Phnom Penh Part 3: the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek & Tuol Sleng Museum

We only really went to Phnom Penh for two places, and those places are horrible. But I’d be a terrible person if I didn’t talk about it, so…

SOME HISTORY: in 1975 a radical communist group, the Khmer Rouge, seized power of Cambodia’s government with a vision to turn Cambodia into a ‘communist agrarian utopia’, aka a nation full of rice farmers. Their methods included forcing everyone out of cities into the farmlands, whether they knew how to grow rice or not, and killing anyone who might disagree, like intellectuals and spies (they identified intellectuals by whether or not a person had glasses, soft hands or spoke a foreign language, and spies by whether or not they looked fishy). SPOILER ALERT: it failed. People can’t grow rice having eaten two spoonfuls of gruel in a day. Murdering a quarter of your population demoralises the troops. Communism is a fucking terrible way to run a country. By 1979 the regime had collapsed (it didn’t help that senior members kept offing one another in paranoia) and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by rebels and the Vietnamese; what was left of the government fled to Thailand. Because Vietnam was involved, the United Nations actually continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s rightful government for years – they received aid and sent representatives to UN meetings. One day I will write about western countries ignoring genocide and send the manuscript to the Trump administration… Today is not that day but if you want to read more about the Khmer Rouge, go here. Anyway the Khmer people are very open about their past and are preserving and sharing it nationwide (unlike Nazi Germany, no one’s going to get away with denying this shit happened). The two biggest and most heartbreaking museums are both in or near Phnom Penh.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

There are killing fields all over Cambodia, but the largest is at Choeung Ek, which used to be a Chinese graveyard and orchard a few miles from Phnom Pehn. We visited there first and just arriving was odd, because the road goes through what is now basically a suburb – it felt a bit like having a war memorial at a corner in central Southend. Once you’re in, though, Choeung Ek feels more like a nature reserve than a genocide spot. There’s an audio tour that takes you to various points, and they’ve let a lot of the space grow naturally back into an orchard. There’s even a pond, although if I remember correctly there are still a lot of bodies under it. Speaking of bodies…

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Cambodia
This means that someone, at some point, did.

Because the Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets, they had people killed using what was lying about instead. Think farming equipment, knives, tyre irons and the like. As a result, the corpses uncovered since aren’t exactly intact; every now and then bits of bone and skull and clothes work their way up to the surface and museum staff take care of them. What they have found has been examined and organised neatly in a memorial stupa, which is simultaneously very beautiful and very creepy.

Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa
I forgot to take a photo of the stupa so this is from Wikipedia. Those shelves contain at least 5,000 skulls.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After lunch we headed to Tuol Sleng in central Phnom Penh, also known as Security Prison 21. For what it’s worth I found the museum harder to deal with than the Killing Fields, and I’d recommend doing Choeung Ek second. There’s more fresh air, less graphic photos and more space to sit by yourself while you try to process what you’ve just seen – the building was originally a school, so it’s quite compact and overbearing. There’s an audio tour for the museum as well so you can do it at your own pace, but I still wanted to inhale a bottle of gin by the time I was a third of the way around.

They request you don’t take photos of the inside rooms, which was fine by me. Just, imagine a tiled room that used to be a classroom, with a rusting iron bed in the middle. In its heyday, it would have been a nice bed. The iron is wrought into patterns. It was an interrogation room, so add rusting iron shackles and perhaps an iron bar. Finally, turn to one wall and add a large black and white photograph of that very room. Attached to the bed is what used to be a person. It’s an old photograph, taken straight after the prison was discovered, but you can still tell that that used to be someone’s head and that was someone’s stomach, and that is where their stomach ended up. Then multiply the room by four or five because when the regime fell, the prison staff knew they had very little time to flee. They stopped torturing that day’s suspects and killed them to avoid future identification – but they couldn’t risk gunshots being heard, so they hacked their prisoners to death then skedaddled.

That’s just the first part of the museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This is the only photo I took that wasn’t of something mightily depressing, and that’s only because there’s a palm tree in it.

