This is the final segment of our trip to Cambodia in January including our last day in Siem Reap and the (very) bumpy ride to the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh.
After our night out at Classic Hip Hop, the poorly named non-hip hop club in Siem Reap, we woke up the next morning feeling like *ahem* a million bucks… We intended to head to the landmine museum but realised we didn’t really have the time to take the forty-five minute tuk tuk ride out there and back before our bus for Phnom Penh left so we took the suggestion of our driver and headed out to the War Museum.
Upon first inspection, it looked pretty much how we felt: shambly. But then a man who worked there introduced himself and asked us if we’d like him to provide us with a guide. We obliged. And he immediately revealed that he was actually the only one who worked there and was therefore the only guide.
He told us his story to begin: He went from grounds cleaner to guide at the museum by learning English on his own and through what he picked up while listening to foreigners tour the site. We were immediately captivated, at which point he continued on to tell us his story as a soldier with the Khmer Rouge (KR).
For those of you who are not familiar with the atrocities committed by the KR in Cambodia during the 1970s, this Communist party, run by a man named Pol Pot, officially ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The KR is remembered primarily for its policy of social engineering, which resulted in indiscriminate genocide of men, women, and children.
The KR government arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”: anyone believed to have connections to the former government, professionals and intellectuals (or simply anyone who wore glasses, a sign of intelligence), ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai, Cambodian Christians (most of whom were Catholic), Muslims and the Buddhist monks.
The estimated death toll is commonly held to be between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease. Consequently, the Cambodian population is notably young due an estimated three quarters of males having been killed during the genocide carried out by the KR.
Our tour guide explained that he had been taken from his home at fourteen years old to fight for Pol Pot’s army, which was made up mostly of child soldiers. He fought with the KR until 1979 when he found out that his entire family had been killed by the regime while he was away. He then switched sides and joined the Vietnamese army that same year. This was not the end of the tragedy in his life as he lost his leg due to a landmine in 1986.
He toured us around the grounds, pointing out pictures, mines, weaponry and other machines of war. His own anecdotes made the experience all the more real, bringing me to tears on multiple occasions during our forty-five minute tour.
He revealed at the end that he has a sponsor of sorts in Australia who is helping him transcribe his accounts of the war and he hopes to publish it in English by 2015. It is a story I would regretfully read and pass on to anyone interested in social history or the history of genocide.
We took the sombre ride back to the centre of the city to grab lunch and then headed back to the guesthouse to grab our bags and bid farewell to our “Cambodian family” of the past three days.
The five-hour ride to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, started out quite pleasantly in a fifteen-seater van but as we approached the city, the last hundred and fifty kilometres of the journey was an absolute goat track.
I rarely get carsick anymore but I was about ready to toss my cookies by the time we came to the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was a sobering reminder of the poverty that we were coming upon and the government’s gross mismanagement of funds that the roads leading into the capital city were paid no attention.
We got dropped off next to yet another night market and took a tuk tuk to our hotel and checked in before heading out in search of dinner. We came across what looked like a large outdoor cluster of sports bars and decided to check it out.
The scantily clad Cambodian women should have tipped us off but we soon realised, thanks to the revolting conversation being had by our yell-talking, slobbering, loser expat neighbours, that we were in a “girly bar” where men treat women like property. The rest of us just tried to make up for our fellow white-skinned scumbags’ behaviour by being extra-nice to the servers.
We got out of there just as quickly as our self-respecting feet could carry us and called it an early night. We certainly weren’t in Kansas (AKA Siem Reap) anymore.
We got up on Saturday morning and headed out in search of food before our big day of sombre KR sightseeing. We were fortunate enough to get badgered into hiring the most amazing tuk tuk driver we could have asked for. “Don,” as he introduced himself to us, was a little Cambodian angel from heaven.
We asked him to take us to a good spot for breakfast. And boy, he didn’t disappoint. Khmer Saravan’s walls were adorned with posters from all the people who have eaten there. It was so interesting to see all the countries people have come from to eat at this particular restauant. It’s not in the guidebooks but it’s safe to say that if Kathleen Klein ever had to opportunity to write a guidebook, this place would be a top pick!
