28th January 2012
Up early-ish for catching a midmorning bus to Phnom Penh, another long and rather boring bus journey through flat countryside with the usual rest stops. We arrived mid afternoon in the central market area, deposited with our bags and left to the pack of tuk-tuk drivers who tried to get our business before we had even got off the bus. Negotiating hard, we eventually settled on one driver who ferried us a few km to our hotel for the night, called Alibi. Run by a Frenchman it was a little oasis in the middle of the city just opposite the “new” kids park, however they only had a room for us for one night and it was a twin at that, so we pushed them together with the prospect of spending a cosy night.
We settled in and washed off the dust of the road before heading out into town for some food. We walked along the river front passing men and boys playing football or keepy-uppy with shuttlecocks, and gangs of ladies jigging about under the direction of a fitness instructor. Dinner was good enough at an upmarket pizza place, but expensive. It filled our grumbling tummies and we returned to the hotel contented. Oskar was sick during the night – oh marvellous! our first tummy bug in quite a while.
29th January 2012 – A la récherche d’un hôtel
After a great breakfast of which Oskar ate little the morning was spent checking out trip advisor and lonely planet for a new place to stay. After several phone calls we hit the jackpot with Velkommen Inn, a backpackers place on Street 130 just next to the river and really handy for most of the good restaurants and some of the sights. The tuk-tuk man from the day before was waiting for us, and after spending 5 mins trying to kick-start his bike, we were on our way to our new digs. A room with large double bed and bunk beds, with en suite and air con it was comfortable and clean, but did not have any windows. Ah well, you can’t have everything.
We set off on foot for an explore and after a good walk we stopped for a spot of lunch at the Blue Pumpkin much to the pleasure of the boys – Oskar still not eating much. We continued our tour around and also tried to find an ethernet cable to get around the terrible connectivity problems I had experienced with the mac and wifi and Cambodian kit. We visited some malls and the central market eventually tracking one down – now we would be able to post some blogs!!
A view from the top of one mall, by the roller disco rink.
Back to the hotel, the boys settled themselves in the bar. Mateo and Luca made an instant attachment with one of the girls working there – one that involved much cuddles and kisses on the cheek, it was very sweet. The staff were really cool with the children, and a nice friendly bunch to boot.
We headed out for dinner at a noodle bar which was very tasty, and they made the noodles in front of you which was a great fascination for Oskar, Luca and Mateo. Oskar seemed to have recovered his appetite, which was great. Dinner over, we went back to the hotel to sleep or to blog.
30th January 2012 – School Day & Visas
Whilst Tania and the boys concentrated on some maths and french I jumped onto a Moto Xe for the trip down town to the Vietnam Embassy to change the entrance dates on our visas. Our visit to Cambodia had brought us mixed feelings, but the overwhelming one was that it was not the place for us, and so we wanted to bring the Vietnam entrance dates forward by 14 days. This proved to be a fairly painless process that involved filling out an application form for each of us (again) and submitting the passports along with $20 for the administration fee. Then it was a case of settling down for a long wait with a bit of Sherlock Holmes to read.
To be fair, it was only about ½ hour before the man behind the window beckoned to me and handed me the passports. I examined them closely to make sure that the dates were correct and that we still had a 3 month visa and not a one month one! But all was good – the amendment was a stamp next to the official visa wherein had been written the new dates with some official seals etc. Jumping back on the bike, the driver took me smoothly back to the hotel.
We had lunch in the Blue Pumpkin restaurant just around the corner from the hotel, and then we walked around Phnom Penh, eventually finding an oasis of calm in the new kiddies play park. This was somewhat fortuitous as Oskar had left some things at Alibi and the park was just opposite. So after the boys had exhausted themselves (yeah, right!) on the swings and climbing frames we swung by Alibi and recovered his stuff before walking back to our hotel along the river front.
I was not feeling at all hungry and so skipped dinner along with Luca. Whilst Oskar, Mateo and Tania went out to find some food, Luca and I worked on his blogs for Koh Tao and Bangkok; a very pleasant few hours, but he was eventually too tired to continue. When the rest of the family returned he was asleep and the others quickly followed suit. During the night it was Luca’s turn to be sick, oh joy!
31st January 2012 – S21 & The Killing Fields
We had debated whether we should go and see these two places with the children. We knew that for us as adults it was going to be a very hard day emotionally and we were concerned that it would be too much for the children. After all there is nothing joyful about this period of history, there are no distractions for the children. It is a woefully dark tale that speaks of the cruelty of man towards man, of genocide and of torture. That a man can do these unspeakable things to a fellow human being defies belief and yet the actions of the Khmer Rouge are not unique in history by any means; nor are they the last to carry our such atrocities. It is perhaps this last point that proved the most persuasive in our decision to take the children – that this part of history is still relevant today in the modern world.
