An intro to Cambodia

14 Oct

We took an early morning bus on October 10th to go from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The bus takes six hours and because we are crossed the border to another country we needed to go through a number of customs stops. The bus first stopped on the Vietnam side of the border for us to get stamped out of the country, in a little depot that smelled of aged piss. After a guard checked our exit stamp, we got back on the bus and moved over to Cambodia, where we hopped off again to get our Visas for Cambodia and a stamp into the country. The process is a little stressful because someone from the bus takes your passport and you don’t see it again until after you’re called over by the guy who approves the Visa. Luckily, it was smooth sailing for us. 

I was a little bit inexplicably anxious when we arrived in Cambodia. The first thing I noticed was a massive international school surrounded by security. I noticed that there are plenty of international schools in the area during my time in this city but this was certainly the largest. After we passed the massive school we entered an area of immense poverty, with children bathing in dirty water outside shacks and multiple people stuffed into disheveled buildings. The scene was a complete juxtaposition from the city just a few kilometers away. The city of Phnom Penh is definitely built up in a similar way to Ho Chi Minh. The backpacker area that we stayed in has multiple American eateries around including Dominos, fast food locations, Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. Once you go a bit outside of the area it definitely has less of a Western feel, but the city itself uses American dollars. This is a pattern throughout Cambodia and it’s definitely strange. Signs have prices in USD before Riel. Further, ATMs spit out USD (some have a choice for Riel) and after a day in the city your wallet will be a mix of both currencies. Since they don’t use US coins, if something comes out to 1.50 and you give them two dollars, for instance, you will get back 2,000 riel (1 USD equals about 4,000 Riel). While accommodation in Cambodia seems to be a bit cheaper than that in Vietnam, food and drink is definitely a bit pricier. Yes, yes, it is all still cheap by American standards, but when you’re used to that Vietnam grind it can be hard to cough up extra money in Cambodia without feeling bitter. 

Other things of note in Cambodia:

  • Tuk tuks are the main form of transportation. They’re basically motorbikes with trailers on the back that seat up to 6 people and they’ll set you back about a dollar a person for a basic ride. They’re super fun to ride in and you feel very safe.
  • People haggle you less than in Vietnam. In the markets, on the street, motorbike taxi and tuk tuk drivers all have a little more chill than people in Vietnam. While they still of course ask you if you want a ride, it’s usually a one-and-done, allowing you to get on with your life without wanting to slap someone.
  • Traffic rules are generally obeyed. Unlike Vietnam it’s not impossible to cross the street, people try a little harder not to kill you and red means stop. 

So, we booked two nights in the Mad Monkey hostel, which has locations throughout Cambodia and a similar vibe to the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel chain. However, the people in the Mad Monkey hostel in Phnom Penh, unlike those I met in the backpacker hostels, are the kind of people that didn’t get a smack in the head when they were being shitty children. Perhaps by pure luck, I did not have a remarkably terrible hostel experience in Vietnam. People tried to be quiet at night or in the morning, were generally respectful, and enjoyably social. Here, however, people did not lock the doors, were obnoxiously loud no matter the time of day or if others around them were sleeping, and either didn’t give a fuck or were simply self-unaware about what they were doing. People were partying in the room while others were sleeping, taking phone calls on speaker phone early in the morning, yelling and I even caught some dude walking around the room ass naked during the middle of the night. Lovely. While the sleeping situations were less than ideal, the hostel itself is actually quite nice, with two separate buildings, one with a nice in-ground pool and the other with the restaurant and rooftop bar. The restaurant serves up some excellent food which we thoroughly enjoyed during our short time here. 

