Friday, 24 April 2009

Cambodia. Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields and Khmer New Year

I reluctantly say my goodbyes to the new friends I made on the Chinese tour and head for Beijing Airport. The comfort blanket of the tour group has so far shielded me from loneliness but now its time to continue my journey alone. I’m throwing myself in at the deep end and heading for Cambodia, a country once so dangerous it would make Afghanistan seem like Chessington World of Adventures.

My plane journey was in two 3 hour segments, the plane will make a brief stop in Southern China before continuing on to Cambodia. During the first part of the flight a smiling China Airways stewardess came past me with the drinks trolley and offered me some refreshment. “Peijo?” I enquired using one of the limited (but important) Chinese words I’ve learned. She smiled at me politely and without hesitation reached down and produced a cold can of beer. “You wan glass for your beer sir?”, “No thank you“, I said. I drank the beer and had a snooze. Some hours later, once I had boarded the same plane following a brief stop, the same flight attendant came past with the trolley again asking if I’d like a drink. “Peijo” I said again with a beaming smile. This time both the flight attendant and the two Chinese businessmen sitting next to me gave me a look of utter contempt and incredulity. “Peijo” I repeated. She handed me a water and shook her head tutting with a look of absolute disgust as if I’d just suggested I was going to execute her entire family. The Chinese businessmen muttered between themselves in disbelief at my request and I was left sat there completely baffled with my tail between my legs. Perhaps my pronunciation was incorrect and I had in fact requested some weapons grade plutonium.

I have two contacts in Cambodia. Sue, an expat who lives permanently in Phnom Penh and who was a great resource and drinking buddy on my last visit two years ago, and Phy a Cambodian tuk tuk driver who acted as our driver, guide, bodyguard, translator and general all round fixer during my last visit.

“The only honest tuk tuk driver in Cambodia” Sue had once explained. I’m greeted at the airport by a smiling Phy who shook my hand like an old friend. It was good to see a familiar face. Sue had arranged transport and a guesthouse for me, but I soon discovered that she will not be in Phnom Penh during my stay, she has travelled to the provinces with her boyfriend for a romantic celebration of Khmer New Year. Looks like I really am alone this time. The first thing I notice is the intense heat. Its 35 degrees and humid. I’m sweating so much there is a small pool forming under my seat, I need a shower. Phy takes my to my guesthouse and leaves me his number so that I can use him during my stay. Its 11pm, I shower and take to the streets for a wander. I obviously stick out like a sore thumb as the minute I hit the street I am pounced upon by a multitude of locals offering me women, drugs or…. “something else..?”. God only knows what the “something else” could be after women and drugs are out of the equation.
The following morning I find a restaurant by the river for some breakfast. A young girl of no more than 14 or 15 sits down next to me and starts talking. Her name is Irina (I think), and she is a Cambodian local. Her English is excellent and chat to her for about 10mins trying to learn a few basic words. Then she asks me if I’d like to have sex with her. Shocked, I immediately but politely refuse, she then tells me that she has to work very hard on the streets to feed her family and that she is very poor, (although her clothing and well spoken accent suggest otherwise). I’m not sure if I’m being scammed or not and my defences are up. I contemplate giving her some money but decide against is as I already have 3 or 4 young kids selling dvds pulling at my sleeves. I know that the minute I give to one, they will be around me like flies. I make my excuses and leave. Being a thirysomething single traveller in Cambodia is difficult, I must look like a sex tourist. I decide its time to move to a less salubrious but busier area around the lakeside and try to make some new friends.

My guesthouse is Simons II and was recommended by the lonely planet. Its set in the ramshackle squalor of the Lakeside but somehow my room is ridiculously opulent.
Not bad for $10 a night.

I take to the streets for an explore and I’m immediately hit by the contrast of Cambodia from China. Whist China is a developing country, Cambodia is still very much undeveloped. It also has many contradictions. Extreme poverty with entire families sleeping on the streets on one side, and beautifully manicured boulevards and tree lined streets on the other.

Everyone smiles at you and even though you are pestered a lot by the locals, its in a friendly, non-abrasive manner and refusal is generally taken well. I wander through the markets and stroll the boulevards and take it all in.