There are several rooms full of photographs of prisoners and several pieces of torture equipment, including one which was originally used as gymnastic equipment for the school. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about records, but they destroyed a lot toward the end; what’s left is quite enough to put you off believing in any sort of benevolent deity. Most pictures are just of people when they arrive, but there’s a few of prisoners mid-captivity. There were only seven people found alive when the prison was liberated, and one was an artist who went on to paint what he saw, so there are also canvases of torture and general death in glorious technicolour. An estimated 20,000 people were held at S-21 during the regime. Seven were found alive.

We ended up rushing a little toward the end of the tour – well, I did. Maxim finished way quicker and was impatient to leave because we needed to get bus tickets for Shianoukville. Part of me was irritated for skipping the exit, because two of the surviving prisoners were there signing books, but part of me was very relieved to be given a reason to leave. I could easily go back and spend a day making notes, listening to every extra on the audio tour and piecing together everything that’s there (with a break for lunch and the gin) but I could also quite happily never set foot in Phnom Penh again. It’s not that the city  – and Cambodia in general – isn’t vibrant and bustling and very ready to be more than just four years in its history. It’s that in my head, once I’d seen Choeung Ek and S-21, it was hard to see anything else. I kept thinking ‘that building’s definitely been built since the seventies’, ‘that building hasn’t’, ‘this guy looks old enough to have lived through the genocide’. Anecdotally, there are no old people in Cambodia; statistically, one in four people died under the Khmer Rouge either from malnutrition, disease or execution.

It feels very relevant that I’m writing this the day after Holocaust Memorial Day, and the day after the Trump administration signed an order banning Syrian refugees from entering the US. Incidentally one of the factors in the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is that America dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than it did during the entirety of World War II; the resulting poverty and civil unrest stoked support for the party. I could keep drawing parallels between Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Nazi Germany, and parallels between them and the rhetoric Trump and his supporters are spewing, but if you’re reading this you’re probably smart enough to draw them yourselves.

Phnom Penh Part 2: the Grand Palace & Our First Day Bus

We hit up the palace on our last morning in the city, because our bus to Shianoukville was too late in the day to just bum around while we waited (we made up for it by bumming around in Sihanoukville). I haven’t forgotten that I haven’t blogged about the Killing Fields and S-21 museum, it’s just taking some time to turn a day of horror into a coherent blog. In the mean time, meet the Grand Palace of Phnom Penh… and a bus.

Entry to the palace was $10 plus a tuk tuk, so the little part of me that’s been keeping a budget – okay, a big part of me – thought ‘this place had better be something’. It was. Not in a grandiose Bangkok Grand Palace kind of way, although there are similarities. It’s more understated, much quieter and far smaller. There were quite a few parts scaffolded off for renovation, but you can easily spend a morning wandering about the buildings. There’s another emerald Buddha (again, I don’t think it’s actually emerald), some lovely little shrines and trees, and some museum buildings with ceremonial clothes and whatnot. Lots of elephant statues. Every time we see an elephant statue Maxim points out that we haven’t actually met any elephants yet; I’m using that as leverage in my quest to get us to an elephant sanctuary back in Thailand. We managed to miss the famous silver pagoda completely – yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible to miss a pagoda, but we did – so if you go I recommend paying more attention to your map than we did. Possibly take advantage of the palace guides.

Grand Palace Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Spot the face.
Grand Palace Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I have no idea why they put a model of Angkor Wat in front of this building, but it was very satisfying to say I’d already been.

The bus from Phnom Penh to Shianoukville takes about four hours, so it’s not really worth getting a night bus, but it is definitely worth charging your iPod and practising your meditation before you board. I thought I had the long straw, because my seat was right at the front and Maxim was squashed down the back, but there’s not really a long straw when it comes to travelling by bus. Especially not when your seat doesn’t come with overhead locker space or legroom, because it’s right next to the luggage hold.

Bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia
I know I don’t have long legs but come on. The giant foot belonged to my neighbour… or possibly the titchy feet belong to me.

