The travel company with whom we had booked our bus tickets were more than willing to sort out your visa and passport stamps for exiting Vietnam and entering Cambodia for a small fee of $7 each. Everyone on our mini bus seemed more than willing to pay this, but Chris and I as the expert border hoppers we have now become decided to do it ourselves. This meant basically we had to lug our weighty passports through the 'International border gate' (as opposed to the other sort?) up to the exit desk in Vietnam, while we waited for the stack of 10 to be processed for the rest of our group.
We all realighted the bus to take us the 100m or so through the no man's land before we handed in our visa forms as the kind Vietnamese lady scribbled the visa numbers down for the other ten with whom were crossing. Today visas cost an extra $2, because they could, so I suppose we only saved $5. We had our passports stamped into Cambodia and waited for the rest of our group, who wished they had done it themselves, feeling a little ripped off. At least I now know what I want to do when we get back, help tourists have their passports stamped! Bearing in mind a month's wage in the capital is $100, more than double that of someone from the countryside, they'd just made $70 for half an hour's 'work'.
Our bus driver had clearly received a backhander as after initially refusing, we were forced to take the $1 medical check to the point where he allowed the 'doctor' to steal the keys to the van. This medical check involved a guy waving a 'thermometer' within an inch or our foreheads, not touching. If that guy really is a doctor, I do hope we don't get sick in Cambodia.
With our generic health clearance leaflet in hand, we were free to continue our journey at great speed, coming within inches of hitting a moped stacked a good couple of feet above the guy's head and out to each side. He was oblivious as to how close we had come to hitting him as when tooting failed, our driver finally slammed on the breaks which clearly did not work. We were quite relieved to get on the proper bus to Phnom Penh.
This was a very dusty bus, with clouds of dust lingering permanently in the air. We were wishing we had a face mask, particularly as ventilation on these dusty roads was the open window next to us. As with our arrival in Vietnam, within minutes we were going past the scene of an accident, this time the front of a lorry had been smashed off, bringing down the front of a shop. Fortunately there were no dead bodies this time but not sure how recent it was.
We finally arrived in Phnom Penh just before 6 and took a tuk tuk to our guesthouse before heading out for one of the nicest dinners we have had on this trip. Chris had a calzone pizza which was OK, but I had the most delicious chicken wrapped in bacon, stuffed with spinach and cheese, topped with a pepper sauce. It had such a homely taste to it.
We had one day in Phnom Penh to explore the many sights. We started off at the Royal Palace, which although not as grand as Bangkok Place, in some ways it was more pleasant to visit due to the lack of hoards of tourists. It was surrounded by pretty gardens, and a good collection of colourful lotus flowers.
Next stop was the national museum, and on the way we passed a photography exhibition created by 9 different western photographers who have lived in South East Asia for many years and wanted to capture Asia through the eyes of an outsider on the inside, hoping to see things that a native would miss and take to be normal everyday shots, but able to look deeper than the tourist passing through.
Some of the exhibitions were a little strange; one appeared to like taking photos of emaciated and dead bodies, another had taken pictures of herself in some basic accommodation, which reminded me of student accommodation, in 2011 and 11 years previously.
Chris' favourite was the construction pictures, where someone had taken photos of tower blocks being constructed with scaffolding round them. My favourite was pictures of Cambodia showing normal everyday life with the best photo being of the back of a group of tower blocks grouped together to make a courtyard. The photo was black and white and showed three sides of the block, giving a snippet of everybody's lives, with their clutter in windows and clothes hanging up all over the place.
The national museum housed a lot of stone statues, most of which were crumbling in places and had come from our next place Angkor. In the middle was a very pleasant courtyard with lotus flower ponds and a Buddha shrine in the centre.
We took a tuk tuk to the former S-21 prison, which is now home to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Previously a school comprising 4 buildings, it was converted into a prison used for interrogation and torture when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975. Despite its leader Pol Pot being a highly educated individual, he banned education believing everyone should be farmers, harvesting for an equal communist state. Threatened by education, all schools were closed, most, as well as pagodas were converted into prisons, used to torture anyone who was believed to have been against the Khmer Rouge regime.
