After a very uneventful bus journey from Saigon we arrived at the border of Vietnam and the Kingdom of Cambodia. We’d prepared ourselves for another long and painful border crossing so when the whole process took less than 15 minutes we couldn’t quite believe our luck! On the road to Phnom Penh we caught the first glimpses of our new country and straight away I could see how much poorer things seemed. The buildings by the roadside had changed from concrete buildings to wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs and there was a lot more greenery. I also saw a mini-van so full that people were hanging out the windows, the boot wouldn’t shut and there were another 10 people sat on the roof!!!
Our first stop was the capital city Phnom Penh. We arrived a few days before the Cambodian elections so things were pretty lively around the city. Thousands of people rallying for their parties were driving through the streets waving flags and playing ridiculously loud music.
The first place we visited were the killing fields and the S.21 Genocide Museum. I don’t think either of us were quite prepared for how horrific both places were. Choeung Ek (killing fields) is the site of mass graves for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. On arrival we were given a headset and an audio guide led us around the site. It was honestly one of the saddest places I’ve ever been. The stories we heard and the images we saw were truly disturbing and really upsetting. As we were there in rainy season some of the mud had been washed away to reveal human bones and clothes that the victims had been wearing.
In total they had uncovered 8,895 bodies from the site but the number executed there was thought to be around 20,000 between 1975-1979. The final stop at the site was a huge Buddhist stupa (shrine) which had 17 levels, each containing skulls and bones of the people who had been murdered in the fields. It was completely overwhelming and the amount of skulls in there was incomprehensible. It was built so the souls of the victims could finally be given the resting place they deserved.
The scary thing was that the killing field we visited was only one of many during this period. Approximately a third (2 million) of all Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Often for reasons as simple as having smooth hands or nice teeth, as this meant they weren’t farmers or labourers so may possibly be educated and oppose Pol Pot’s regime, truly horrific.
The S.21 museum was a former school that the Khmer regime used as a prison where they inhumanly tortured victims and forced them to sign falsified confessions before taking them to Choeung Ek to be executed. Some of the former prison had been changed into a museum with lines and lines of pictures of the prisoners that were taken when they were imprisoned, so they would ensure nobody escaped. Part of the prison was left as it was and the tiny cells were still intact. You could even see some blood stains on the floor in certain cells, a reminder that all this happened in the not too distant past.
Whilst both places were so incredibly sad, they were completely captivating and astonishing. It was so hard to believe what had happened there.
Before coming travelling I did a lot of reading about doing charity work in various developing world countries and the negative impact it can have on the local communities. Don’t get me wrong, not all charity work is bad, you just have to be clear where the money is going and what you are going to be doing. I read a lot about a charity in Phnom Penh called C.H.O.I.C.E Cambodia , a non-profit organisation where volunteers strive to make a difference to the extremely poor and disadvantaged people of Cambodia. I was intrigued and volunteered us for a day (which turned into 2 days) and I can honesty say it was the most eye-opening 2 days of our trip so far. We helped out in the kindergarten where all the children were from extremely poor families, visited a few villages and helped deliver water to the villages where there was no clean water. The water they had been drinking for years was poisonous and contained toxins such as cyanide and arsenic. The charity was absolutely amazing and the help they gave to the poor from clean drinking water and education to medicines and food parcels was just remarkable. There was the obvious language barrier between us and the kids but even so playing games and drawing pictures with them was so rewarding as they were the happiest children you could ever hope to meet (a theme we’ve noticed before when travelling Africa; the kids who have so little seem much happier than the Western kids who have so much).
How the teacher coped when there were no volunteers to help her I do not know, (on average there were about 40 kids to one teacher!) They had a few pencils and crayons between them and a lot of the jigsaws were missing pieces, but that didn’t matter, they were just so happy.
When visiting the villages, Ross, the director of the charity, told us some horrible stories of poverty and abuse yet looking at these people, you’d never guess what they’d been through, everyone seemed so happy. The whole family lived in single room wooden shacks, some even lived in the space below the house if their family couldn’t afford to build their own. I could go on and on and on about this but for those who are interested have a look at their website. http://www.choice-cambodia.org/ I can safely say this will be the most worthwhile thing we’ll do on the whole trip .
Before Cambodia the strangest thing we’d seen on a motorbike was probably a ginormous china vase! Whilst on a tuk-tuk the other day in a traffic jam (as always in Phnom Penh) a motorbike pulled along side us with about 15 half plucked chickens attached by their feet to the drivers arm. I obviously squawked as the chickens heads were about 10cm from my arm……and as I squawked so did a couple of the chickens!!!! THEY WERE STILL ALIVE!!!!
Speaking of chickens, one afternoon whilst Tom was at the gym I wandered around and sat myself down at a random street food stall. It seemed very busy so I thought I’d have a snack before tea. I basically just pointed at a few skewers of food and they cooked them for me, can’t go wrong….or so I thought. Everyone seemed to be getting this thing that looked like an onion bhaji so I thought I’d order one of those too and sat down to await my feast! Something that I should maybe explain at this point to those who aren’t aware (or haven’t seen Idiot Abroad) is that in certain Asian countries they enjoy eating un-hatched chicks….I’m certain you can see where this is going? Yes, I had ordered an un-hatched chick! I couldn’t eat it, I really tried, as I hate to waste food, but I couldn’t do it. I twice picked it up with my skewer but once I saw its little feathers I just gagged a little bit and placed it back onto my plate!
After spending a while in Phnom Penh we decided to head to the beach for a few days so headed down to Sihanoukville. We’d heard very mixed reports about this place and also everyone we spoke to said the weather was going to be horrific….we ignored them! We stayed in a beach hut on Otres beach and it was absolutely beautiful. Very quiet, very little to do but a perfect escape from the busy cities and a nice break before we headed up to Siem Reap. Plus the sun shone every day.
One extremely smelly sleeper bus later and we’d arrived in Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat. When we originally talked about the round-the-world trip we were both really excited about watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat and couldn’t wait to go. Our tuk-tuk arrived at the hostel at 4.30am and we headed off the temples. People had advised us that because it’s so busy around the main Wat it’s worth heading to another part of the archeological site to watch the sunrise in a more peaceful location. However, we both had our heart set on getting the iconic photos, so busy or not, we were going!!
I think the photos tell you everything you need to know, it was amazing. Everything we’d hoped for, and yes it was packed out with people wanting the same pictures as us, but it was fantastic. After sunrise we spend the next 6 hours exploring Angkor Wat itself plus various other temples, our favourite being Ta Prohm. (the one with all the tree roots where they filmed Tomb Raider!)
Then that was it for Cambodia, we both loved it. We saw many different sides to the country, some happy and some very sad. The people we met had been through so much and had so little but didn’t let life get them down. I don’t think either of us will ever forget our time in Cambodia.
Next stop Indonesia…..
Caroline and Tom