We stopped off at a restaurant which was probably one of the nicest places we’ve been. It’s literally on the side of the road but it had water features and a garden area and toilets backpackers dream about (don’t look at me like that. You spend a couple of weeks living out of a rucksack in rooms with at least five other people and clean toilets really start to have an emotional impact). I nearly took a picture but instead here is the view:

road-to-sihanoukville
I felt like I was in a Western, and I don’t even like Westerns.

Up next: Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Island. Teaser: there are beaches and glorious sunsets. Or I might finally finish the Killing Fields. WHO KNOWS. What’s the best/worst bus journey you’ve ever been on?

A Brief But Pretty Excerpt from Angkor Wat

All right, Internet, I said I’d share Angkor Wat photos and… I can’t, because the process of getting them from my phone onto this blog is proving trickier than I’d expected. Possibly because the wifi quality is steadily decreasing, possibly because the photos are huge, possibly because my luck is shite. So – instead of the wonderfully detailed account I have drafted – here are a few photos that will work. I’ve tried to label them but I did a terrible job remembering where I was throughout the trip, so this is probably going to be pretty but not educational.

Neak Pean Temple, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
100% sure there are mermaids in there.
Preah Khan, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Serious Narnia vibes here, and I never even finished the Narnia series.
Ta Som, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
It’s hard to know which came first.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Genuinely not sure which temple this is.
Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Sunset over… somewhere. I’M SORRY I CAN’T GOOGLE TO FIND OUT WHERE I WAS. #FirstWorldProblems

The Internet is saying no, so I will leave this here and possibly save the rest for another time. We’re in Sihanoukville now for a few days, and I will write up the Killing Fields and S 21 museum as well (not something I’m looking forward to to be honest, but I’d be a dick tourist/human not to talk about is, so).

Phnom Penh Part 1: Night Buses & Morning Walks

Good morning, or evening, or whatever it is. I don’t know what time it is here, because I haven’t been to bed since the day before yesterday. I think. We arrived in Phnom Penh about half five this morning; we caught the night bus from Siem Reap at 11:30pm last night and although I slept for about five hours, I’m not what you’d call fully functioning.

Night Bus Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A bunk with a view.

 

I’d never been on a night bus before so my only reference was Harry Potter’s experiences with the Knight Bus… we were not offered hot chocolate or a toothbrush and no one vomited, but our conductor did remind me a little of Stan Shunpike. If you’re getting a bus in Cambodia any time soon, I can recommend Giant Ibis – they have wifi, arrived on time and had an almost-completely-normal toilet on board (I nearly took a photo but I didn’t want to touch anything as there was no soap. Or sink).

Night Bus Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
We stopped for a bit around 1am; the light was almost nice and arty but not quite (sounds like a metaphor for this place).

We didn’t realise how early we would arrive, and had neither the details of our hostel nor any map to get there, because stupidly I hadn’t downloaded the info before the wifi drove away, so we sat on a bench on the waterfront and watched the sun come up. Well, I watched. Maxim dosed as I kept an eye out (Backpackers have belongings stolen while they nap is not a headline I want associated with my name). I did not see anyone who looked remotely like a baggage thief, but I did see three rats (or one rat three times), several bats, some finch-type birds and two gentleman urinate on a verge. The shrub in that verge was far healthier than the shrubs in neighbouring verges, so I can only assume communal weeing is part of their daily routine.

Phnom Penh Waterfront, Cambodia
I just noticed that’s wonky. In my defense, I felt a little wonky at the time.
Phnom Penh Waterfront, Cambodia
I think that might actually be *the* verge.

