of the city to an Army base, where the four of us were politley asked to sit down and presented with a menu. We all thought it was a little early to eat, but glanced at the menu nonetheless. Todays specials included pistols, shotguns, M16's and a missile launcher. Although quite pricey, Dave and I decided to don our avaitors and each shoot an Uzi 9mm and an AK47. The guns had a hell of a kick to them, and the Uzi, as I fired it propelled my hands upwards towards the ceiling of the shooting range we were in, splattering bullets into the roof struts, rather then the criminal silhouette at the other end of the range. In all honesty it won't be something I'll leap at doing again in the future, so a career in the army is one I'll probably put off for a while. The missile launcher could have been fun though.

It was a good idea to start with the shooting range though, as the next two sites we visited were two of the most hideous and thought-provoking places we have visited so far. First was the Killing Fields, brought to people's attention by the movie in the 80's, but overshadowed somewhat by the media attention that engulfed the Vietnam War. During the war, the Viet Cong began to use the jungles of eastern Cambodia to hide out in, dragging Cambodia in to the War. The Americans used Phnom Penh as their base on the western front so to speak. At the time a faction of Khmer Communists under the leadership of the maniacal Pol Pot began to grow in strength and numbers and by 1975 marched in and took over the capital here. This commenced 4 years of genocide as Pol Pot and his brainwashed Khmer Rouge army removed people from their homes, putting them to work in severely harsh conditions in the country, with minute portions of food, and then when they were no longer able to work they were taken to the Killing Fields and executed. Any intellectuals, teachers, writers or educated people were spared the delay of the countryside and immediately executed, along with their families. Even wearing glasses apparently symbolised intellect.

At the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek you are met by the sombre and eerie memorial to the 8985 people whose bodies have since been found in mass graves in this area. From a distance the memorial looks like another temple building, complete with incense offerings at the entrance, but as you get closer it is harrowing to make out the skulls of the people that have been executed here stacked on shelves going all the way up to the ceiling. At the bottom of the stupa are the remains of some of the clothes of the victims.

Walking on you are presented with the graves themselves, resembling bomb craters littered all over this now lush green field. There is actually a scary contrast to the atrocities and evil that has occured here, and it's present appearance. If you didn't know anything about the Killing Fields and were brought there without knowing where you were, you might look on this field as any other, with leaves falling from the trees, grass swaying in the light breeze and children's voices singing rhymes in a school nearby. Unlike Ground Zero in New York, and also the site of the Oklanhoma bombing, which both had a feeling of death there that cannot be described, the Killing Fields did not have this. Similar to the Vietnamese and the Cambodians willfulness to get on with things the field seems to be trying to do the same thing. History however is not that kind, and plaques attached to trees informing you of where children were smashed in to them before their limp bodies were slung in to the pits, and another tree sickly named 'The Magic Tree', where a loud speaker used to hang playing noises so that the screams of men and women as they were made to bend on their knees, blindfolded in front of the pits and smashed across the back of the neck, plunging to their inhumane deaths, could not be heard in the nearby fields. 

If the Killing Fields weren't horrific enough, then Toul Sleng, otherwise known as S21, where the Khmers were kept hostage and tortured before their executions, provided us with more death than we ever want to witness again. Originally a secondary school, it is now a museum containing the individual photographs of the estimated twenty thousand prisoners that were held here between 1975 and 1979. Torture implements still lie in rooms where they originally were used, beds where prisoners were shackled, raped and beaten still stood forboding, the individual tiny cells still contained the shackles chained to the floor. This place stank of death.

Returning to our guesthouse in a somewhat downtrodden and overwhelmed mood, we did the only thing we could, and ate a big steak each to cheer us up. Around  the area are a bunch of little guesthouses, restaurants and watering holes, where most of the backpacking fraternity hang out. Much to mine and Dave's delight one of these such bars, the Magic Sponge, was run by an English guy named Dan who just so happens to be a poker fan. Brucey bonus - he had chips. So that night 12 of us sat down to very much an international game of poker, where there could be only one victor, which I'm quite delighted to tell you was me. $60 extra in your pocket goes a long way in this part of the world!

The following day Dave and I chilled by the lake at the back of the guesthouse, then headed out with Jake again, this time to see the madness that is Khmer Thai Boxing. After their trance like rituals strutting and praying around the ring, they then proceed to kick, punch and visciously elbow ten tonnes of shit out of each other. We liked it. The two knockouts we saw were particularly standing up and jeering moments. One guy levelled his opponant with a thunderous jab to the stomach, putting the other guy on his back in what looked like a disgusting amount of pain, unable to breathe. While in another bout we witnessed a sweeping kick knock the knee of the opponant clean out of where it should normally peacefully lie. Not a shriek or even a shirk from the one-kneed one, merely the admission that he probably wasn't going to be able to continue the fight as he would of liked.

Dave and I with our knees firmly in place (well mine are a little off) played some more poker, and then made the 6 hour bus journey to Siem Reap the following day where the Angkor temples laid in wait for us. 


From Dima on May 5th, 2013

You guys must go to TOTO if you get a chance! While I was in Cambodia this was a must for me-- I blaacsliy went daily. The service was really cute, the ice cream was amazing, and the service was nice as well. I can't wait until I can go back to Cambodia one day -- I enjoyed flavors I normally wouldn't be able to get in the states as easily such as Durian, Passion Fruit, Guava, Red Bean, Taro, Pandan, and my absolutely favorite was Soursop