Sunday 23 September 2012

Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek and S21

17th-23rd August 2012

Well, I promised I'd catch up with my blogging and four days in the hills around Chiang Rai was the perfect opportunity. I'll be uploading the next few posts as fast as my current internet connection will allow so expect them to come thick and fast.

One of the plusses of taking the Mekong Delta tour was it finished in Chau Doc, which just happens to be the setting off point for the fast boat up the Mekong to Phnom Penh.

Our guide, Anh, saw us off from the jetty at 7.30am and we were off. The trip took about 6 hours in total but that included two fairly lengthy stops, one to leave Vietnam and the second to enter Cambodia. The boat was pretty comfy and we even got a little lunchbox including the worlds smallest banana.

This banana is very small Dougal...
Much better than a hot and bumpy bus ride!

We were dropped off at the wharf in the middle of Phnom Penh to be greeted by dozens of tuk tuk drivers. I’ve since got used to hearing their call at every turn: “Tuk Tuk, sir?” I find the best response is to nod solemnly and reply, “Cheesy biscuits.”

After a short tuk tuk ride, we arrived at our hotel to find that no other than Elton John had stayed there!

Mmmm...random capitals and a redundant apostrophe - where's Bernie Taupin when you need him?
When I asked, the owner told me he had no idea who Elton John was until he’d left and a minion gave him this photo. Still, I guess it's a mixed blessing being a famous English pop star in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh is markedly different to anywhere we've been previously. It’s a little more…edgy. It’s got the air of a frontier town about it. There’s not a great deal to see around town, there’s a Buddhist temple on the only hill (which we walked around), and the Royal Palace (which we didn’t) and that’s about it.

Wicker statue of seven-headed Naga in front of Wat Phnom
Karen's still making new friends
Phnom Penh railway station - just needs a railway
Wherever you go in Phnom Penh, there are reminders of Cambodia’s recent, bloody past, be it razor-wire and bullet holes on buildings or the constant offers from tuk tuk drivers to take us to the Tuol Sleng Museum (or S21) or the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It’s too large a part of the country’s history to completely ignore, so we started with S21.

S21 was the Khmer Rouge’s codename for their detention centre in Phnom Penh. It used to be a school but was converted into a place of torture and murder. Of the thousands that entered, only a handful left alive. It’s been left pretty much as it was found when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh.

Stone cells in S21
Stone cells in S21
Line of cells
View of courtyard
Wooden cells
Interior of wooden cell
Detention block in S21
Most disturbing of all were the cells where the most recent victims were discovered – just bed frames, scraps of clothing and stained floors.

I didn’t take any photos of those.

A visit to S21 is usually paired with a visit to the closest of the infamous ‘Killing Fields’ at Choeung Ek. Two such trips in one day was too much for us so we went the following day.

Choeung Ek is a very pleasant 30 minute tuk tuk ride south of Phnom Penh. There’s nothing remarkable about the site itself, but what happened there, and at hundreds of other sites in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 shouldn’t be forgotten. I’m not going to give you much history of the killing fields of Cambodia – there are plenty of other places you can look at that do a far better job than I could (Wikipedia is a good place to start.) I haven’t got many photos to show you either as taking pictures largely didn’t seem appropriate.

After paying at the gates, you are given an audio guide that talks you through the various areas in the camp. It is estimated that over 30,000 Cambodians were killed and buried here, mainly it seems for being perceived as a threat to the ruling Khmer Rouge, or sometimes, just for being related to such a person. Although many of the mass graves have been exhumed, many are still untouched. Scraps of clothes and bones regularly work their way to the surface, indeed, as we were making our way around, a fellow tourist pointed downwards to where a tooth was lying by the side of the path. It’s all pretty harrowing, none more so than the “Killing Tree” where, in order to save bullets, small children were murdered.

In the centre of the site, they’ve built a large stupa to commemorate the dead. Inside more scraps of clothing from the victims and hundreds of human skulls – a very visual reminder of what happened.

Stupa at Choeung Ek
Victims' remains inside the stupa
Although we found both S21 and Choeung Ek disturbing and upsetting, I think it’s important that any visitors to Cambodia also visit sites such as these. If these kinds of events are not recognised and remembered and then the chances of them re-occurring again in the future or other parts of the world are surely increased. Sobering stuff.

Reading the last few paragraphs may make it seem like our time in Phnom Penh was all a bit depressing, but we did have time for some fun as well. If you follow Karen’s Facebook feed, you’ll already know about her attempts to rescue a helpless kitten.

You should have seen the fleas coming off this thing (the kitten)
Tiny, tiny cat
It all turned out fine when we realised the kitten was getting fed by almost every soppy tourist that frequented the particular bar where we found it.

Also, on the recommendation of Sheena and Adam who were in these parts a few years ago, we took a Cambodian cooking class. Cambodian cooking doesn’t appear to be as advanced as it’s neighbours in Vietnam and Thailand, but we were assured that was because the Thais and Vietnamese had stolen all their ideas from the Khmers who used to rule the entire peninsular back in the day (see the upcoming Angkor Wat post for details!)

We made spring rolls, a fantastic banana shoot salad, sticky rice with mango and the national dish of Cambodia, fish amok, which is similar to a red curry.

Grating taro for the spring rolls
Hard at work pounding the red curry paste
Fish amok, served in a banana leaf
Banana shoot salad
Mango with sticky rice and coconut caramel - as you can see, I'm no food artist
And, that was it for Phnom Penh. Definitely worth a visit!

Next up, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and the arrival of my parents for a whistle-stop tour of Cambodia and Thailand.

Stay tuned...

Current location: Chiang Khong
Next stop: Laos

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