We got breakfast as soon as it was light and walked to our hostel by about 9am, which was interesting. Traffic here is busier than Siem Reap but with a similar relaxed attitude, and my bag was heavy. Heavier than I remembered. Too heavy for an exhausted five foot nothing who hadn’t had enough water that morning. God forbid any hostel should let you check in before 2pm, so we collapsed into a couple of chairs and haven’t really moved since. Well, that’s not true. I had a shower as soon as we had room keys, and Maxim is asleep in his bunk right now. Today has become a rest day, which I think I will make compulsory following all travel days. Or nights. There is no way I have the energy to go to the Killing Fields today, or the S-21 museum, or the regular museums… so as I have no book, my magazine disintegrated and I haven’t got any postcards to write on, I thought I’d say hello. Maybe I will meditate. I don’t want to fall asleep, because I’m just getting over my jetlag. Perhaps I will write a short story, or start a conversation with a fellow backpacker.

Who am I kidding, I’m terrified of other backpackers. They’re all so tanned.

If you guys are bored or stuck with a lot of time, what do you do?

Siem Reap: Markets & Museums

We have now been in Siem Reap four days, and we decided to stay another night and get a night bus to Phnom Penh so we could see more. We flew in from Bangkok early Thursday morning (our Thai visas required proof of onward travel, so we paid about £40 for a 45 minute flight, which had better service than some European flights I’ve been on *cough* EasyJet *cough*). I preferred Cambodia to Bangkok the moment we landed. Siem Reap airport is very new and incredibly pretty (and I am shallow) and the city in general reminds me a lot of Greece. Everything is dusty but very green, the roads are bustling but not total chaos – there are even separate lanes for tuk tuks and motorbikes – and stray dogs are three apiece (and before you make a joke that’s not funny, no I will not be adopting any).

Maxim had been sick from some dodgy seafood the night before, so once we got into town we hung out in a cafe waiting to check in to our hostel. I experienced my first – and definitely not my last – squatting toilet, tucked down a tarpaulined alley in what felt like the Cambodian equivalent of the old York Road market in Southend.

We’ve spent most of our time here exploring Angkor Wat, which will require a post by itself, and we’ve also visited Angkor Night Market, which is right next to our hostel (no live gerbils, but lots of opportunity to haggle over t-shirts) and Pub Street.

Angkor Night Market Siem Reap Cambodia
One lane of a many, many laned part of Angkor Night Market. Stalls included jewellery made from bullets, local spirits and cuddly toy elephants.

Pub St is supposed to be quite a big deal, but as far as I could tell it’s mostly made of restaurants, tourists and people begging. Over about three hours we saw two war veterans, one without legs pedaling (literally, with his hands) a cart of books, one blind and guided by a child. Then there was a guy performing circus tricks, although he wasn’t very good and nearly set himself on fire/took his eyes out/killed passersby, and then a small child who prodded me in the armpit as I walked the market, shrieked ‘CHEEP CHEEP’ at me and would have been elbowed in the face if I’d been a second slower to realise he was about eight. A few tourists gave them money, if just to get them to go away, which obviously has the opposite effect. I’m not sure what the Cambodian government does for its war vets and its homeless (presumably very little) so if anyone from government is reading, please sort your shit out. I don’t want to see children begging on my holiday any more than I want to see stray dogs, but I know which I’d rather you fixed first.

We also visited the local War Museum, and if you thought priceless antiques sitting outside at Bangkok’s National Museum was a travesty, don’t bother with Siem Reap’s War Museum. It’s filled with tanks, guns and landmines (some still in the ground) from the Cambodian civil war and genocide, and everything is sitting outside except the guns, which you can pick up.

arms-war-museum
Pick a weapon, any weapon

We’re going to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, so I will wait until then to wax lyrical on Pol Pot and his band of merry megalomaniacs. In the mean time here is a short list of interesting facts:

  • In Cambodian culture some people collect the teeth of a cremated loved one and wear them on a string necklace to keep the loved one close and watching over them. When the string breaks, the deceased has moved on
  • During the Cambodian genocide, most of the rice grown was exported to China in exchange for arms, so locals learned to eat termites and other assorted creatures
  • There is a special type of shovel in existence that prisoners would use to dig a hole. Then their captor would kill them with the serrated edge of that very shovel, and bury them in the grave they’d just dug themselves
  • There’s a guide at the War Museum who was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. At various points he stepped on a landmine filled with ball-bearings, lost his sight in both eyes then had one of them restored by a UN initiative and put his story into a book.