At one point a small monkey appeared out of nowhere and stared at me menacingly,. He seemed to be reaching behind for something as if he was going to pull out a gun.

Thankfully it was only a banana which he proceeded to unpeel and eat in front of me like a cliché from a cartoon.
During my last visit to Cambodia I visited the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the gruesome S21 prison were thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. I did not however visit the infamous mass graves of the Killing Fields, I decide its time to get the more macabre side of Cambodian history over and done with. I call Phy and head off to the Killing Fields some 15km outside Phnom Penh.

In the late 1960’s Cambodia was drawn into the Vietnam war. The Americans began carpet bombing suspected communist camps in Cambodia which acted only to push them and their Vietnamese allies deeper into Cambodia’s interior. Brutal fighting then ensued all over Cambodia, which finally ended only when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge then attempted to implement a revolution and turn Cambodia into a peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. During 4 bloody years over a million Cambodians would be tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge with a further 2 million dying of famine, disease and starvation. It is estimated that Pol Pots Khmer Rouge was responsive for the deaths of over 3 million people, a third of the entire population. There is not one Cambodian alive today who hasn’t suffered in some way by the regime. Almost everyone has lost a father, an uncle a child or a friend to this brutal and horrific period in Cambodia’s history. The Killing Fields is the site at which the Khmer Rouge would kill and bury their victims. So far over 18000 bodies have been uncovered in the mass graves of the Killing Fields.

When I arrived at the site I was surprised by the serenity of the place, this beautiful white pagoda stands as the centrepiece of the site. However a closer look inside tells a different story.

The pagoda is the home to thousands of skulls that were uncovered and serves as a permanent reminder of the horrors of genocide. Most of the skulls contain fractures and holes from where the victims were bludgeoned to death with iron bars. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste and most people were horrifically beaten until dead.

Next to this mass grave (one of many) where over 190 bodies were found stands a tree.

Its named the Killing Tree as it is the tree that thousands of children and babies were killed against. The Khmer Rouge would pick the babies up by the feet and smash their heads against this tree until dead, before throwing them into the mass graves.
This plaque says it all.
It was a sombre and sobering experience, 30 minutes was all I needed before heading out of there and heading back to my room for some reflection.

Thankfully the mood was lifted when I arrived back at my room. I opened my door and was greeted by a cheeky little puppy called Lilly. God knows how she got into my room but she played with my shorts for about 10 minutes and put a smile back on my face. I even forgave her the small pool of warm yellow puppy piss that she left outside my door that I later stepped in.

Later that evening I took a tuk tuk over the river to a bar I visited last time owned by an Australian expat called Snow. The bar is beautifully decorated with all kinds of trinkets and has an almost Moroccan feel with a warm ambiance provided by soft lighting and a spectacular view of Phnom Penh out over the Mekong River.

I also found a rather humorous sign above the urinals.

The following day and it was Khmer New Year. A lovely lady from my guesthouse suggested I walk to Wat Phnom the cities highest point consisting of a small circular park and a temple on a hill in the centre of it. This was the scene for the days festivities. When I arrived I was greeted by a colourful and vibrant display of people in bright clothes and costumes playing and partying with their friends and family and enjoying the New Year. I was the only westerner that I saw but I didn’t mind. I took a seat on the grass and people watched for an hour or so. There was a really pleasant atmosphere and all the kids were running about the place smiling and giggling it was very uplifting and enjoyed it immensely.

Later it was back to the Lakeside for some beers and some chilling.

I met a few people in the 5 days I spent in Phnom Penh, had some drinks and food and played pool, but no-one I wanted to exchange numbers with or meet again. I guess there will be a lot of disposable friends on this trip. I’m know I will have to get used to being alone a lot of the time, and my Cambodian experience has taught me that I’m really not that bad company and can get along quite happily on my own. I get out my Lonely Planet and start planning my trip to Vietnam.

Next Stop…… Saigon… where I will walk through the famous Cu Chi tunnels and finally make a new friend…. Stay tuned.


  1. Great work Julsey. Keep up the good work.