This surreal photo is of John being handed the gun.
After our first nightmarish experience of taking a bus journey in Cambodia, you could forgive us for being apprehensive about our next drive to the countries capital, Phnom Penh. Although it was only scheduled to last 6 hours, we were not best pleased to be facing another journey just 4 days after the last one, although we were assured by our guest houses owners that the roads where nowhere near as bad as our previous experience. Well, we found out within ten minutes of departing, that if the road from the Thai border to Siam Reap was like driving over constant massive speed bumps, then the road to Phnom Penh was more like driving over a constant cobbled road, with the occasional bomb crater to wake you up just as you might be nodding off for sleep.
You can see the skulls inside.
It was an improvement, but only in the way that being mugged and taking a beating would have been an improvement too. Within an hour of setting off the bus broke down, (for real this time-John and myself being the only tourists on the bus-no scams here) and we sat in the baking sun without air conditioning before another bus came with a part we needed and we were off again. Air travel never looked so inviting (and it takes a LOT for me to say that!). That was mercifully the end of the incidents and we made Phnom Penh before nightfall. As we went to exit the bus we could hear the regular crew of taxi and tuk tuk drivers waiting outside loudly offering their services to the people exiting the bus. Their efforts were half hearted until they spied me making my way down the aisle and suddenly the air erupted with screams and cries as they tried to outshout each other for our custom.
Outside the national museum.
(Being white makes you feel like a superstar in Aisia!) I quickly talked to the one directly in front of the bus, more out of necessity than choice, and soon we were winging our way to our hostel by the lake. Our first of only two nights was spent eating and drinking on one of the many lake side guest-houses decks, each of them spreading out over the water to afford views of the lakes and the city around us. The lake itself is not what we would call a lake, more of a smattering of watery pools, each trying to survive in a sea of green grass and leaves. Each wooden deck had huge couches and chairs as well as hammocks aplenty, and all around us travelers relaxed and chilled in a deep and soulful way that suggested they would likely have to shake the cobwebs from their thread worn clothes when they finally did decide to drag themselves from their bohemian paradise.
On the deck.
Since we only had the one day to see anything we booked a tour of sorts with the hostel, and the next morning we were in the back of another tuk tuk heading off to the sights of Phnom Penh. The city has just over a million inhabitants and everyone seemed to be riding a bike that morning as we headed for our first stop, a shooting range thats been distastefully set up a stones throw from the Killing Fields. Once there we took a seat at a table and we were handed a menu, from which we could have a drink, some basic snacks, or shoot an AK-47. Or a browning, or a Magnum, or a colt, or just about any other handgun or machine gun you could think of. Or if you wanted something with a bit more bite for breakfast, for 200 U.S Dollars you could shoot a rocket launcher or anti-tank missile.
Some kids playing on the water.
They didn't offer us a cow to shoot one at, as we have heard happens here, so John instead went for an AK-47 with a full clip. After putting on army fatigues we went into a range where his instructor set him up and off he went, shooting his heart away at a distant target. With most of the rounds used he was allowed to fire the gun on automatic, so now what had been a slight kick back that was no where near the force of a shotgun or more powerful rifle became like a swift series of Bruce Lee punches to the shoulder, the rounds flying from the muzzle with frightening ease. Anyone in the way wouldn't stand a chance, even with his aim. The rounds used we were on our way, the experience being a strange one making me slightly uneasy (I by the way, refused to even touch a gun, let alone shoot one), but that's all part of traveling for sure.
Relaxing on the deck.
Next was another experience sure to make us feel uneasy, as we headed for the nearby killing fields, made so famous by the eighties movie of the same name. As we were to learn, when the war in Vietnam allowed the Khmer Rouge to seize control of Cambodia in 1975, they quickly set about killing all the intelligent people in the country. Like the modern Taliban in Afghanistan, they believed that modern man has gone astray, and the only way forward was to wipe away the 'poisoned' modern generation and educate the younger generation that they are the pure ones. While the children were brainwashed to believe that this was year 0, the beginning of time in which there was no bond to family or friendship or god and only to the party, the older generation were encouraged to 'confess' to prior teaching or schooling so that they may be forgiven.
And forgiven they were, with a bullet to the head, if they were lucky. If not, and bullets were low, a slow death may have been in store. Those chosen to die were bused into the area of the Killing Fields from all over Cambodia, waiting in small holding cells overnight if they arrived in the nighttime. While some 80,000 were believed to have been killed at the particular spot we were visiting, millions across the country were murdered in similar sites during the party's 4 year reign. We learned all this from reading the plaques leading to the site and from our guide book, and we had watched the film in our guest house where they show it each night. Immediately inside the grounds was a large building piled high with 8000 skulls, those unearthed during digging in the early eighties. The building was created in honour of the dead, and we walked around its somewhat gruesome interior passing a foot away from the skulls of the victims. Some had cards indicating the victims age, many as young as 7. We began to walk around the paths leading around the area, and each mass grave was covered by a small shelter, where a plaque indicated how many thousands had been buried there. We stuck to the path as our guide advised, and we could clearly see why it advised this, as in places bones and clothing stuck above the muds surface as ghastly reminders of the horrors the place has seen. We only spent about 40 minutes at the sight, time enough to feel its impact before we set on our way again. The ride to the next sight was done in silence, but thankfully something more cheerful was now in order. (I sat thinking whether John would have taken the opportunity to shoot a machine gun, had we visited the Killing Fields first. It felt even more strange now.)
The monument built in memory of the victims of the Killing Fields.
We headed to what the Cambodians describe as a Russian market, but it looked like any other type of market to us which was fine. We browsed the many stalls looking at local crafts and the usual array of souvenirs before heading for our next stop, the National Museum. This was naturally stuffed with artifacts recovered from Angkor, with countless statues and artifacts proudly bearing the names 'Angkor Wat'and 'Angkor Thom' and so on. By this time it was into the afternoon, and although our driver would have happily taken us onto the tours final stop, the national palace, we were tired and content with seeing it from a distance. After ten months of traveling its easily to get blase about some things! We instead headed for our hostel and spent more long hours chilling on a deck overlooking the lake, where a few cheap beers got us ready for another bus trip the next day. I think that at this point we both have to say, even inspite of its rough bus journeys and sometimes gruesome past, we are both absolutely loving Cambodia, one of the best spots on the trip so far...