Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Friday 29th September to Monday 2nd October
We had lucked out! The hostel we’d booked in to turned out to be more like a boutique hotel. No complaints here. Especially for £19.50 a night Anybody contemplating a trip to Cambodia could certainly do worse than the Billabong Hotel in Phnom Penh.
Poolside working at the Billabong Hotel
Cambodia, sadly, falls into the same terror tourism category that we’ve encountered so much on this trip. The country’s recent history is rife with horrors. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime scarred Cambodia deeply, and it is still slowly recovering. And yet this tourism is incredibly valuable. Not just for the revenue it brings, but also for the understanding and sympathy it can foster. And the hope that through education and frankness, such awfulness can be avoided for future generations.
On Saturday, Phil arranged to go on a trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem, and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek. Hannah had been to Cambodia on a previous trip, and didn’t want to revisit.
The graves of the 14 prisoners killed as the Khmer Rouge abandoned Security Prison 21
Toul Sleng, or S-21 (Security Prison 21) was the home of one of the most infamous prisons in Cambodia – though its existence and true purpose weren’t really known to the public during the Khmer Rouge years. Here, intellectuals, capitalists, dissidents, and any other identifiable enemies of the state, real or imagined, were imprisoned, tortured, and interrogated, before being transported to the Killing Fields for execution.
It is truly a somber and awful place. The Khmer Rouge took a former high school, and turned it into a place of horror and torture that is difficult to believe could exist. During Pol Pot’s reign 17,000 or more people were imprisoned and tortured here – of those, fewer than 200 were released or survived. Of them, only a handful lived past the end of the regime in 1979.
An interrogation room. One of many.
The museum itself is incredibly well done. Sombre, and thoughtful, it gives plenty of opportunity for reflection, and is a fitting memorial – not sensationalising the issue, but not papering over it either. It cost £3.75 ($5) to enter plus £2.25 ($3) for the exceptional audio guide. While not for the faint-hearted, the museum should not be overlooked on a trip to Phnom Penh.
As a part of the same £4.50 minibus tour, Phil was taken out to the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek. Much Like S-21, the memorial is horrific, yet sympathetic. The skulls of 9000 people killed here have been exhumed and preserved in the Memorial Stupa – a traditional building of remembrance – and there are many thousands still buried in untouched mass graves. Indeed, each year during rainy season more bones, teeth, and articles of clothing of the dead rise to the surface; which staff then recover and preserve, or reinter. A grizzly reminder of how recently these atrocities occurred.
The Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields – filled with 9000 skulls of the victims
A cynic could say there is something awful about mass graves being a tourist attraction. Yet to me that really misses the point. These are places of education, remembrance, and recovery. And tourism brings much needed jobs and revenue to the area. Nobody there was treating it as a theme park, even if some might miss the messages or the true horror of the place.
Entry to the Killing Fields Memorial cost, £4.50 ($6), which included another very good audio guide.
On Sunday morning we had to secure our tickets for a later leg of the journey, so headed up to the train station. Cambodia has only one working train line – from Phnom Penh to the port city of Sihanoukville. One which Hannah had determined to take! The line only opened to passengers in 2016, and brilliantly, the attendants were super happy to sell us a pair of tickets!
He’s got a ticket to ride
Hand-written ticket in hand, as it were, we decided to check out the nearby Central Market for a bite to eat.
While we stopped for a cheap Cambodian lunch, the skies opened and the roar of the rain overwhelmed us. Sitting under a corrugated iron roof we couldn’t even hear one another at a shout! Within minutes the market was flooded, and to escape we had to wade through calf-deep waters, braving the rain, to find a tuk-tuk to take us back to our hotel.
Phnom Penh Central Market – before and after the rain
Siem Reap, Cambodia – Monday 2nd to Friday 6th October
We’d arranged bus tickets to Siem Reap with Giant Ibis, a return costing £24 each. We were staying at the clean and quiet Onederz hostel, for £19.50 a night. Onederz Siem Reap, incidentally, has been awarded the No.1 hostel in Cambodia, and No.8 large hostel in the World by Hostelworld.
I don’t know if we’d have awarded it quite so highly – but it really was pretty good!
That night we ventured out to see if we could grab a bite to eat at the terribly-named ‘Pub Street’. But, before we could make it the rains forced us into a restaurant just thirty metres short! And yes, the rain was that heavy. Once again, we ate our dinner shouting across the table.
If you can’t beat ’em…
With no let up in sight, we decided our best bet was just to brave the wet and wade home.
The next day, after a day of work and rooftop pool-side sunning, we made it all the way to Pub Street. And it certainly lived up to its name. Colourful lights and lanterns criss-crossed the road like year-round carnival bunting. Competing playlists duelled across the narrow road – all playing the same songs in a different order. Tourists ambled aimlessly along the street arbitrarily choosing somewhere to stop and eat or grab a drink. Despite all the razzamatazz, however, the place lacked a sense of a soul.
Pub street and its environs form a totally artificial tourist environment. It has sprung up in the last decade or so, displacing all that is authentic from the street. Indeed, several of the big names owned a number of bars and restaurants – giving the street a cartel-like feel. If anything, this – not S-21 or the Killing Fields Memorial – is the more damaging side of tourism. Though it is still bringing foreign money into the economy, and creating jobs.
Pub Street – obviously
On Wednesday we visited the pride of Cambodia – Angkor Wat, and the surrounding temples. We had decided to enlist the services of a private tour guide, for £22.50 each. This, on top of the temples’ £20 entry fee, made for quite a pricey day, but having San Park show us round was more than worth it.
We arrived at Angkor Wat early to watch the sun rise, but clouds and rain dampened the spectacle. However, within a few minutes we realised that far from ruining the experience, the rain somehow heightened it. While we sheltered in the corridors of the ancient temples, the lush grass seemed to sparkle outside. We were forced to focus our attention on the details in the temple; the amazing bas reliefs; the few remaining flecks of gold leaf, which had adorned all of the walls and pillars; and the stories and fables which Park told with boundless enthusiasm, and not a little knowledge!
Angkor Wat in the rain
We moved on to a local breakfast with Park, and then made for the Angkor Thom – a huge temple city to the west, which dwarfs Angkor Wat in scale. The 8m high walls are 3km to a side, surrounded by a great moat. Contained within are numerous amazing temples, each between 800 and 1200 years old. The most notable is Prasat Bayon, with faces emerging from each of the 52 towers still standing; but additionally we were able to climb the magnificent Baphuon; admire the Phimeanakas; and see the unfinished bas relief at the Terrace of the Leper King.
The many faces of the Bayon
We also travelled out to Ta Prom (made famous by the Tomb Raider film, starring Angelina Jolie), and then north to the ancient red sandstone temple of Banteay Srei.
All were amazing to see, but most remarkable to us was our guide, Park. Having lived through the purges of the Khmer Rouge, Park grew up as a rice farmer. Then, wanting more from life, he spent over a decade working to clear mines from the Cambodian countryside. He said he then had an epiphany, and began training as a tour guide, a job which he has been doing for the last fifteen years. Once again, we were shown that people, not places, are by far the most interesting things in the world.
Magnificent and mysterious – The Baphuon
After another day working and poolside chilling it was the end of the week, and time to head south again to Phnom Penh. Overnighting once again at the Billabong we were ready, bright and early, to catch a ride on Cambodia’s only working train line.
Next week, we spend our time on one of Cambodia’s paradise islands, Koh Rong.
Hannah and Phil x