Chaos and History
03.12.2009 - 05.12.2009 33 °C
After checking out of our guesthouse in Siem Reap, we got on board our coach which would take us to Cambodia's capital city.
5 hours later we arrived into a very busy city. The traffic was so bad and even the motorbikes drove on the pavement - weaving in and out of the pedestrians.
After eating some lunch at the first place we saw when we got off the bus, we decided it was time we found somewhere to sleep. After walking for about half an hour we found a small guesthouse which was decent enough and checked in.
We headed out and decided to explore our new surroundings. If it was possible, this City was busier than Bangkok! By nightfall we were hungry, but knowing that this was one of the places where dog and rat where heavily featured on the menus, we found ourselves a burger joint and tucked in.
The next day we managed to find a motorised cyclo (a tuk-tuk pulled by a motorcyle) driver who would take us to see the various places around the city that we had planned to see.
After making a quick stop at the Vietnamese Embassy to lodge our visa applications, we headed straight to the Tuol Sleng Museum.
Until now we had been experiencing the colourful histories of our various destinations. We hadn’t really encountered anything which really affected us or anything that made us react very strongly - well not until today.
We didn’t know much about the history of Cambodia (apart from the recommendations from several backpackers we had met on our trip to go and see the ‘killing fields’). As it happens we drove up to this old school building with no more than a very brief history in our guide book about the Khmer Rouge and entered not knowing what to expect.
What we were faced with was what looked like any normal school building.
At the entrance we read up on the Pol Pot Regime and how this was once used as a sort of detention torture centre. So many people (women and children as well as men) were imprisoned here and we were emotionally drained by the time we left some hours later. As well as the history we were faced with thousands of photographs of each captive who was kept here. The worst was seeing mugshots of tiny children and the very old - making this a more personal exerience.
We were shocked to the core as we wondered around the various ’prison cells’, some only as small as an understairs closet back home and some with very graphic images of the captives who occupied the rooms along with their personal belongings.
We left not knowing what to say to each other let alone knowing how to react but we did leave with a sense of respect for the Cambodian people. We couldn’t believe that something so horrendous had happened only 30 years ago and more so that people were now going on with their normal lives soon after.
Next stop was the actual Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This was where most of the captives from Tuol Sleng were taken to be killed and thereafter buried in mass graves. On entering we were faced with a huge white stupa which was packed with 9000 human skulls. These were found when the graves were excavated along with other bones and items of clothing which were on display.
Again this place was a huge shock to the system. Everything was so ‘in your face’. As we walked around we saw various bones and clothes sticking out of the ground - reminders that this was for real. We were also shown various torture places where for example young babies were killed to ensure there was no revenge by later generations.
As disturbing as the visits had been it was a huge eye-opener to a history that we had no idea existed.
As well as the Museum and Killing Fields we also managed to visit Sukawath Quay - the riverside area of the city’s central river - the Tonle Sap.
We had heard rumours of a Cambodian dish called ‘Happy Pizza’ and so decided to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
We picked a café along the quay and ordered a ‘happy pizza’ - which if you haven’t guessed is ‘pizza a la ganja’ with a side of whole pepper crab - mmm yummy.
We also went to see the Royal Palace - one very similar in design (but smaller in size) to that in Bangkok.
We had dinner at a local bar/restaurant on one of our nights in the city which was packed with non-English speaking Cambodian men. After managing to order some food and a dirt-cheap pitcher of beer (with great difficulty and lots of pointing) we were accompanied by a waitress who stood by our table the whole time while we ate. Her job was to keep an eye on our glasses and ensure that we never went beyond half a glass of ice cold beer! As nice as this was (having it done for you) it also meant that we got that little bit merrier that little bit quicker!
After spending a few days walking most of the city and deciding that we could no longer take the masses of people and traffic (well the weaving in and out of the motorbikes on the pavements) we booked our bus - which would take us across the border… and ultimately our first stop in Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh City.