Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and biggest city. We spent a week there relaxing with our friends Alexis and Lucky, a local. For what Phnom Penh lacks in sightseeing, it makes up for in authenticity. The Cambodian (Khmer) people are perhaps the funniest most friendly people we’ve met overseas. Haggling is appreciated, but only after a smile and a wink from both parties. The tuk tuk (taxi) drivers are generous with directions even when you don’t hire them. Customer service in all industries is phenomenal. Phnom Penh is great, but Cambodia is a third world country unfortunately. Trash and sewage systems need a lot of work and the country’s wealth is not reaching its poorest people, but they have come a long way from a dark chapter of history, the Khmer Rouge.
The mass torture and genocide under Pol Pot and The Communist Party of Kampuchea was pretty recent, so our first stop was S-21.
S-21 was a high-school before the city fell to this extremist communist militia in 1975. They emptied the city, sent its people to work in the countryside, and proceeded to arrest, torture, and kill the bourgeoisie— educated class in the old high school.
This wasn’t just a museum. You walk through musty rooms with blood stained floors and listen to audio accounts of how gruesome the crimes committed at S-21 were. Some rooms had iron beds with handcuffs and a picture of a corpse on the wall. Some rooms had makeshift prison cells built of sloppy brick and mortar with shackles chained to the floor. Another room had an artist’s rendering of torture techniques used by Pol Pot’s brainwashed followers to extract “guilt” from prisoners, and yet another room had human bones. S-21 was brutal.
Some 1.7 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979, most victims were Khmer people. The country lost 21% of its population.
Another popular tourist destination is known simply as one of many “killing fields”. It is here where mass executions were conducted. The Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets so they would kill their countrymen with spears, shovels, and pickaxes instead. Apparently, there is a mountain of human skulls and a “baby smashing tree” in the killing fields. We didn’t go. S-21 was enough. For a quick account of the Kampuchea and genocide click here.
Phnom Penh wasn’t all doom and gloom, though the current Cambodian government is rather corrupt. Our friend says the prime minister was in the Khmer Rouge, puts razor wire in the streets on election day, and that today’s`Cambodian King lives with his boyfriend in France. Not sure the people have any real power. Government officials have paid for their jobs and drive hummers. One of their closest allies is North Korea; their embassy is right next door to the prime minister’s villa.
On a lighter note, we ate some awesome food in Phnom Penh, went to a trivia night, played pool, watched The BFG in theatre, and rented a scooter. We even went to a ladyboy show!
One day we took a ferry into the countryside; better known as “The Province”.
All the roads in the Province are dirt. Everyone lives off the land and kids play outside, a bit unlike at home. Chickens and dogs roam the streets and babies sleep peacefully in hammocks. Everyone lives in simple houses, and they certainly aren’t keeping up with the Kardashians. Lucky took us to a silk farm in the Province! They showed us how silk is made.
Rain came in heavy. We made it back onto the ferry as the rainfall started to feel like taking a shower with clothes on. By the time we made it back to Phnom Penh, the streets were flooded. Our motorbike was a foot underwater while driving home. The Khmer people were really casual about it, but Crystal and I felt like we had been nearly drowned riding home.
On our last night in Phnom Penh, and as really more of a side note, I want to try and describe the rat catcher. There are a lot of big rats in Southeast Asia, but until this moment I was convinced that they pretty much run around freely like cats.
So anyways, there is a really scrawny kid, probably no older than 20, without a shirt. He casually drags a wheeled cart down the street just as people start to go to bed. The cart is full of trash. It is clear that this is the Cambodian equivalent of a garbage truck. What sets this kid apart, though, is that he carries a sort of speargun/crossbow thing over his shoulder made of PVC pipe.
We’re watching this kid just as he springs into action. He aims his toy into the gutter and fires. Next thing you hear is a squealing sound like that of a pig. He nonchalantly drags in his kill, grabs a small bat, and clubs the hopeless rat over the head with one fell swoop. The kid then takes his dead rat and puts it in a heavy black garbage bag presumably full of other dead rats. Awesome.
So yeah, authentic. I think Cambodia is easily overlooked because Thailand and Vietnam are so popular, but Cambodia really is a neat country with great people and an interesting past, especially when you consider Angkor Wat. 10/10 would go back. — James