After gorging ourselves on delicious fresh fruit and eggs, we steeled ourselves and headed to S-21, better known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Security Prison 21 (S-21) was a high school which was hastily transformed into a prison by the KR regime from 1975 to 1979. This prison was only one of at least one hundred and fifty execution centres in the country and an estimated twenty thousand prisoners there were killed.
What I found immediately striking was how eerily the structures still resembled a school. It was scary to think that a school could be so easily converted into a killing chamber. The first classroom that we walked into was one of the “VIP” cells which housed a spring bed, a can for bodily functions, as well as a number of chains and ties used to restrain prisoners.
As if the scene couldn’t get any more gut-wrenching, our guide pointed to the blood-stained floor. It was impossible to ignore the many following rooms with similar reminders of the hell through which these prisoners were put.
I should mention that our lovely female guide was also a survivor of the Pol Pot regime who was a young child during the KR regime but who also lost most of her family during this time.
There were famously only seven survivors of Security Prison 21, two of whom are still alive and were actually at the museum that day. They have each written their memoires and were selling them for a small profit. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for these two men to return to their personal hell the very first time.
Once our guide left us, we toured a few more of the rooms with photos and stories of families that had been torn apart by the KR purges. It was time to leave. We were moving on to arguably the most famous site of the KR genocide, aptly named the Killing Fields.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located just outside of the city of Phnom Penh. This is the site where the KR executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing close to nine thousand bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the KR regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the KR in their Tuol Sleng detention centre before being blindfolded, tricked into thinking they were being moved, and then sent to work in the fields until they died of exposure, starvation or were killed.
Of all the sites we visited in commemoration, I found the Killing Fields the least emotional for me. Perhaps it was the throngs of people or, more likely, it was because there wasn’t very much to see (the buildings had all been torn down) nor did we have a live guide, just a headset.
This is not to say that it was not a worthwhile trip. The site was a former orchard before it became a killing ground and there were remnants of that beauty surrounding the fenced-in site.
There are still fields as far as the eye can see and it was a contrast to see the daily life of farmers continuing without a concern for the thousands of tourists that flock daily to the memorial on the other side of their fence.
Our last touristy stop of the day was at Wat Phnom. Set on top of a twenty-seven-metre-high mount, Wat Phnom is on the only ‘hill’ in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River.
As you can probably tell by my lack of enthusiasm about this particular wat, I was getting hungry and I was pretty emotionally spent by this time of day.
We then returned to the riverside to indulge in a late lupper back at Khmer Saravan. We wandered aimlessly for a little while and did some Happy Hour bar hopping to see the establishments.
Phnom Penh should certainly not be remembered for its robust nightlife. Bars, pubs and nightclubs are crappy and actually incredibly depressing. There were far too many “sexpats” with beautiful young Cambodian women to make two Canadian women feel at all comfortable.
So after making a valiant effort to try out numerous places in the hopes that we’d find a less-seedy place, we bought a bottle of “Teachers’ Whiskey” due to some pretty flawed logic (“Hey, we’re teachers, this is called “Teacher’s,” therefore we should buy it!) and headed back to the room to take a load off.
After some research, I came up with a potential option for one more stab at Phnom Penh nightlife. Well, we lucked out big time! We headed to a nightclub called Pontoon for a night of REAL hip hop music!!! We danced the night away and finally got our fix of some familiar music.
We arranged for Don to pick us up at the hotel on Sunday morning and take a wild guess where we asked him to deliver us… You got it! Khmer Saravan.
Wat Ounalom was first on our list of places to see on Sunday. Perhaps the most prominent and oldest of five pagodas in the country, this wat is the centre of Cambodian Buddhism and serves as the abode of the Patriarch of the Mahanikai School of Buddhism.
The ‘Eyebrow Temple’ was built in 1443 to enshrine an eyebrow hair (ounalom) of Buddha, and the shrine was once home to more than five hundred monks as well as the Buddhist Institute’s library that held in its collection over thirty-thousand titles.
