The Nervous, Jetlagged Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving Hostels

I haven’t shared a room since I was about eight, so three months of  12-people dorms with shared bathrooms was in my top five Reasons I Should Maybe Call This Off. By the end of our time in Asia I had mellowed – I even spoke to some of my roommates – but my bedroom and the space that came with it was the thing I missed most other than family. I know that a lot of people who are thinking of going backpacking are put off by the dorm situation so here is a handy guide I put together!

The Basics

If you’re nervous about sharing a dorm, or if you’re jetlagged or tired or just not feeling it, don’t share one. Maxim and I got a room to ourselves when we first arrived in Bangkok because we knew we were going to arrive and pass out. The first few days of another timezone is what I imagine hell will look like when I get there, so invest in two or three nights of not dorms while you get your sea legs. By time we went home I was happy to sleep in a 30-bed dorm with two bathrooms, but I worked up to it.

In Otres in Cambodia one of our dorms was open air with about 20 beds, and one morning I overhead and English guy book a private room because some stoners had sat out smoking with a stereo on all night and he hadn’t slept at all. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, get a private room. I  kind of wish I’d had the budget to have a private room – or to stay in a hotel, come to that – because there are some days when the thought of sharing a toilet with 20 other butts does not appeal. I met one guy who had been on the road for two years or something like that, and all I could think was ‘do you never get tired of waking up to the morning breath of eight nationalities?’ Self care is paramount, kiddies. Speaking of self care, if you want to have sex – either with yourself or other people – book a private room. Most hostels have signs up banning sex in dorms with little reminders that they offer private rooms specifically for you to go do that. No one wants to see, hear or have any hint of you boning, ever.

Hostel Bathroom Sign Vietnam
It’s been four months and I still have no idea what the Q-Tip bag was.

Use the tools you were given

Unless you’re pretty chilled about where you sleep or pretty militant about backpacking like they did in the Stone Age, use the Internet. Hostelworld has a really good search and filter system, so when I booked ahead I never stayed anywhere that didn’t offer security lockers and/or working plumbing. If you’re short on money or don’t know how long you’ll stay somewhere, book one or two nights in advance then pay cash for extra nights once you’re there. It’s cheaper – no added fees for the booking site – and you can up and leave if you want. We stayed in a few places that other people recommended either in person or online (I’ll do another post with names of hostels in SE Asia to head for/avoid) and they were usually bang on the money. If you’re happy to rock up to a destination and mooch about until you find a hostel then ignore this, but if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as me then utilise the Internet and enjoy bedbug-free sheets.

Use your common sense

You’re in a room full of strangers. Don’t leave anything lying around that you wouldn’t want to replace. Most travellers own smartphones, portable chargers and headphones, and most of those tend to be kind of gross, not to mention really cheaper and easier to buy than they are to steal. Your stuff probably won’t get nicked, but don’t flaunt it. Use lockers and padlocks and don’t leave your bag wide open (dirty laundry probably works as a deterrent, but don’t hold me to that).

Let sleeping backpackers lie

If a person is wearing earplugs, headphones or an eye mask, has constructed a curtain on their bunk with a towel or sarong so you can’t see their face, is reading a book or appears to be asleep, leave them the hell alone. Unless there is a fire, you think they are dead or there is a general emergency, do not approach them. Ever.

 

Hanoi Hostel Vietnam
I am 90% sure that typeface is the one I use in a line of stationery. Also, don’t be the guy who throws toilet paper in the toilet.

