Days 1 & 2
We’re on planes. We watch films. We use headphones to blank out the sounds of bawling babies. We eat, drink, stretch, read, doze. We spend more than 18 hours travelling, yet still manage to arrive at Phnom Penn on the same day we set off from Heathrow. And somehow it’s still daylight. Weird.
There to greet our bleary-eyed selves is Veasna, sent from the Pavilion Hotel to pick us up in the hotel’s vintage Jaguar XJ6.
Perhaps the only 1986 Jaguar XJS in all of Cambodia. I notice it has more than 80,000 miles on the clock. Veasna taps it. ‘No, is broken’, he says.
The hotel is a quiet green oasis in the full-on hustle of Phnom Penh. The weather is hot and humid and we spend the afternoon reading and occasionally sleeping in one of the raised-bed platforms that surround the pool.
All is calm within the hotel’s walls. Outside it’s a different story
The hotel offers a range of diversions and excursions so with nothing else in mind, we choose the Mekong River Sunset Tour.
We quickly learn that the sunset part is not guaranteed
Our vessel has repurposed old sewing machines to serve as tables. This example is typical.
An on-board commentary is provided but a combination of engine noise and unfamiliarity with the Cambodian accent unfortunately renders it largely incomprehensible. But gently cruising along the Mekong River, beer in one hand and brolly in the other, isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Back at the hotel, we consider our options for the rest of the evening. The night’s still young. But where to go, in this heaving, sprawling capital? Independent travellers that we are, we ditch the maps, discard the guidebooks, throw caution to the wind and ask the bloke at reception.
He suggests we visit Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club. Sounds good! The easy and most obvious way for tourists to get there would be to simply hail a tuk-tuk from right outside the hotel, so that’s precisely what we do. But first, we get a price from the driver.
He says that the ride will cost us two dollars. We act surprised and say ‘two dollars!’ Yes, he says, two dollars. We eventually settle on a figure of two dollars.
Later we’ll get better at this whole haggling thing.
Once inside the Foreign Correspondents Club it becomes obvious that we’ve hit pay dirt, as the Americans say. Pictures and clippings on the wall suggest the Club has been there for decades, somehow surviving US bombing, the murderous regime of Pol Pot and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion. I have images of booze-and-baccy-fuelled war correspondents hammering out the latest news of coups and curfews while looking out over the Tonle Sap River, bullets whizzing overhead.
In fact, the only bullets would have been fired by drunken journalists themselves. Turns out the Foreign Correspondents Club is much younger than I thought, dating from the early 1990s rather than when the REALLY bad things were happening. This new-found knowledge doesn’t make the bar/restaurant any less enjoyable in my recollection. It might not be 100% authentically or exclusively Cambodian, but it is the ideal place to settle down with good food and cold beer and watch the relentless traffic hoot and beep its way outside.
Pic courtesy Alex Masterley on FlickR
This morning there’s no need to even go through the motions of haggling with our tuk-tuk driver as a price was worked out months ago. We’re in the company of Lan, who’s going to show us around us around Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and other local attractions. That’s tomorrow, though. Today he’s taking us to see the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
A fate worse than death
The S-21 prison was operated by the Khmer Rouge. It was where people were taken to be questioned, then tortured, then questioned some more, then repeat until dead. Seriously. And by people I mean anyone middle class, anyone who could speak French, anyone vaguely intelligent. There was a steady stream of new prisoners because most people who were tortured for the names of free thinkers or French speakers would eventually blurt out any bloody name in a futile attempt to make the pain stop.
By the time the place was liberated in 1979, as many as 20,000 people had been imprisoned there. Lots died within its walls; most were carted off to be killed elsewhere. Only a handful got out alive. Two are still alive today, and we get to meet one of them.
His name is Bou Meng and he sees it as his job to remind and educate the world about the horrors that took place in the prison and elsewhere in Cambodia. I was happy to buy his book and privileged to shake his hand.
The Killing Fields
My only mental image of the Killing Fields was formed by the 1984 film of same name. (Worth rewatching, by the way.) But rather than the flat fields I envisaged, perhaps with a big notice board explaining what happened here, the actual site is a mixture of paths, hollows, shrubs and trees. Superficially it seems almost pleasant until you notice the shreds of torn clothing in the grass or the fragments of bone embedded in the earth. An audio guide details the horrific history of each viewpoint. You stand by a dip in the ground, almost exactly where a blindfolded victim would have knelt before being killed by a soldier using a bamboo pole or machete. You see a solid-looking tree and learn that the children of prisoners were killed here, their skulls smashed by soldiers swinging the infants by their legs.
Millions met their deaths at camps like these. Millions. It’s all very grim. What’s worse for me is just how (comparatively) recently these terrible events took place. Khmer Rouge soldiers were busy slaughtering millions at a time of space travel, colour TV and Pink Floyd. If it could happen there and then, well, it just goes to show that the unthinkable can happen just about anywhere, at any time.
In fact it happens later that day when Carol says she wants to visit the local indoor market. I hate markets. They’re always noisy, crowded and disorientating, they never have anything I want to buy, still less carry around for the rest of the day, and I’m always wary of being discreetly relieved of my phone or wallet.
If Cambodia had one elephant for every elephant adorning t-shirts, trousers and tablecloths, they’d have many more than the handful that survive today
Every three or four metres I’m stopped by a vendor demanding I look at her colourful piles of tat. “I don’t want to be here,” I say.
“You look,” they insist, “nice cloth, big bag, T- shirt, not fake…”
“Where is the exit?” I ask, wishing I could just go and smoke something.
Carol senses my discomfort and we leave the market early. She’s only managed to buy three things with pictures of elephants on them.
Let’s move on. A Royal Palace awaits…