From 1975 to 1979, due to the dictatorship’s fear of religion and intellectuals, the Khmer Rouge caused serious sabotage to the wat’s valuable cultural artefacts and book collection. The KR also persecuted the majority of monks who lived there during this period.
Nevertheless, Buddha’s eyebrow miraculously survived and is still the focal point of the wat. Wat Ounalom has changed quite a bit since the original shrine that was constructed in the fifteenth century. It now consists of a cluster of forty-four buildings. Re-erected in 1952 on Sihanouk Boulevard, the main temple is a modern recreation and it is spread over three levels.
Behind the main temple is Chetdai – the five hundred-year-old stupa, where Buddha’s eyebrow hair is preserved. This Angkorian era stupa (an ancient form of mandala) is also striking for its four bronze images of the Sitting Buddha, each of which faces a cardinal direction.
Additionally, the walls that bound this ancient stupa are graced with several figures of Hindu gods – the most significant being the image of Lord Vishnu, Garuda the mythical bird, and Lord Yama on his buffalo.
Another highlight of Wat Ounalom is the image of Samdech Huot Tat – the fourth Buddhist patriarch who was executed during the Pol Pot era – which located in the northeast corner.
A great deal of the information provided above was imparted to us by a very knowledgeable and friendly American-Cambodian Buddhist named Rothana. He was kneeling before one of the head monks upon our arrival receiving blessings. When he rose, he offered his vast knowledge of the Buddhist religion and he made sure that we asked him and all questions that we had about Cambodia and Buddhism.
Check out Bagheera’s rendition of our educational encounter with Rothana.
After our spiritual education, we knelt before the monks to receive blessings and “reminder” bracelets with a new appreciation for the chants echoing off the walls of the pagoda. The bracelets are worn until they naturally fall off and they serve to remind us that we are part of a greater whole. Every time we look at them we are reminded that we are on a universal journey to seek Truth.
We unwound a bit on the roof of Wat Ounalom and internalised all the information given to us by Rothana. I spent a lot of time enjoying the view of the city and rehashing my personal journey over the past two months since leaving Canada. I’m a different woman with a lot less worries, burdens, expectations and a more open heart. I couldn’t help but smile to myself and be proud of all I’ve accomplished in such a short period of time.
We left the wat and Don took us to what is commonly known as the Russian Market. This is way better than any market I have previously been to in Asia, which is saying a lot. I bought some essentials oils, incense and a votive for burning both. These were perfect purchases to follow up our trip to Wat Ounalom that morning.
Our final stop of the day was the Royal Palace, and the attached Silver Pagoda. The sun was blazing orange over the ornate spires of the palace and dancing off the (surprisingly) green lawn in the square facing the beautiful home of the royal family.
I had not counted on visiting neither the royal site nor any religious sites that day and therefore had not worn appropriate clothing – long pants or skirt and covered shoulders. I am usually a very conscious traveller and would never want to appear to be an insensitive Westerner but I didn’t plan ahead that morning so I was unprepared.
But, as I’ve realised time and time again through my years of travelling, every decision has its reason so while Bagheera and K-To checked out the beautiful palace and its pagoda, I sat outside on the curb for some alone time while I began the process of digesting all the painful and equally beautiful sights on this trip.
I pulled out my camera while I sat in silence and took photos of the extremely spoiled monkeys who benefit from the stupidity of travellers who feed these wild creatures and then freak out when the monkeys get bold and try to jump on their heads. Idiots. Honestly.
I was happy with my 200mm lens as I enjoyed the monkeys from a safe and responsible distance. Once I snapped all the photos I wanted, I put my camera and lenses safely back in my bag and sat and partook in my favourite pastime: people-watching.
I was approached by a smiley young Cambodian man who was looking for someone to chat with. Tono was very curious about my decision to move from Canada to Vietnam to teach English. He loved practicing his English with me and was extremely pleased although, as is always the case, very surprised to hear that I play “football” and support Man U. He told me all about the hotel he works for (he’s a driver who was waiting for his group to finish in the palace) and how much he enjoys his job.