 

Look, just don’t be a dick

Dorms are pretty nice places generally. People chat, they exchange money with travellers going to/from somewhere they’ve been, they give out their stuff if they’re going home. A guy in Hanoi who was heading back to Europe gave me bugspray I still have, when I left Bangkok I gave a spare bag to an Indian dude and in Chiang Mai I swapped some Lao kip for Thai baht with an American who was travelling the other way. I’ve got dinner with roomates, swapped destination recommendations in the lobby and lost my temper exactly zero times. I nearly lost my temper once or twice, but you are talking to someone who has thrown phones at walls and remote controls at heads in her lifetime, and it never came to that. That being said, there is some etiquette you should probably live by:

Don’t leave your stuff in the bathroom. Partly because other people will think your bar of soap is disgusting (your hair looks like hair to you and like pubes to everyone else), and partly because someone might use it and then you’ll be on the receiving end of Pube Hell.

Turn out the main light after 10pm and don’t hold loud conversations in the dorm between 10pm and 7am unless you want your roommates to accidentally tread on your phone (some fuckers in a different place in Otres came in drunk at 3am, started a fight with another guy and left the goddamn ceiling lights on as they did so and it’s the only time in my life I’ve wanted to wake up to a room full of corpses).

There is never enough room for your giant backpack, but you can do little things like not leaving it at the foot of a bunk ladder or in the middle of the floor, to improve the rooms ambience and to avoid your roommates constructing a voodoo doll of you.

Okay now I’m gonna leave you with a photograph of the canyon in Pai, Northern Thailand, and go and remind my dogs that it’s not dinner time yet so quit staring at me. I’ll compile that list – and the blog about Hue and central Vietnam – in the next few weeks. In the mean time, if you have any pressing questions about hostels (or dogs) ask away.

Pai, Northern Thailand
Look at that tranquillity. Can you tell it’s rainy and miserable in England right now.
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South East Asia Day 79: Missing the UK… (Or Not)

If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.

Things I don’t miss about the UK

  • Drizzle
  • Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
  • Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
  • The Daily Mail
  • Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
  • Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
  • Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
  • Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
  • How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
  • Having two-four jobs at any one time
  • Easter advertising at the end of January

Things I do miss

  • DOGS
  • My friends
  • Decent chocolate
  • Cupboards
  • Private Eye
  • Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
  • Family
  • Smoking ban in public places
  • General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
  • Staying in the same place for more than a week
  • Good TV
  • Having a job
  • Porridge
  • Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
  • Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
  • Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
  • Getting my eyebrows waxed
Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There were no windows in the bathroom/dorm of our hostel in Ha Long Bay; walking there took about 30 crooked stairs and it was 30 people to a room. This was the view I woke up to. TL;DR: I can live without getting my eyebrows waxed.

 

Laos as in Louse or Laos as in Cow? 

The Internet is telling me it’s ‘Louse’; I’ve only ever heard ‘L-ow’. Evening from Vang Vieng, Laos.

We left Vietnam over a week ago and since I’m hopelessly behind on blogging different places we’ve been to, I thought I’d say hi in real time before we head back into Thailand. Assuming everything goes to plan, we’ll be home in the UK in a month and I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I miss my dogs, family and showers without strangers’ hair in the plug. On the other, I’m just starting to understand how Asian traffic works.

I’m looking forward to returning to Thailand (an elephant sanctuary! A dog sanctuary! At least one beach!) but I’ll be sorry to leave Laos. It’s the poorest of the four countries we’ve visited, with the worst roads and the most squatting toilets, but it also might be the friendliest and most relaxed (which is no mean feat; South East Asians give the Greeks a run for their money in the ‘chilled out attitude’ stakes). The country’s official name is Laos People’s Democratic Republic, and one leaflet I saw joked that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Possibly we’ve been in Asia long enough to actually get that, because in Luang Prabang we watched the sun set over the Mekong:

Sunset Over Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos

I took a minute from packing to leave Phonsavan to catch a bit of the sunrise:

Sunrise Over Phonsavan Laos.JPG
I even appreciated the boarder crossing’s freezing, Cold War-era, horror film set ambiance at 7am and partway through a 25.5 hour bus journey…

Crossing from Vietnam to Laos

That could have been down to the diazepam I took the night before, though.

