Mekong Delta, Cambodia impressions, Cheoung Ek, and Tuol Seng

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Floating shop at the Mekong Delta.
There hasn't really been free wifi since we departed from Saigon so there's a bit to cover in this entry. Even now, we have to use a prepaid card for our wifi and it's slow so I'll save the pics for sometime later.

Our last tour of Vietnam drove us south to the Mekong Delta. The floating markets and communities along the river are quite lively. Although the water is brown, it's apparently clean enough to wash and cook with as we saw a few people bathing in the river. The communities have many specialties that we got introduced to such as a honeybee farm, coconut candy making, and popped rice (think rice krispies treats). At some point farther down, we had to cross the river to one of the islands and no bridge had been built so we took a huge industrial sized ferry across.
That's wine with essence of snake and bird. Yes, we did try some. Burned as expected.
The ride was barely 10 minutes but I was struck at the realization that this ferry system (maybe about 4-6 of them) was probably the cheapest way to keep traffic moving rather than building a 2 or 3 km long suspension bridge. From there, we made our way to another part of the river and took a long boat ride to the floating hotel we were staying at. Not that it made much a difference because the structure was really stable and I fell asleep pretty soon after getting there because the day had been long.

Wednesday had us departing early by boat where we saw a fish farm. The feeding frenzy when the fish food got dropped in was rather incredible and boy did they look fat and ripe for consumption. From there, we finally got onto our fast boat that took us upriver into Cambodia with stops at the riverside customs office.
Phnom Penh temples.
By the time we got in to Phnom Penh, it was past 3 PM. I am not too sure how to describe my initial opinion of the Cambodian countryside and Phnom Penh. For starters, I noticed a lot more temples or at least temple-like archways dotting the landscape usually brightly colored with pointy tops. Secondly, there are fewer people here than either Hanoi or Saigon, but the ratio of cars to motorbike is definitely higher. That could possibly be because of the last distinction: it is definitely sandier/dustier here than in Vietnam. It was hot, but wasn't as humid as I was expecting it to be and overall, I think I was happier about that. Despite the countless tuk tuk (carriages being towed by a motorbike) drivers hounding us, we chanced upon a driver who spoke pretty good English and whom we eventually asked to recommend us a hotel.
The memorial tower at Cheoung Ek.
We got to a fair one. The food markets near our hotel are as busy as ever during the day, but the riverside a block past it is surprisingly devoid of activity. It seems to be mainly a leisure spot; there were no food stalls or people hawking stuff from the stretch I saw although there were several touristy type bars and hotels on the street alongisde the river. We took our time to explore in the evening and kept things rather peaceful for a change.

Today, we got up late with Mike finally having been able to sleep soundly after awhile. From there, we met up with our tuk tuk driver from the day before, Mr. Ya, who had offered to show us around for a fee. He had said he'd arrive at 10 AM, but we actually didn't get down till noon and he was still there waiting for us.
Words cannot describe what I felt as I took this first picture.
That's how he hustles for business, but his good English and willingness to talk to us about different things like Cambodian politics while we ate lunch had won us over. After lunch, our first stop was the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields. This is the place where the Khmer Rouge government hauled off many of their own people and brutally murdered them from 1975 to 1979. The first thing you see when you enter is a huge beautiful tower. What it holds though, are the numerous skulls that have been discovered from the mass graves in the area. The contrasting nature of this type of memorial was surreal and I got the chills as we solemnly walked up. It's not a place you actually go into, rather it is just several levels of skulls in the center of the tower only a few meters wide. From there we walked around the grounds where we saw numerous mass graves, some of them still showing bones that had yet to be excavated.
The killing tree of Cheoung Ek. You can still see unsorted bones at the trunk.
There were other things such as the Killing Tree where Khmer Rouge swung babies by their legs and beat them against the tree. I found the symbolism in this tree (usually a symbol of life, but in this case a symbol of death), very sad.

From there, we went to another place representing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, the Tuol Seng prison. Named S-21, this place housed people of all kinds who were brutally imprisoned, tortured and killed.  Their regime was to create an ideal communal society in a slightly different way from the Soviet and Chinese communist regimes at that time. The regime rooted out all of the intellectuals and educated from Phnom Penh as a sign of corruption. The "base" people or the ones from the rural villages were the people from whom the Khmer Rouge represented.
An S-21 prison cell.
The irony is that many of the people in Phnom Penh were actually from these rural villages trying to escape the fighting from before or make a living in the city. People tried to hide themselves and look more like peasants like hiding the fact they could speak multiple languages and scrubbing themselves dirty to look like peasants. Even Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves were targeted and tortured by their own, some of the torturers fearing reprisal from those above if they refused. The museum housed the old prison cells, torture racks, and numerous photos and testimonials from victims. One striking section involved a Swedish group that had initially supported the Khmer Rouge when they came to power in1975 and produced a documentary when they came to visit in 1978 after rumors of Khmer atrocities had surfaced.
A depiction of the torture of S-21 prisoners.
They were taken on a tour by the Khmer hosts and were essentially given a good impression. Without anyone in the group being able to speak Khmer, they could not verify if things were as good as it seemed and essentially fed into the whole propoganda machine. That section displayed the thoughts of the photographers then and now and is a striking example of the disconnect the rest of the world seemed to have with the crisis. The UN even offered Cambodia a seat and gave it to the Khmer Rouge. Even now, the international tribunals judging the Khmer Rouge generals and politicians is being held up for one reason or another and some key figures, including Prime Minister Pot Pol who essentially orchestrated the whole thing had passed away in 1998 escaping judgement. The whole thing is completely illogical and the Cambodian people have suffered greatly from it.
Mr. Ya, Mike, and me.


Anyways, after that, we tried to liven things up by asking Mr. Ya to take us to a good place for dinner and such. We had a good time and despite not seeing too much specifically, I really like this city as being one of the better stops in my trip. Mr. Song Ya is definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Very friendly and willing to talk about all sorts of things. We introduced the concept of "exclusive" to him when he talked about his uncle wanting to get a particular product exclusively from a Thai supplier. And I taught him the word "accountability" when he said that he put all his personal information on his business card so that if he ever made a serious mistake, people can arrest him. That's the kind of personal honor he has and describes the kind of guide he was for us today. I realize that it's these kinds of people who can make the travel experience special and I know I will always see him as a standard for excellence as a guide. Tomorrow, we'll be prepping for travel and taking a bus ride to Siem Reap, the other tourist stop from which we'll get to see the groups of Angkor temples.
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Floating shop at the Mekong Delta.
Floating shop at the Mekong Delta.
Thats wine with essence of snake …
That's wine with essence of snake…
Phnom Penh temples.
Phnom Penh temples.
The memorial tower at Cheoung Ek.
The memorial tower at Cheoung Ek.
Words cannot describe what I felt …
Words cannot describe what I felt…
The killing tree of Cheoung Ek. Yo…
The killing tree of Cheoung Ek. Y…
An S-21 prison cell.
An S-21 prison cell.
A depiction of the torture of S-21…
A depiction of the torture of S-2…
Mr. Ya, Mike, and me.
Mr. Ya, Mike, and me.
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk