A Slightly Different Start To Cambodia Than Expected
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 48 of 117 › view all entries
Arriving in the capital city of Cambodia without preparation came as a bit of a shock, but one I think we dealt with pretty well.
After finding some pretty decent accommodation on the lake front, we spent our first day getting our bearings in a city that could match Bangkok for heat, commotion and pace. You can't help but be taken aback by the traffic on the roads, where cars are outnumbered by motorbikes and tuk-tuks by about five to one. The roads are absolute madness; it's not uncommon to drive on the wrong side of the road, use a horn instead of an indicator, overtake two cars whilst in a single lane, or overtake cows. The motorbikes are the public transport here, not buses or trains, and whilst you may think that would imply that multi-person transit isn't as common, I've seen whole families riding on a single motorbike.
We took a long walk down the Tonle Sap river to the Royal Palace, the residence of King Sihamoni, with some rather posh-looking gold buildings and fancy gardens. Within the walls is the Silver Pagoda, a floor with five tons of silver and an emerald Buddha. Perhaps the interest of the first day was less in the extravagant buildings and more in watching the Cambodians going about their day-to-day lives. Outside tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, there are amputees begging for money, probably having lost a limb or limbs from the thousands of landmines that still litter the country even today.
We started off visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which is where around 17,000 men, women and children were executed in the genocidal rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between mid-1975 and 1978. It's a sickening sight, seeing a monument to remember the dead piled high with over 8,000 skulls of the victims, varying in sex and all ages. All around the monument are the excavated mass graves, still with bits of torn clothes and small pieces of human bone. Not the happiest of places, but worth a visit. I wasn't sure if Nada meant it completely as a joke, seen as all tuk-tuk drivers seem hell-bent on getting you there - probably paid on commision - but after asking us what we thought, he asked us whether we wanted to go to the shooting range next! We declined, and headed over to Tuol Sleng Museum, a school turned Security Prison 21 (S-21) that was used by the Khmer Rouge to detain and interrogate victims before they were taken away for execution at the Killing Fields.
The museum's pretty much left as it might have been, not that long ago, with some rooms accompanied by a photo of the victims found dead as a result of being tortured. All very morbid, it still stands as testament to the horrors that went on. The fact that photos of all the victims were taken upon capture makes it even harder to stomach, as the walls of one building are covered with faces of people who must have known full well they faced imminent death.
It's been a good couple of days in Phnom Penh, even if we didn't mean to visit this early, and it was good getting some context of the country's history before we head west.