First to be imprisoned were those who were educated, teachers and anybody who spoke a foreign language. (I wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes!) After that, it was anybody who was seen as a potential threat who did not follow the rules or a traiter. Nobody was safe, and towards the end, Pol Pot's paranoia became so bad that even the Khmer soldiers who had preciously been carrying out the murders were not safe from genocide.
Those who were arrested, often for minor offences like stealing a banana when starving hungry, would be taken to their local prison, along with their whole family. The logic behind this was if a whole family was locked away, there was no one available to seek revenge. Once there, they would be tortured until either they died or confessed to some crime against the regime. On signing their confession, they were marked for execution and would eventually be sent to one of over 300 killing fields. The prison has been left the way it was found when it was liberated in January 1979, with the original beds used for torture and blood on the floors and walls. The prison had 4 sections and each classroom had been converted into some part of the prison. One block had been converted into dark, individual cells made out of either brick or wood. Along the outside landing which linked the classrooms was barbed wire fencing covering the whole front of the building with razor wire used on the gates. Some of the classrooms had been knocked through to create mass cells where prisoners would be chained to the floor, with barely enough space to lie down. A lot of the classrooms still had blackboards. Another block had been given over to a museum, with one room showing the mugshots of the poor people who found themselves where, with their prisoner number. There was another section with some pretty gruesome photos showing bodies they had found which had not survived the torture inflicted on their often emaciated bodies. This museum was eerie and quite disturbing to think of the history that had taken place at this school.
The final exhibiton talked of the lack of justice for the victims as those who helped Pol Pot are still awaiting trail and some how have defense lawyers prolonging these cases. The faces of these men, including one famous one of Duch, who helped Pol Pot disseminate his policies and beliefs for a communist Cambodia, look so evil and show no remorse. You stare at these recent photos of them as old men, disbelieving that they can pose in such a relaxed manner, knowing what they did.
After this, we headed to the Killing Fields, where prisoners who confessed would be transported for execution and burial. Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located about 5km from Phnom Penh and were originally a Chinese graveyard. Prisoners would be brought here in the night to be executed to the sound of Khmer music, which was played on loudspeakers to mask the screams and avoid rousing suspicion. Bullets were expensive, meaning prisoners were bludgeoned to death along sides of pits which were to become their graves. Towards the end of Pol Pot's dictatorship, more than 300 prisoners would be taken for execution everyday in comparison to the one truck load which used to arrive 2-3 times a week. Outsiders were unaware of what was taking place in the Killing Fields.
With your entrance ticket comes a really informative audio guide which walks you around the peaceful grounds of the Killing Fields, which overlook paddy fields to the back. It is hard to believe that somewhere as tranquil as this saw such evil. The audio included stories of survivors who had managed to survive prison, telling their accounts of the atrocities which took place. After walking pass various graves and around a secluded lake, your tour finished at the memorial stupa, which contains the remains of the people they found buried in the mass graves. There are thousands of skulls within this building, which have been categorised by gender and age groups. Around the Killing Fields are many signs reminding you to be quiet as a mark of respect, but in reality you walk around in stunned silence, struggling to believe what had taken place so recently in this beautiful location.
There are still bones, teeth and clothes in the graves, which over 30 years on are still coming to the surface and are collected by staff every couple of months and added to the collection already on display
The Killing Fields felt surreal, especially when you think than 2 million people were killed over the 3½ years the Khmer Rouge ran the country, which equates to 25% of their population. It's hard to believe that anybody over 35 is lucky to have survived the regime.
In the evening, we visited the Foreign Correspondence Club (which by unfortunate coincidence turned out to be happy hour,) and enjoyed a couple of cocktails while watching the sun go down over the river. During the war, reporters used to go here to meet up and after a drink or two, used to fire guns off of the balcony.
The following day we took a bus to Siem Reap ready for our temple adventure.