Blog // Tales from the trail
Considering it connects Siem Reap with Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, once you get past Kampung Thom the road really is worn to shit. Hopefully its current rutted-dirt status is down to an ongoing upgrade and it will be smooth sailing for travellers who may follow, but for now it is in pretty dire-straights, even compared to boats! Still, we gleaned some useful insights which may assist with future exploits in Cambodia; firstly, one is able to hop on or off the bus along the route (paying part of the fare) and not just limited to the two destinations written on the ticket. And secondly, this is possible with a moped, which is conveniently stashed below whilst you sit in relative comfort above and along the long, dusty and unforgiving roads.
Arriving at the bus station we were greeted by the usual ruckus of tuk-tuk drivers, all keen to chaperone you into their machine, brief eye contact through the window as the bus is pulling in apparently being sufficient to secure the fare and find your bag being carried off towards respective tuk-tuk.
Our first impressions were something of a chaotic, cultural pastiche of a city; from crossing the main bridge across the Tonle Sap, being proudly renovated by the Chinese and passing the French embassy, where we'd read several hundred people took refuge on the Khmer Rouge's infamous taking of the city in 1975. The crazy, mismatched city that we were viewing for the first time today undoubtedly a result of the enforced mass evacuation following the siege and relatively quick repopulation by the then 'ruralised' Cambodians after the fall of the regime a few long, hard years later.
Of slightly less cultural significance however, were our digs for the night (kindly recommended by Ian, our Bangkok host), the Mad Monkey Hostel. The sheltered enclave where traveling 20-somethings (or under!) could order friendly home cooked meals, sleep cheaply in comfy dorms and most importantly, get 'lashed' every night at their themed evenings. They would even book bus transfers to other Mad Monkey's across the country, it is something of an institution it seemed. But, please do not treat the above as criticism, these are just observations. They know their market and they do it well, the local staff are friendly and well looked after relative to salaries and holiday entitlements of your 'average' Cambodian; the place itself is also well-kept and clean, and most importantly they support a number of local education and water projects and we would stay there again.
A little groggy following the previous evening's keg party, and for me the frustratingly ugly stomach bug I just didn't seem to be able to shake off had reared itself once again, we endevoured to see what town had to offer.
Even in my disheveled state, I still had the energy to somehow convince Corallie that the old railway station (we'd sped past on the way in) was an interesting first stop on our city tour. Despite its freshly painted facade, I'm not sure if the building has seen consistent or significant use since its construction by the French in 1932; the Cambodian government constantly needing cash injections and occasionally donated rolling stock to keep their rail system running. The building did see significant political events however, with a secret congress that resulted in the formation of the Workers Party of Kampuchea in 1960 and the first important meeting of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge leadership in April 1975, at which the infamous decision to evacuate the cities was revealed. Rumour has it though that there are plans for trains to run again soon, with the injection of foreign aid as part of the trans-Asian rail network, with trains running across the borders to Thailand and Vietnam, and beyond. Hopefully enough money will remain for the project after the government has absorbed its share.
As we continued our promenade, the town in general, we weren't overly bowled over by. The central market whilst curiously shaped, lacked anything of particular interest to us and even the museum failed to ruse any kind of spark. I think there's a limit to how many period significant Buddha effigies one can view before reaching saturation.
We also visited Wat Phnom, which translates to pagoda mountain. Legend has it 4 Buddha statues were deposited here by the Mekong River and found by Lady Penh, simultaneously marking the site of the city and providing it with the name, Phnom Penh. The 27m high knoll that Wat Phnom sits on, now forms the centre of a rather large roundabout and is home to numerous other Buddha statues, stuffed full with donations.
Perhaps I'm being a little negative, and maybe a result of my inability to hold down a full meal sapping my energy, but we were also pretty frustrated with how difficult it was to wander around the place on foot. This wasn't down to a lack of pavements, rather the lack of maintenance of them as pedestrian features; blocked by plants, cars, piles of rubbish, construction hoardings and those that weren't frequently in bad condition with the occasional gaping hole, or sometimes immaculate looking ones fenced off for no particular reason generally making passage extremely slow. This resulted in regular excursions onto the road, not only with the risk of aggressive trucks, self-entitled cars and whizzing mopeds (from both directions) but also that of a bag snatching endemic that most locals we talked to had warned us about. Fortunately we didn't experience this first hand, but frequent tales of the professionalism of these gangs inevitable led to a heightened sense of nervousness each and every time a moped got within snatching distance of us.
It appears the preferred way to get around was the tuk-tuk, with at least one available on every corning in the city, always keen to start a dialogue about your current goings (whether, now, later or tomorrow) in an attempt to secure some business, with the side effect of further slowing your promenading progress. We may have been more inclined if not for the seemingly fixed fare of $3 for two passengers, whether this be around the corner or to the other side of town, making shorter journeys bad value if one wasn't in a particular rush.
And in a rush we weren't, despite the manic-ness of the city we felt a push in the direction of a slower pace, idling time away in cafes reading the local papers between the handful of sights the city had to offer. Our favourite was the Phnom Penh Post, which somehow had a way of presenting blatant examples of Cambodian corruption as black and white facts; just a glance at front page was sometimes enough to get the gist, "Government announcement: traffic cops entitled to keep 70% of fines levied," or the rather more shocking, "Governor/Factory boss magnanimously turns himself in to complete remainder of 18 month sentence handed down for shooting 3 of his staff who complained about pay and conditions."