The Cu Chi Tunnels & Ruinification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You’d think after South East Asian toilet facilities I wouldn’t be phased by a hole in the ground… but at least you’re not expected to live in the sewage system.

You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.

Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.

Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.

As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.

Entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During the war, tunnel entrances were so well hidden that even Viet Cong couldn’t always find them.

Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!

Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.

I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.

We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:

The Ruinification Palace

From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.

SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.

My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.

I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.

Tết in Saigon

We arrived in Vietnam from Phnom Penh just before Tết, the lunar new year (what everyone knows as Chinese new year), thinking it would be a New Year’s Eve celebration similar to home: fireworks, street parties, raucous festivities…

What actually happens is that most people go home for the holidays, clean their homes and shut up their businesses from anywhere between three days to a week. Not exactly Hogmanay… but also way more fun than getting wasted all evening and waking up on 1st January to some questionable Facebook mentions and a hangover the size of New South Wales. A few backpackers complained that the city was ‘dead’, but if 50,000 mopeds, 20 street vendors per road and several million locals spilling out of coffee shops and bars and restaurants all week is dead, I would like to see ‘alive’. Here’s what you can entertain yourself with in Saigon during new year:

Random Street Parades

I had breakfast on Bu Vien, the main backpackers’ street, on our first morning and watched a lion dancing parade roll past. Then I saw another the next day, and another the next… The city also closes off an entire street, Nguyen Hue, and fills it with flower decorations. Think the Mall on a celebration day meets an extravagant florist. Families walk through in their best clothes and take photos. As 2017 is the year of the rooster, it felt like a very fancy Easter egg hunt during the Chelsea Flower Show…

Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Getting a clear photo was almost impossible because about 10 families at one time wanted the same photo in the same spot.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
They remind me of the 2012 Olympic mascots…

Notre Dame Cathedral

No, not the French one. Christianity is less of a thing in South East Asia than Buddhism, but more of a thing than I thought it was. Vietnamese Notre Dame isn’t as spectacular as Paris’s, but it’s still a lovely, if disconcertingly European, building.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I’ve become so used to buddhas that it actually took me a minute to remember Mary’s name.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon plus Diamond Plaza, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We didn’t go in as there was Sunday service, but we did notice that the giant glass building right next to it looks like it would fit nicely in Vegas.

The Central Post Office

Saigon’s Central Post Office is near Notre Dame, and as someone who both sends and makes postcards it’s important that I visit as many post offices as I can while I’m out here (I do have other hobbies but none of them are as exhilarating). Saigon did not disappoint.

Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Can you imagine how good my Instagram would look if I shipped all my orders from here?!

Saigon. Just Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Is that a block of flats that became a block of cafes? Are they just really cute house fronts?
Ho Chi Minh City city centre, Vietnam
This is a main square at the city centre. There are a tonne of old buildings across the city, but development is EVERYWHERE.
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
A tree on a roof next to a building on a roof.

Also seen: a squirrel chained to a tree, a truck full of pigs and monkeys, small roadside fires (people burn offerings), large roadside rubbish tips (Saigon is a dirty city – rubbish is just dropped in the street), people feeding pigeons, a couple eating dinner on a moped.

Then again, all of that is pretty normal for Vietnam whether it’s new year or not.

Bring a Torch to Cambodia

It’s been a heavy few blogs, so here is a treat for you at home in the UK on what I’m assuming is a dismal February day: I went to a beach and it was excellent. Well if we’re going to get into it, I went to a few beaches. There were multiples of excellence. Come read and pretend you were there too!

Sihanoukville

Not a cute name on the Sims (I think it was named after Norodom Sihanouk, the late king), Sihanoukville is a town on the south coast of Cambodia. I haven’t frequented a Spanish beach resort for about a decade, but I have a feeling local developers are using the Costa del Sol as a template – there is a lot of development and a lot of nationally ambiguous tourist junk, so visit soon if you want to actually feel like you’re in South East Asia and not just a really far away Malaga.