On our only full day in Phnom Penh, we visited the killing field of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21), the two most important places to visit when in Phnom Penh. The day is not an easy one and really opens your eyes to the terrible suffering that the Cambodian people have been through. It was certainly the most sobering and heart-wrenching experience I have had in Asia and I think that will be the case all the way to the end of my trip. Both places provided audio tours told by a survivor of the genocide and included not only the history but powerful stories of people’s experiences. Thanks to the solo audio tour, you’re able to experience both the killing fields and the prison individually, alone with your own thoughts, emotions, and attempts to imagine what life was like during this terribly volatile time in Cambodia. I cannot accurately describe my reactions to what I learned and heard during these tours as it was definitely an experience that you must feel for yourself, but I will hit on some of the things I learned that disturbed or stuck out to me the most.

Choeung Ek, our first stop, is one of over 300 mass grave sites in Cambodia. More than a million people were killed and buried at these sites by the Communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, after they had gained control at the end of the Cambodian Civil War. Anyone seen as a threat to Pol Pot’s wish to return to the old world, run collectively by self-sufficient peasants, was arrested and eventually killed. Victims included many intellectuals such as those who worked for the government, monks, doctors and professors. It has been concluded that the grave sites in total contain remains from more than 1,386,734 victims. Some things that stuck out to me at the killing fields:

  • To this day, people still find fragments of bone and teeth at Choeung Ek, especially during rainy season. Strips of cloth used for blindfolds and binding hands still appear as well.
  • One of Pol Pot’s sayings: “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake”.
  • There are still victims under water in the lake that they’ve chosen not to disturb.
  • The guards that Pol Pot hand selected to be part of the Khmer Rouge soldiers and kill the innocent people were mostly young boys, manipulated by the regime with no choice. Many times they too were killed and the field has a mass grave of bodies without heads, all of which were soldiers described as traitors and, in turn, killed.
  • Soldiers killed babies by smashing their skulls against the killing tree in the dead of night to the sound of revolutionary music before throwing them into mass graves. It was seen as a quick and easy method. When the tree was discovered, it contained hair, brain and blood stains within the bark.
  • If a member of a family was killed, they would kill the remaining members so that no one would seek revenge. The Khmer Rouge saying goes as follows, “To dig up the grass one must remove even the roots.”
  • The field contains the largest killing field memorial monument. It has 17 levels filled with skulls, including labels as to how the individual was killed based on skull injury

Our second stop was s21, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site was previously a high school before the Khmer Rouge rose to power and turned it into a jail. Classrooms were converted into multiple jail cells and torture chambers, stripping a place of former happiness, inquisitiveness, and knowledge into a repressive hell on earth. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 prisoners were held in the jail cells, tortured and killed. When the prison was first established, most inmates were soldiers, doctors, students, monks, and academics from the previous regime. They, along with their families, were murdered. While the reason of arrest was “espionage” it was clear that these people were seen as threats to Pol Pot as intellectual and potentially powerful members of society. For the first year that the prison was opened, killed prisoners were buried near the prison. However, when they ran out of space prisoners and their families were taken to Choeung Ek and killed. Some of many things that stood out at s21:

  • April 17, 1975: “Liberation” day. The civilians of Phnom Penh were told that their lives would be greatly improved and help was on the way. Within three hours the troops came in and cleared out the city, destroying religion and theaters, banning art and education.
  • One in four Cambodian civilians died under the Khmer Rouge regime, unable to produce the necessary amount of crop required of them by the government. 
  • Previous exercise equipment on the school grounds was converted into torture instruments. One of which, the gallows, hung prisoners upside down until the were unconscious before dunking them in pots filled with human excrement. 
  • Most of the cadres (the prison workers) were barely teenagers, they could not read or write and were manipulated by Pol Pot. He hand picked his interrogators and taught them his best methods. 
  • If the box that was used to hold excrement in the cell overflowed, prisoners were forced to lick it up until the floor was clear. If chains rattled at night from movement, the prisoner was beaten.



As I said, the day was a tough one, but it was a necessary one. One of the most important things to do when traveling and entering another culture is to try to truly understand them and understand what they have been through as a people and what shapes them. It was truly the best way I could have possibly started Cambodia. 

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