Another border crossing (1 ½ hours) and it’s into the last country on our Indochina leg. I remember Cambodia being quite feisty, but as soon as we get off our bus, onto a tuk-tuk and check into our guest house it seems apparent that this place is remarkably more friendly than Vietnam. I’d say the same of the other countries we’ve visited on our trip and it’s a shame that we now look back at Vietnam as a place where it’s all about extracting the tourist dollar and genuine friendliness not common. We heard tales from travellers coming down from Hanoi that it’s impossible to exist there with constant scams and rip offs. We also met travellers who had just had enough with Vietnam and were making a rush for the border. We had no problems, but it was certainly not as comfortable as Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. I hope things change – the tourism will suffer soon as word spreads.
Phnom Penh is as cosmopolitan as an Asian capital can get but a vast number still live in immense poverty. Elegant hotels and French bistros are packed yet the outside seating is picketed by heart-breaking street kids that would be easier to ignore if they were not so damn nice about their begging. So being backpackers *cough* we head to said French bistro and nibble our free nuts with our imported beer. The tuk-tuk driver who brought us from the bus station has been hired for the next two days for tourist type stuff so we have an earlyish night.
We spend the next day looking around various palaces and temples in Phnom Penh. As it’s still Chinese New Year period some of the temples are crammed with worshippers burning incense and money as offerings. It’s difficult not to feel like you’re imposing and there are some tourists sticking huge cameras in the faces of those praying, but we just try and mingle. At lunch I discover the Cambodian dish Amok, a great curry not unlike Thai green, served in a bamboo leaf. At £1.50 a go, it’s in my top five meals next to Laos Larp, minced chicken with mint.
After lunch we visit S-21, a former school that was converted in to a prison, torture and execution centre under Pol Pot’s regime. We knew it wouldn’t be a comfortable trip but are not going to shy away from the darker stuff. We learn that an estimated 2.2 million Cambodians were killed during Pot’s regime, with thousands passing through the prison, their main crime being an ‘intellectual’. Doctors, teachers and local media stars were interrogated until confessing their ‘crimes’ at which point they were killed. Apparently wearing glasses was enough to grant a visit here, grim stuff.
During the regime, residents of Phnom Penh fled the city, leaving it a ghost town, and with many of those who lived in the large French colonial houses executed, we asked our driver what happened to the vacant properties after the liberation. According to him, many farmers just moved in to empty houses and still enjoy the riches today, something which is still regarded as controversial.
It’s our anniversary so that evening we have a night out, with dinner at the Titanic restaurant which overlooks the river and is done up to look like a ship (not nearly as tacky as it sounds and actually a very pleasant setting). A woman is doing traditional Cambodian dancing and has the bendiest fingers I’ve ever seen – when we try to replicate her moves at the dinner table we realise quite how difficult it is and are told that she has been training since a young child. Later we head to some bars on the riverside for a few post dinner drinks. It’s worth remembering that many of the better restaurants shut around 9pm, but bars open later so eat first, drink second.
The next day our driver takes us out to the killing fields. If you don’t know that much about it I recommend a quick read here . The former orchard is now home to the mass graves of around 20,000 Cambodians who were brought here to be executed, with many beaten to death to save on bullets. It’s certainly still an open grave, and even though a new memorial has been built here to house 8,000 skeletons already exhumed, many of the mass graves have yet to be dug. Walking around the grounds you find yourself regularly walking over scraps of clothing that rise to the surface after it rains and notices asking visitors to report any bones or teeth they find to an employee for removal and documentation. The onsite museum also offers a short video documentary detailing the genocide, although the quality is terrible and the credits open with added wind and howling wolves audio effects. Considering the location and subject this sinister addition is a bit comical. Myself and Leah shoot each other raised eyebrows without a hint of a smile.
We finish our sightseeing trip with a meal at the Friends restaurant which we would definitely recommend. It’s part of an NGO which works with kids, helping to educate them and provide them with opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Teenagers are trained to work as chefs and waiters in the restaurant with many going on to work in some of the city’s top restaurants. The food is great (although we didn’t try the fried tarantulas) and you get that nice warm fuzzy feeling knowing that you are contributing to a good cause.
Next stop Siem Reap, and the biggest temples of them all…