Tuol Slong Museum S-21
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was turned into a prison by Pol Pot’s security forces and was know as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest detention and torture centre in the country and between 1975 and 1978 more that 17,000 people passed through its gates to be tortured into confessing their crimes and then transported to the killing fields to pay for them by being murdered.
The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing the prisoners before and sometimes after their torture. When the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in early 1979 there were only 7 prisoners left alive all of whom had been useful to the Khmer Rouge because of their skills as photographers or artists.
We had read the history and were in a suitably sombre frame of mind as we rode the tuk-tuk to S-21. We explained to the boys that if they did not want to come in then they could stay in the tuk-tuk. Luca was still feeling sick and so he stayed behind.
We went through the little admissions hut and emerged into the courtyard of what was clearly an school building complex much like any school anywhere in the world. Stark and without colour or embellishments, as you would expect from a place of learning from this era. In the yard where once children had played were some graves marking the last resting places of a half-dozen inmates killed as the Vietnamese approached. There was a large sign stating the rules of the prison.
There was also a large timber frame from once ropes had hung for P.E. but which had been used by the guards as a torture device which involved hanging the prisoner by the arms until they passed out from the pain, and then dunking their heads in barrels of filthy water to revive them before starting the process again. Sorry, there are not that many photos – somehow it didn’t feel right.
Immediately on our left was Building “A”
Inside it was easy to imagine the desks and chairs that would have been there, but all there was were solitary beds with shackles, some ammunition tins and the odd picture on the wall of the last occupant lying prone and still in its final resting place.
Building “B”, at right angles was more of the same, however in the ground floor rooms there was board after board of photographs of prisoners; men and women both young and old, children – none of them remarkable, none that you would look at and immediately cry “traitor”. There were also pictures showing the forced labour camps, or community farming as it was called. The people evacuated from the city were forced to work for more than 16 hours a day, with one bowl of rice; those who stumbled and fell did not survive for long.
For me, it was Building “C” that really brought home the awfulness of this place. There was barbed wire over the whole building, not to keep the prisoners in, but to stop them committing suicide. All of the floors had been converted into small cells of brick or wood into which the prisoners were crammed. The floor space allocated to each cell was no larger than a coffin, an apt comparison given the nature of this place.
It was truly terrible. It made me feel physically sick with disgust and for me and for Oskar that was really enough. Tania had gone to minister to Luca who had actually been sick though not for the same reason, so we returned to the tuk-tuk and while Tania went to see Building “C” and the exhibition behind it we played Uno in an attempt to blot out the horrors we had just witnessed. She returned with tears in her eyes and like us feeling sick after the gut-wrenching images and the thoughts they provoked.
So then we steeled ourselves once more and headed out of town to the ultimate destination of almost all of the inmates of S-21.
The Killing Fields – Choeung Ek
Between 1975 and 1978, 17,000 prisoners were transported here, usually during the night to meet there ultimate end. Some were given the mercy of a bullet, but a lot were murdered by whatever was to hand, usually farm implements which the guards used to bludgeon them to death to save bullets. There is also a killing tree which the guards used to murder the babies and children against.
Many of the communal graves have been excavated, and a good number of their remains are now housed in a memorial stupa classed by age and sex. During the rainy season it is not unusual for bones and fragments of cloth to surface from the graves, and a group of curators gather these up for internment from time to time.
The prisoners last minutes were scrupulously monitored and lists were checked and rechecked to ensure that no-one had escaped before they were led a short distance to their deaths. In the beginning of its infamous history the trucks arrived every 3 weeks, by the end there were several arriving each day. The Khmer Rouge had rigged up speakers to a tree that blasted out martial music and popular songs to mask the sound of the screams and the guns so that the locals assumed that there was a rally going on.
Nowadays it is a peaceful place for reflecting on the atrocities committed here. Each entrance ticket comes with an audio guide which explains the significance of each part of the death camp, and also provides additional information and interviews with survivors and guards. There is also an apology from “Duc” who when faced with the horrors of the camp was contrite. His trial was coming to an end as we were in Cambodia and he was sentenced to a scandalous 19 years, so we read, for his war crimes.
Again here, it did not feel right to take photos. Somehow it would have been an imposition, insensitive even, to snap away at the remnants of so much horror and suffering. Instead we paused and listened to the commentary (which was really well done) and attempted to reconcile man as we know them, and the monsters that this régime created.
The few photos we did take were of the stupa and the magic tree – on which the speakers were mounted. There are some pictures of the bones in the stupa, but I don’t feel comfortable posting them.
Somewhat shell-shocked we left and rejoined Luca and the tuk-tuk man – he had slept a little and was feeling a lot better. We mounted up for the ride back to the city and asked the driver to drop us at a Lebanese restaurant on the river front, where we enjoyed a fabulous feast – I would heartily recommend it as a change from the norm.