I will leave this here because the wifi is cutting out a bit – I have a photo of a termite hill and everything. Maybe that will be one for the outtakes. Next stop is Phnom Penh and the museums, which I am told will make me depressed about the state of humanity. Good thing I had all that practise living through 2016 then, innit.

The Nervous, Jetlagged User’s Guide to Bangkok (Part 2)

By the time you read this we will have started exploring Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I haven’t told you an almost-amusing anecdote about umbrellas, so let’s continue with Francesca’s Edited Highlights (part one is here).

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace, a complex of buildings which used to be the royal family’s permanent residence, is the one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, so we went one morning… so did everyone else in Bangkok. I’m travelling with Maxim who-needs-a-guide-just-take-photos Burke, and know little to nothing about Buddhism (and even less about Thai history) so dodging a million people in the rain  – and by rain I mean HUGE DOWNPOUR – to squint up at golden pagodas through soaked glasses was a bit like walking into a chocolate shop never having tasted sugar. Everything was wonderful, but I have no idea what I was looking at. I did enjoy sitting in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is not actually emerald) and searching for nirvana, but I think it’s going to take more than a few sessions on a meditation app for that.

We also accidentally kept the umbrellas we borrowed from staff, and I was wracked with guilt for a few days for stealing from the Thai government, so I have left mine in the hostel. I wasn’t going to smuggle contraband into Cambodia.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho, one of about four hundred wats (temples) in Bangkok is right next to the Grand Palace, and contains a couple of hundred bronze-and-gold-leaf buddhas. We paid for a tour guide this time, who told us that the Thai name for Bangkok is the longest city name in the world, and that it means ‘city of angels’. Take that, LA. We also met, amongst others, the reclining buddha…. which really reminds me of Kate Winslet in Titanic, now I think about it.

img_5575
Is ‘draw me like one of your French girls, Jack’ an appropriate caption? No? You come up with one, then, because that’s all I could think.

National Museum

The Thai equivalent of the British Museum, the National Museum doesn’t look that big from outside. Ignore this and wear your most comfortable shoes. And take snacks. There’s a sprawling gallery dedicated to Asian art, a section filled with royal objects, a separate art gallery, a building dedicated to one of Thailand’s queens…

And more umbrellas.

img_5607
We checked it’s a real umbrella with spokes (?) and everything.

 

I did not try to use that one. I must say, I was a bit worried about the number of priceless artefacts out in the open.  What if the rain got in, or a passing child vomited? Then again I once visited a museum where a local stray would follow visitors in and curl up on the antique bed, so I guess a bit of rain isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’d still be wary of puking children, though.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road is the other one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, and since we’ve given the ping pong shows a miss, we did. In a nutshell, it’s like Camden Lock Market but instead of punk gear and tattoo parlours, there are street vendors with scorpion kebabs and tattoo parlours. I didn’t get any good photos, so just imagine Camden Lock, replace rain with sun and add the scorpions. The tourists were identical.

The Nervous, Jetlagged User’s Guide to Bangkok (Part 1)

Greetings from the veranda outside our hostel. There is a bazaar directly to my right, which stocks live gerbils, and a coffee shop to my left, which doesn’t. So far as I know.

Thank you to everyone who saw my last post – if you’re family and you’re new here, please be aware that I swear here more than I do in front of you.

I am slowly starting to make friends with Bangkok, although I doubt we’ll ever be on as good terms as I am with, say, London. I suspect this is because even the thickest motorists in London usually observe lanes, traffic lights, zebra crossings and the difference between the road and the pavement. But we’re getting there. It’s been nearly a week since we left home, and I’ve learnt a lot since then, for example:

  • It’s possible to crack the code on your own padlock, which you accidentally reset
  • Tuk tuks are terrifying
  • I mean if one crashed and- I don’t know how they don’t – every person inside would be toast
  • McDonald’s in Asia is identical to McDonald’s everywhere, down to the smell (although the one we popped in to seemed to serve more fish)
  • It rains more in South East Asia than it does in England, which I did not think possible
  • Boat taxis are cheaper than taxi taxis
Bangkok River Taxi
I couldn’t take more than a couple of photos because that is not somewhere you want to lose your phone.

