We headed to Phnom Penh for the second time since arriving here in Cambodia, except this time we where to spend some time in the capital before deciding if we have enough time to venture East before our visa expires. After an eventful bus journey from Kampot where the coach tyre directly underneath us blew out on the highway, we arrived somewhat delayed and severely in need of a shower. One thing that did strike me on the journey (apart from fragments of hot tyre) was the volume of Chinese owned factories that lined the highway leading to Phnom Penh. At lunch time I spotted masses of Cambodian women leaving sunlight behind to head back into the noise of the factory floor, causing me to reflect on whether items manufactured in these very factories had made their way into my wardrobe at home (technically I sold all my clothes before leaving but that’s not the point.)
So our first evening was spent, as usual feeling our way around the immediate vicinity, deciphering the most crucial information; where’s good to eat, where’s good to drink, and in an emergency, where can we lay our hands on some egg custard desserts. First up the next day we had a bit of administration to carry out, visiting the Vietnamese embassy to get our visas sorted. Things then got a whole lot more serious as we headed to S21, a former school hijacked by the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot years and used as a prison/torture facility before many of the inmates (Vietnamese, Khmers, Westerners, and Khmer Rouge) made their final journey to nearby Choeung Ek, better known as one of the numerous killing fields all over the kingdom. We had done our research and nothing we found in S21 was a surprise but it was no less shocking to see the thousands of victims; men, women and children, documented in clinical detail staring back at us from the past. Leaving Tuol Sleng we headed in the direction of the Russian market for a spot of lunch with the locals and to search for bargains, we picked up a hammock for a couple of dollars and Sarah finally bought the coconut bowls she’s been after since Siem Reap. We befriended a kid that night who challenged me to a game of pool on the basis that I would buy a bracelet off him. Needless to say said bracelet is now fixed around my wrist as I type this, and Jack is now 2 dollars closer to paying off his 10 dollar a week school fees.
We lazed around the hostel the next day waiting to be able to pick up our shiny new Vietnamese visas and returning to rent a motorbike for the journey to the killing fields the next day. We drove out to the waterfront and I got to put my skills to the the test against another manic Asian city on two wheels (Kathmandu was a sterner test) with cries of alarm from the pillion seat as Sarah clung on. I can understand from her perspective why it seemed we were likely to collide with other bikes at any moment and end up in a tangled heap, but I assured her that there is some form of order within the chaos. We had drinks with our dorm mates that evening who where on a whistle stop tour in comparison to us, spending only a week in Cambodia which promoted me to ponder whether many people would leave Cambodia with only the majesty of Angkor and the tragedy of genocide as sticking points from this fascinating country, that so far only Nepal has managed to eclipse.
We finished our time in Phnom Penh by paying a visit to the aforementioned killing fields of Choeung Ek, arriving after a testing journey that had me wishing we had splashed out and rented an off-road machine. The killing fields experience is delivered through an audio tour as you walk around the site which was for many thousands their final resting place. It was at times a difficult day and there were not a few people reduced to tears particularly at the site where the mass graves of children and infants were marked. We left flowers at the memorial temple and headed back to the city that survived those dark days, many of its inhabitants affected in some way by the events that took place there.
We have made the decision with six days left on our visas to head north east up the Mekong to Kratie in search of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin and perhaps if time allows us, into the expansive forests of Mondulkiri before heading to Vietnam.
Until then. Lia suhn hao-y
Photos here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/127744759@N08/hS3H78