We wandered back to the hotel in a somewhat subdued mood, but buoyed a little by the fine food. It had been a really difficult day. We had expected that, but we had felt that we had to experience those places in an effort to understand the country’s history and to marvel at the resilience of the Cambodian people, who were deeply scarred by these events and yet have the capacity to laugh and to smile, their wounds healed.
1st February 2012 – National Museum & Grand Palace
Aside from the chore of packing for our departure tomorrow, today was about focussing on rather more enlightened and beautiful things. So we headed to the National Museum and the Grand Palace situated conveniently close to each other.
The National Museum was full of treasures from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples as well as items of interest from the ruling dynasty and some jewellery. Set around a central courtyard the museum was tiny by comparison to the British Museum or the Louvre. However, we did some temple spotting – “We’ve been there!” and admired the trinkets and baubles, the royal paraphernalia and attempted to dodge the ladies ministering to the Buddha and Shiva statues who thrust flowers into your hands so you can make an offering – for a price of course!
Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photographs inside – presumably so that there is no evidence of the disappointing contents of this place. As you can probably tell, we were not that impressed!
We walked the few hundred metres to The Grand Palace, a place that had been designed along the lines of the one in Bangkok. It cost us $6.25 to get inside the walls and for that we got into the palace and the temples attached. The palace complex consisted of around 6 buildings only one of which was open to the public and this was The Throne Hall, an imposing building where coronations take place and important events like the presentation of diplomats credentials.
Having exhausted the palace area we moved through to the temple complex. Like the one in Bangkok there is a cloister running around the whole complex that is decorated in colourful murals – well at one time maybe. These were faded, in some places they had clearly fallen off the wall, and the wall had been replastered but no painting carried out. It was in a really poor condition along most of its length and no attempt at conservation or restoration appears to have been made – what are they spending the entrance fees on I wonder?
The grounds were quite pretty dotted around with small temples, one housing 5 footprints of Buddha. But the main attraction here is the Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is tiled in silver. This Pagoda houses an emerald Buddha as well as examples of fine Khmer craftsmanship. The statues were amazing and the artwork intricate and skilled, but at the entrance where you could see the floor (the rest is covered over in rugs to protect it from the tourists) it looked like it was being held together by sticky tape.
No pictures allowed inside again.
Although the buildings were impressive, and ornate, there was not the magnificence or splendour of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, or the reverence and peace of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Some places were crumbling and faded, and some opulent but a bit kitsch. Suffice to say we were disappointed and more than a little begrudging of the money we had parted with to look around this place of kings.
Exiting the temple into the arms of the waiting drinks vendors on the street outside we wandered back to the hotel via some shopping streets so that Tania could take a look at what was on offer. But with 3 children in toe at their boisterous best, shopping was never going to be easy. As it turned out there was little of interest to be found save for the odd “cool” motorbike on the pavement outside for the boys to “Whoa!” at.
We returned to the hotel to finish packing and dined at the noodle house again. Good fun, good food and plenty of it. Nice people too. Then it was off to bed in anticipation of another early morning bus and a new country.
2nd February 2012 – So long Phnom Penh, Hello Saigon
No time for a full breakfast we satisfied ourselves with coffee and pastries from the Blue Pumpkin as we were loaded into a minibus to take us to the bus station by the main market where we had arrived not so many days before. Our bus was waiting for us and our other fellow minibus passengers and we were soon loaded on board and heading for the border.
Anyone who has done long bus journeys knows just how much fun and how interesting they are! This one was no exception apart from the interruption half-way through where we had to file off the bus to get our exit visa stamp by the Cambodian official, and then after a short bus ride, grab all our belongings and file through the Vietnam border, wait patiently for our entrance stamps and then put our bags through an x-ray machine which no-one was obviously monitoring, and then after a final check, return to the bus for the Vietnam leg of the journey to Saigon.
As we left the frontier there was little difference in the countryside or the towns that we passed through from those we had left in Cambodia. After several more hours we arrived at Backpacker Central and armed with our notepad of hotels were about to set off on our quest when we were greeted by a kind gentleman owner of a guesthouse.
He led us off to his place for a look, and even took us to several of the places on our list (they were full) before bringing us back to another of his guest houses that was slightly bigger and suitable for ourselves and our bags.
We settled in and then set off to find some food – Pho Bo for dinner which was plentiful and very tasty. And then back to the hotel to bed – some rather odd reviews telling tales of robbery kind of worried us and so we would have to find somewhere else to rest our bones!
The night passed without incident I will add before signing off.
New country, new people, new language. How would it differ from Cambodia, which is no doubt beautiful in the places we didn’t get to; has some great things to see in Angkor Wat and Krachie, but all in all, after the magnificence of the temples, there was little to endear us to the country. Perhaps it is not a country to experience with children? I hope Vietnam is better.