The last (real) stop on my trip was the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh. It had been described by a friend as “Cambodian capital/sh*tpile,” so I was a little hesitant about saving it for last (didn’t want to end on a sour note and all that) but it ended up being not that bad. Yes, the touts were more aggressive than some other cities and its size made it more difficult to navigate and explore without a tuk-tuk than many others, but the hassle wasn’t that much worse than anywhere else in Southeast Asia and my hotel was located such that I found enough things to do to fill the 2.5 days I was there.
That first evening I located the closest vegetarian restaurant I could find to my hotel on happycow.net and set off, on foot, to find it. Phnom Penh, like most Southeast Asian cities I’ve been to, does not have usable sidewalks. Where sidewalks do exist they are almost without exception used for parking, product displays, and food stalls, leaving pedestrians to fight for space with traffic in the street. It took about 35 minutes at a quick pace to get to the restaurant, hidden in a parking lot behind a shopping mall. There were no other customers in there (not surprising given the location) so I can’t be positive about the source of their excitement, but I think a white person coming into their restaurant was kind of a big deal. They didn’t speak much English but there were English descriptions on the menu so I was able to order spring rolls and some sort of mock chicken. It was fine, but I think I would have been better served ordering something less traditional.
The next day I took a tuk-tuk with two English girls from my hotel to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial. We visited Tuol Sleng, a former school also known as S-21 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, first. This is where the Khmer Rouge brought an estimated 17,000 prisoner to be detained, interrogated, tortured, and sometimes killed. As a museum, I felt Tuol Sleng was lacking in interesting or relatable information. To its credit, though, a fair amount has been left as found (the museum was opened just one year after the invading Vietnamese army discovered the prison) and in places you can get a very uncomfortable feeling of what it might have been like being incarcerated there.
Most of the people I spoke with about the museum found themselves strongly identifying with the prisoners – a large number of whose mug shots fill room after room after room of the buildings – while walking through. I actually had a somewhat opposite experience, imagining myself not in the place of the prisoners but in the place of the guards. What would I have done in their situation? Could I have done what they did? Would I have been willing to stand up against something so clearly wrong, or would I have gone along with it in an effort to preserve myself and my family? (The Khmer Rouge had a saying, chik smav trauv chik teang reus, “To dig up grass, one must also dig up the roots.” To prevent reprisals, revenge or simply lingering resentment, an entire family would often be killed along with the offending individual.)
I really don’t know what I would have done. I’m not sure any of us do.
The people that weren’t killed at S-21 were brought to Choeung Ek, the killing fields. When you visit you’re provided with a surprisingly well-done audio guide directing you through the fields but also giving personal accounts, both from victims and perpetrators, of what it was like living under the Khmer Rouge. Many of the mass graves at the fields were exhumed, but so many victims were buried there and so many bodies left in pits that even today, some 35 years later, you can find scraps of clothing and pieces of bone surfacing while you walk. Nothing can quite describe how I felt holding a human tooth I found, amongst a cluster of teeth next to an upturned, half-buried skull, on the trail.
The most poignant moment for me though was at the stupa in the fields. It’s filled with over 5,000 skulls and a variety of other bones, and serves as a memorial to those that died. A large group of Cambodians entered the fields while I visiting the stupa. Many of them were around my age but a good deal were older, some much older. Seeing elderly women fervently kneeling to pray at the memorial knowing that they lived through this and knowing, when anywhere from 1-in-8 to 1-in-4 people died under the Khmer Rouge, that they had friends and family who were victims of the atrocities that were perpetrated, really struck me. I grew up learning about the Holocaust, but today and at my age it really feels quite removed; it feels like a different time in a different world. This – seeing actual victims and actual survivors – this was different. This was close.
I had intended to visit the shooting range during my time in Phnom Penh. I wanted to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade ($200), or at least throw a regular grenade ($50). And as we left the killing fields our tuk-tuk driver handed us a flyer for the gun range describing it as “the popular and funny place for tourists.” But there’s something about seeing the tree that smashed babies’ heads and holding body parts of genocide victims in your own hands that just really takes that desire to BLOW SHIT UP! right out of you.
That afternoon, after dropping stuff back at the hotel, I explored the local market and got two servings of a noodle dish from a street stall. The noodles looked like worms, but I’m fairly sure they weren’t. That night my friend Mike let me know he was in town so I made my way over to his hostel where we watched movies at the roof bar until 12:30am. After that I walked home, alone, through the dark and empty back streets of Phnom Penh while pretending that I wasn’t going to get mugged by walking and acting tough. “Fake-it-til-you-make-it” and/or luck worked in my favor and I got back to the hotel just fine, if a bit pumped up on adrenaline.
The next day I found another vegetarian restaurant to visit and made my way over there for brunch. It was near the river and not too far from the Royal Palace so I decided I’d stroll the river and visit the palace. Unfortunately, as I learned, the palace closes every day from 11am-2pm, and as it was only 11:30 I had some time to kill. I sat by the river reading and was approached by a local man selling drinks. Normally I’m rather curt with these people, telling them I’m not interested and making it clear that they should move on (it gets really, really tiring dealing with touts and all the crap they’re trying to sell you all day every day), but in this guy spoke decent English and I really had nothing better to do so I engaged him in conversation.
We talked for probably 20 minutes about the city, about how I saw many tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers sleeping outside on their vehicles the night before because – he told me – a large number of them come from outside the city and have no room to go back to and nowhere to park their bikes so sleeping on them solves two problems, about how he’s learning English by talking to tourists and studying from his battered and worn English study book that he showed me, about how he’s been selling drinks on the river for 2 years and can’t get a job at a hotel or restaurant despite his English because they all only hire family members, about how he lives in a one room apartment with 4 other men paying $11/mo in rent, about how Vietnamese tourists like to take a 7 hour boat trip down the river to visit the city, about how he’s happy the rainy season is over because no one is on the river in the rain, and about how the security guard I saw come over and taking a bottle of water from him is normal because he has to pay them off or they won’t let him sell. In the end I bought a can of soy milk that I had contemplated buying at the restaurant at brunch anyway but hadn’t.
From there I continued to wander. I paid too much money to a little kid for a small bag of corn kernels to feed the pigeons in front of the palace, and tried to read some more next to a park but it was too hot and the flies were too bad so I kept walking.
Just before the palace opened I ran into a couple that I met in my hostel the night before and we all went in together. It was actually more interesting talking to them – a Canadian and a German – than it was visiting the palace. The palace was mostly a scaled-down version of Thailand’s palace but without the age (it was built in the 1860s by the French Protectorate), and we were there for only about 45 minutes. From the palace I headed back to the vegetarian restaurant for a late lunch and then before leaving got take out (3 meals in one day from the same place – a new record!) to bring with me on the bus to Bangkok that night.
The bus experience was something of a fiasco, but less because things went wrong and more because promises weren’t kept. That being said, I made it back to Bangkok relatively smoothly, got a room, had some lunch, and spent the rest of the day relaxing. I spent my last day in the city at Chatuchak Weekend market, the largest market in Thailand covering 35 acres and containing over 5,000 stalls. I had gone just to kill time but wound up spending close to $70 on clothes and presents that I somehow managed to fit into my already quite-full backpack.
That night I took a 10pm minibus to the airport, was on my first of three flights home by 1:20am, December 19th, and 33 hours later arrived at my apartment in Boston at 6:30pm, also December 19th. Funny how time works.