17th – 20th June 2016
Cambodia. Not a destination I planned to come to. Yet here I am. A kind gentleman has agreed to host me for a couple of nights and, wanting to do SE Asia overland, I need to pass through Cambodia anyway. As soon as I mention this to people I start hearing things about “Pol Pot” and “The Killing Fields”. It all sounds like some history lesson I wouldn’t be that interested in. Boy, am I proved wrong!
My introduction to Cambodia is off to a good start when my Couch Surfing host has immediately put his spare key at reception and trusts me enough to come and go. Either way, I knock on his door and, being in, he proceeds to let me in and we offer introductions to one another.
It’s a nice flat. Compact but the bedrooms are of good size. It’s clean and has a nice view from the balcony. After a long bus journey from Ho Chi Minh I’m happy to conk out for the night.
For our first morning, we went to a quirky little café around the corner. It was a lovely place and I tried my first coffee tonic. A little pretentious but interesting and refreshing none the less.
Having read about a local cinema, called Empire, that shows this movie “The Killing Fields” that I’m told I need to see, I decide to hop on a motorbike and go check it out. It’s a very good movie and helps give a little bit of history to the location.
A brief history
Not so long ago, in the 70’s, Pol Pot came to power. One of the first Cambodian’s to study abroad, he returned and decided that the country should undergo a revolution. One where everyone is an equal peasant and start civilisation from scratch. A radical communist dictatorship. So from there began one of the largest genocide regimes in history. Killing people with glasses first, then those who spoke a foreign language (as sure signs of education), their families, and then just a lot of normal people after that, Pol Pot went on to oversee the death of 1 in 3 Cambodians. Think about that: 1 in 3 of their own citizens. Over half of his revolutionary army was 15 or below. The killing was brutal and barbaric to avoid having to use expensive bullets.
The movie didn’t get too dragged down on the details. This was saved for the “tourist attractions” later.
Inspired by the journalistic nature of the movie, I went to have lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) overlooking the riverside.
Feeling really posh with my nice food, whisky and gorgeous surroundings I’m delighted when I find out it’s happy hour and get a second drink for free. I’m even more delighted when the bill comes and it’s cost me less than one old fashioned back in Scotland! Thankfully, I also found myself in nice company when another traveller came and sat just a few seats away.
The evening is spent with Rizky, my host and we head down to a local place to get some “Gin & Tonic Goblets”. Heaven! Again, it’s happy hour, so it’s two goblets for us! We proceed to meet some of Rizky’s friends at another joint, who are all very lovely, before going for one last one at a place called Zeppelins.
Feeling a little tipsy and conscious that I’ve booked a tour for 7.30 tomorrow morning it’s a good feeling when my head hits the pillow.
The morning quickly becomes very sobering. First stop is Toul Sleng Prision. This looks like a school. That’s because it was. Until Pol Pot came along and decided it would make a brilliant prison and torture house instead. With all this revolution going on, he decided that education should stop. So education stopped and the torture began.
At its height, over 100 people were sent to be killed from this prison every day. Of the thousands that went through it, only a handful survived. There’s only two who are alive and known to this day. I met both of them
I’ve never cried at a museum before. I’m not afraid to admit that I can’t say that anymore.
The next stop was equally sobering. The actual Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The actual location now isn’t as gruesome as one might imagine. The audio tour points out what happened but you need to employ your imagination as most of the buildings have been torn down. Until you get to the memorial stupa. With thousands of skulls recovered from the site it suddenly hits home.
Another cheap but incredibly fancy meal at the FCC ensures I’m not carrying too much of the weight of this morning on my shoulders. Luckily enough, Rizky and his friends have invited me along for a boat ride they’ve organised.
AWESOME! For only a few bucks each we get to enjoy the luxury of a private boat for two hours. Equipped with an ice box and excellent company it’s an absolute result.
From here we grab some nice Italian food and then we go out drinking. It’s an incredibly cool collection of bars, apparently all owned by the same person. Each little bar has its own theme and we freely take drinks from one bar to another before coming back later to the first one to pay for the round. It seems like a nice life could be lived here!
The next morning is an early one. The bus leaves at 6. I plan to be out by 5. Time to sleep.
> “James?….. James?!
It’s 5.30. I’ve slept through my alarm and I’m going to miss my bus. Or will I?
I thank Rizky for the wakeup call and his awesome friendly hospitality. I run downstairs and then on to the street looking for any which way to get to the other side of town. There’s a guy with a motorbike who I flag down. The journey should be about $2. I hand him $5, tell him the location and say “vroom vroom”.
> Note to self: never ask a motorbike-taxi to go fast. Why? Because he will go fast.
The nerves set in when he hands me a motorbike helmet. This is seemingly unheard of in SE Asia. He beeps and zooms across intersections. Miraculously, we’re still alive and we reach the bus stop with just minutes to spare. In my head, I’m apologising to everyone that cares for me that I took such a silly risk so thank god we made it safely!
The bus journey’s fairly pleasant though crossing the border is a bit of a pain. Time for one of my new favourite things to pass the time: shaved ice cream.
Goodbye Cambodia! Hello Thailand!