Where have I got to?
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 8 of 23 › view all entries
I forget. Neither Emma nor I can work out how long we've been here. We're measuring out how long we have before we need to leave in terms of how many malaria tablets we have left.
We spent two and a half days in Siem Reap, visiting temples and trying to visit bamboo villages. We hardly slept, due to the heat. Siem Reap was the first place that had solid streets and a managable amount of beggars. It was weird, a throwback town to the French occupation of Cambodia. There is more cashflow, due to the temple industries, so some streets looked 'normal'. But when we got the Mekong Express Limosine Bus (cramped velour deathtrap, reminiscent of poorer National Express coaches but the poshest thing in Cambodia), it still departed from a muddy orange puddle in the middle of a shanty town.
Now, we're in Phnom Penh. We arrived last night and stayed in the worst part of town. Miles and miles of busy, crazy streets, buildings still suffering from Khmer Rouge cleansing, and no restaurants. This morning, we moved hotels to the riverfront but are now suspicious about the number of pretty Cambodian waitresses and an equivalent number of single Western men. Still, we're leaving for Kampot tomorrow.
Today, we went to Tuol Sleng, S-21. The Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh in April 1975 to huge cheers and relief, liberating the city. Three hours later they had converted the main school into a torture centre and were imprisoning and executing people, almost at random.
I can't begin to tell you how horrific Tuol Sleng is. The place is basically exactly as the Vietmanese found it in 1979. Our guide was a 40-something woman, and she casually mentioned halfway round that she, her parents and her brother had been transported from Phnom Penh to Battambang, 320km away, in 1975. Her father and brother had been murdered there. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, she and her mother walked home from Battambang to Phnom Penh. It took them three months. Only one of the officials involved in S-21 is awaiting trial. The others are free, or dead. S-21 was just a small part of the Khmer Rouge's intense, mindless destruction of Khmer culture and people.
Later, we went to the Royal Palace. 80% of Cambodians are unemployed. Everywhere Em and I go, we are targets for beggars, because we are clearly Western and therefore clearly rich. The King lives in luxury and demands the respect of his people, and yet there is no kind of authority or infrastructure to support the millions of starving, ill or otherwise desperate people. Still, every single person we have met have been friendly, cheerful, funny and intelligent - even the kids hawking water and bracelets are genuinely charming once they have made a dollar from you.
Cambodia is weird, and sort of heartbreaking.