After a night at a hostel at one end of town, in which some drunk Russians came into our dorm at 3am and started an argument with an English guy, we headed along the coast to Otres beach. It’s quieter than the main beach, Serendipity, although our hostel had a beach bar that played what can only be described as ‘the result of someone punishing their electronic music app’ so I probably would have spontaneously combusted if we’d stayed anywhere busier. We were in a 14 bed dorm, which I was apprehensive about until it turned out that the dorm took up the entire floor of the hostel and didn’t have any windows. Not as in, they’d forgotten to put any in (not that it would surprise me) but that the first floor had a veranda running along the edge with a sloping roof, so although there were bathrooms and private rooms attached, the dorm was technically open air. The bunks actually felt quite private, because they were all covered in their own mosquito nets.

Otres 2 Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
That’s wonky, isn’t it. The island looks like it’s about to slide down to the edge of the image.

On our first evening a storm threw the power out for half an hour, and on the second the generators stopped working for an hour of their own accord. Or possibly the hostel had their electricity cut off. Staff had their own theories. The wifi was shite, which was probably a blessing in disguise; I woke up at 3am on Saturday morning and couldn’t work out why I felt ill, then remembered that a certain thatch haired psychopath was being sworn into government around about that very time… the next day everyone at breakfast was watching the Al Jazeera coverage with identical expressions of exhausted disgust (and it takes a lot to unite a group of half asleep backpackers from eight separate countries who spent the previous night resenting one another for making too much noise).

Koh Rong Island

There are a lot of islands off Cambodia’s coast and a lot of travelers hop across; we picked Koh Rong, the largest, because we knew there was space at a hostel we could afford (money and hostel availability dictate most of our movements). There was a lot of wind on the day we traveled, and we were told that we’d change ferries part way through. I was trying to work out the logistics of moving our stuff from the boat then onto the quay and back again when it transpired that the ferries had pulled parallel to one another we were literally going to step from one onto the other. Bags were passed over by crew, and I’m pretty sure something fell off one into the depths of the Gulf of Thailand.

I did not know before we booked that Koh Rong is ‘the party island’, but I also did not know how isolated our particular hostel was. We had to wait for their supply boat to pick us up from the main beach, and because the wind was so strong we ended up being dropped off a beach early and trekking through a bit of jungle until we reached ours. I was wearing flip flops; one of the bar staff, who had stayed on the main beach the night before, had no shoes at all. Apparently you just have to keep your eyes open for snakes… my glasses were covered in sea spray from three or four hours of waves the size of cars, so I fully expected imminent death and my relief at making it to civilisation was halted only when I realised the toilet/shower block was made from concrete, contained no soap or flushing  mechanisms and was home to several of the island’s insects. It was also along a sandy pathway littered with tree roots, plants and leaf litter, and lit by approximately one light.

As was the path to our tent.

Other than that, though, we spent three days in paradise. The enforced relaxation (no wifi, main beach about 3 kilometers away) sent me a bit bananas, but these days a digital detox is probably something we should all do at least three times a week, so I relearnt the art of the siesta and made friends with a questionable Jack Reacher novel whose final pages had been lost. Was the kidnapping genuine? Did Reacher sleep with the grieving sister? What happened to the original assassin? I’ll never know (although I can guess, and I don’t know which is more entertaining). I also tripped on a tree root on the beach and bruised my foot, then got a rash sitting on a hammock but neither of those things are as fun as another beach photo, so:

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Less wonky? I think less wonky.

(The rash went after I got moisteriser from a pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh; the foot still aches sometimes but I’m carrying my belongings around on my back and averaging a museum a week so there’s not much I can do about it… thank god for four hour bus journeys?)

Unless I write something else about the thatch haired psychopath, the next post will be about Vietnam. Spoiler alert: I’ve already visited a beach.

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?