We’ve started to get our tourist heads on and been exploring too. We’ve seen a lot, so let’s call this part Francesca’s Edited Highlights (because the forty minutes we spent at the Vietnamese Embassy, or the forty minutes we spent stuck in a taxi on the way back from Chinatown does not make good reading).

Bangkok’s Malls

If you hate Westfield, do not try the Siam Centre, MBK Mall or Siam Discovery. They are air conditioned to a t, absolutely bloody enormous and include everything from contemporary art galleries to supermarkets. They remind me simultaneously of Debenhams and Are You Being Served, and feature many Starbucks.

Starbucks in Siam Discovery Centre, Bangkok
It really is the same everywhere…

Jim Thompson House

CULTURE TIME. A US soldier, Jim Thompson, was posted to Thailand during World War II, but I think the war ended by the time he got there or something – he had a lot of free time, so he explored Bangkok and fell in love with it, returning to live and transform the local silk industry (he came up with printing onto silks directly with moulds; previously patterns were woven in). He built himself a house and a reputation, went to Malaysia on a trip and went missing. Now his private art collection is on display in his house, which his family gave to Thailand. No one knows what happened to him, although one therory is that he was assassinated by the CIA (is anyone else getting serious Leonardo diCaprio blockbuster vibes?). Anyway his house had a pond and a potty shaped like a frog so I like him.

(I was not allowed to take a picture of the frog.)

I’m trying to keep these blogs short like me so I will leave this here… part two coming soon! Or when I’m next in a decent wi fi zone…

South East Asia T-Minus – Wait We Arrived Yesterday

Afternoon, Internet. Or morning, if you’re in the UK. So, we made it to Bangkok! After a 4am alarm, two long haul flights, a delay at Muscat airport which I will look upon fondly when hell freezes over and several moments where I thought ‘I am really not sure about all this.’ (More on that later.)

We arrived in Thailand at about 7:30am local time and we were more interested in sleeping for a week than exploring, but we had to wait around until about 1pm for our hostel, so we found a cafe with wifi and chilled out, aka messaged home and read a book (Maxim) or Private Eye (me). I will be honest with you, reader: I was really, really not sure about this. Somewhere amongst all the planning and and organising and job-leaving I forgot that I was leaving home for three solid months. It was only when people started saying goodbye that it sunk in that I was heading to another continent for a quarter of a year. It really sunk in somewhere around the stop off at Muscat airport and I am not too proud to say that I considered ringing my mum and asking her to pick me up. I know anyone who’s heard me moan about my jobs/life/itchy feet will find this deeply ironic; I will reflect on this as we go along… possibly appreciation for one’s bed, routine and family is one of those growing up things everyone’s said I’ll do while I’m out here.

Anyway, back to Bangkok. Here is what I’ve learnt so far:

  • Dry heat (Mediterranean) is not the same as humid heat (South East Asia)
  • Marks and Spencer is everywhere, and costs about the same here as it does at home
  • 7-Eleven has a grip on the convenience store market
  • Corn soup is tasty
  • If you’re crossing the street and a moped comes towards you, keep walking
  • Every few cars on the road (and there are a lot of roads) has a custom set of wheels or rims. Maxim is fascinated by this.

I reckon it will take a couple of days to feel human again, but in the mean time I draw great comfort from the fact 7-Eleven sells cornflakes.

Room WIth a View Silom, Bangkok, Thailand
My view from the room we had last night. Thank God for air conditioning units.

We’re going to hunt out mobile phones now, so I will leave this here. The plan is to chill out today and plan where we want to see. If anyone here’s already been to Bangkok, where would you recommend? We definitely want to see the floating market and some temples, but we’re not sure where else to go before we head to Cambodia next Saturday. Any suggestions?