On a more positive note, The Post also had a very informative pull out guide to the best cheap eats, which was an aspect the city seemed to thrive upon and one that we based our days around. Not only were Cambodian and French options popular, but numerous other cuisines were well represented around town. A popular area we found was the main boulevard near independence monument; the outer edges were reserved for the swankier establishments, denoted by triple parked Lexus's and Range Rovers (some curiously without registration plates, perhaps above needing one?). The inner edges were lined with numerous street food vendors, serving the locals in the centre of the boulevard itself, which in the absence of parks and plazas turned into a popular recreational area in the evenings.
At the opposite end of the the long, L-shaped boulevard was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, which took us a number of attempts to visit. First being wrong footed by the quirky opening times (shuts between 11am and 2pm), then by the dress code - shawls apparently not acceptable to cover shoulders, but we'll sell you an oversized t-shirt if you want to go in? Finally we made it in on our third attempt and to be honest we weren't really sure if it was worth the fuss.
The Palace itself appeared more than a little inspired by the Thai Royal residence and the tour was more of a walk around the gardens of said palace. Not to worry though, that wasn't why we were here, we had mostly come to see the Silver Pagoda, boasting an emerald Buddha and (what we were most looking forward to) a floor tiled entirely in silver.
Imagine our disappointment then, after climbing the steps and crossing the threshold to find a cheap, burgundy carpet covering all but a few obscure sections of the solid silver floor tiles; I almost scoffed at the "no photographs permitted" sign in front of me. There were a few impressive artifacts granted, but the general impression provided by the carpet, combined with the various small trinkets and offerings contained within numerous dusty old cupboards and cases more resembled that of an aging aunt's living room than a majestic pagoda. What was worse, was our previously perceived 'good-timing' of making it inside just before the heavens opened, now meant that we were stuck inside!
Finally escaping and with a high chance of a further downpour, we headed for the cinema we had seen earlier in the day; or to be more precise, a bar that had done a rather good job of construction a cosy, makeshift cinema extension - serving food and drinks to customers, lazing on large futon mattresses. In addition to a number of more recent productions, the most popular draw was The Killing Fields (1983) and also a chance for us to prepare for our trip to the Choeung Ek site the following day.
Earlier in our stay we had visited the infamous S-21 (Toul Sleng) prison, a converted school where the victims murdered at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields were first held and tortured into confessions. Similar to many other schools, the Khmer Rouge deemed (along with education) these as unnecessary and used them to hold those who were consider a threat to the regime; S-21 was reserved for the most 'dangerous'. Their initial purge of the country started with foreign traders, academics, teachers, lawyers, doctors and any other such vocation that would compromise their vision of a farming nation. In the madness that followed, the regime started to turn in on itself; anyone appearing or even rumoured to be not fully committed to the cause was held in such places. Held in appalling conditions, confessions were beaten and tortured out of the victims, frequently about involvement in spying for the CIA or KGB, before they, along with their families, were sent for execution. Paranoia was rife, all were suspects and numerous previous Khmer Rouge members were accused; it is estimated that somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people passed through the S-21 prison alone, with only a handful living to tell the tale - one of whom returns to the prison every day to talk about his ordeal with passing visitors.
It was an emotive building to see, with many areas showing the physical side of the atrocities committed there, but also regular screenings in one of the rooms added a much more chilling personal aspect to the prison.
Thus, with a level of appreciation and having heard some of the shared stories we made our way to the fields. Given the craziness of the traffic (and high likelihood of being stopped under the new traffic fines policy) we opted to take a tuk-tuk journey out. As we headed out via the Vietnamese embassy (visas - done!), our route from the south of town took us past some of the slums and poorer areas, and a side firmly off the usual tourist agenda. What shocked us most beyond the obvious poverty and strong stench of both material and human waste, were the luxury estates being built on the marshland behind. Furthermore in their current construction phase of land reclamation and heavy plant activity, the resultant effect was to engulf the slums in a swirling cloud of fine, choking and abrasive construction dust. This morning, we felt, was going to be an emotional one.
After leaving the slums and continuing along the equally dusty and now truck-filled main road, we turned down a side road, dusted ourselves down and arrived at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Today, most of the makeshift buildings are gone and a memorial to the victims has been erected on the site. Being told they were being re-homed, those sent for execution were usually transported shackled and handcuffed by night, arriving to what must have been the bizarre and disorienting sound of pro-regime music. Once they arrived it was the role of those made to work at Choeug Ek to ensure the task was completed before the following morning, the music serving to mask the true purpose of the site.
Remains of the tragedy can still be seen in the once ominous mounds which made up the mass-graves. Whilst the skulls and major bones have since been recovered and categorised, now forming part of the memorial, the rain still causes shreds of clothing and fragments of smaller bones to be brought to the surface to this day. It was a harrowing place, with the atrocities grimly painted out through an emotive audio guide, narrated by the survivors of the time.
For us, it was as difficult to understand the aftermath as much as the events themselves, with a number of key Khmer Rouge leadership defecting to and very much still active today in the current government, accompanied by the little success in the limited tribunals and attempted prosecutions for the heinous crimes committed by the regime. Whilst the surviours persevere on and share their stories now they are free to speak to educate future generations and in an effort to avoid any such event being able to happen again.
Personally I felt a strange mixture of conflicting emotions, perhaps a disbelief that they were able to go on for so long on such a scale, both unchallenged and unchecked and also how little the rest of the world knew during this period - even to the point that Vietnam's regime-ending invasion was perceived as a worse act at by the International Community at the time, the Khmer Rouge retaining forces and power for decades afterwards. Above all though was a sadness of what the ordinary people of Cambodia have had to endure in their recent history, and now walking around knowing that anyone over 40 had lived through the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge.
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