Tono was another great source of information. He shared a lot about the recent death of the current (elected) king’s beloved father and the effect that has had on the country.
King Norodom Sihanouk, who was also monarch for more than sixty years until his abdication in 2004, died in October in Beijing at the age of eighty-nine. Sihanouk was born in 1922. He was revered by many in Cambodia and is fondly remembered for leading the country to independence from the French in 1953.
He was crowned king in 1941 but by 1955 he abdicated the throne to become prime minister. As war began to rage across Indochina, he tried to keep Cambodia neutral. He was eventually deposed by the US-backed Lon Nol regime in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War.
One part of the story Tono left out was that while in exile, the king aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge and was installed as their figurehead during their genocidal regime. Sihanouk remained Cambodia’s monarch after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and abdicated for the second and final time in 2004, due to ill health.
We were incredibly fortunate to be visiting Phnom Penh at such an interesting time in Cambodia’s history. The four-day funeral procession will take place on February 1 but according to Tono, the preparations began in October and were reaching their peak while we were there.
We took photos when Bagheera and K-To were finished in the palace and then Tono gave me a really nice, warm hug as we were leaving and we exchanged information. It was no coincidence that I chose to sit that portion of the sightseeing tour out that afternoon.
K-To, Bagheera and I closed out daylight with a two-hour riverboat sunset cruise. It was beautiful, serene and the perfect way to admire Phnom Penh from a distance.
We set Don free to go home to his three children when he dropped us at dinner. He was a truly humble and hard-working man. We found out only after using his services for two days that he lives twenty-five kilometres from the city centre and must drive in each day to make a living.
Friends the Restaurant has been named one of the top 100 non-governmental organisations in the world and we had the pleasure of eating there on our final night in Cambodia. It is a local organization working with Cambodian street children, their families and the community to employ former street children so that they may develop marketable skills and pull themselves out of poverty.
From its brightly painted centre behind Friends the Restaurant, Mith Samlanh (Khmer for “friends”) offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children each day.
The meal was delicious, the company was impeccable and the entire experience was simply heart-warming.
Don picked us up on Monday morning for our final day with him. He asked that we take our photo with him and help promote his services among fellow travellers. Since he doesn’t own a phone, he can be reached at the Khmer City Hotel at (855) 089-885-785 and I’d highly recommend using his services.
We decided to try a different location for breakfast, much to the dismay of my readers, I’m sure. We noshed on healthy breakfast fare Blue Pumpkin, a chic French-style place with white plush couches that looked like you could order breakfast-in-bed. It was a really clean, minimalistic establishment – just my kind of place!
After our leisurely breakfast, Don took us to the bus. We gave him hugs and said our goodbyes.
The bus ride back to HCMC was pretty uneventful. However, for my movie suggestions of the trip, I give Hard Target starring Jean-Claude Van Damme a ringing endorsement. Bagheera and I were in stitches over a couple of the scenes.
One of these memorable moments was JCVD standing up on a speeding motorcycle, brandishing guns in both hands, careening towards an oncoming truck of bad guys, and resulting in a collision in which he somehow rolled over the top of the truck landing on his feet.
Another gem (Bagheera’s favourite) was hitting the snake over the head with his bare hand and then punching it in the face. A few other notables in this movie are JCVD’s terrible hair, the even worse special effects, and the best/worst part? Bagheera and I were just as enthralled as the rest of the Cambodian and Vietnamese passengers. I can now say I’ve seen a Jean Claude Van Damme movie start-to-almost-finish and I didn’t claw my eyes out.
We arrived safely back in HCMC after an almost-seven-hour ride back from Phnom Penh. K-To’s last night was spent watching a pirated version of National Geographic’s Angkor Wat documentary and mowing down on BRAT-diet-friendly foods to soothe our still-churning stomachs.
We spent the morning flipping through trip photos and reminiscing about The Realness International’s adventures from the past ten days. It seems like only yesterday that K-To landed in this brilliant country and yet the ten days we were all together seemed like a perfect eternity. We really did pack everything in!
For now, I leave you with this unforgettable moment from my new favourite movie-of-the-moment: