12 September – Phnom Penh
Slept alright, and things were reasonably quiet throughout the night.
Except for the woman who screamed out “(expletive) me!”, four or five times, over three separate occasions.
Well, that’s what it sounded like.
And then there were the howling dogs at one point.
So yeah, perhaps I didn’t sleep that well, at all…..
Headed downstairs for breakfast, which is included in the room rate, at around 7.45am. Eggs on toast, as well as a juice.
Eggs are ordinary, juice is worse.
I can’t believe I had this hotel as our second choice…..
Back upstairs to get things sorted, and then head off to see if we can find our tuk tuk driver.
Into the street where we saw him yesterday, and he sees us before we see him. Quickly rectifying the fact that we didn’t get his name yesterday; it’s Sa; we’re on our way by 9.00am, and that day that I’ve been both looking forward to, and dreading, has begun.
We sit back and take in the sights of Phnom Penh, which includes ridiculous amounts of traffic. About 20 minutes after leaving, we arrive at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S21.
We walk in and a sign states that you need to wear long pants, and to also have your shoulders covered.
I’d never even considered this could be a problem. Our shoulders aren’t an issue for us, but we are both wearing ‘long-ish’ shorts.
After a bit of a scare, it seems what we are wearing is okay.
Entry fee is $5.00, plus another $3.00 for the audio guide.
Deep breath, we begin our tour while listening to the audio. Which, incidentally, the quality of, and the amount of information, is amazing. It really has been done well.
But some of it is difficult to listen to.
As too are some of the things you need to look at.
It’s just so hard to imagine what went on here, and there’s just so many emotions running through my mind.
Sadness, anger, total despair.
I just cannot understand how someone could do these things to another human being.
We spend the next hour or so making our way through the museum. While it was tough, I did manage to keep it all together. Although I did have to work pretty hard at it, at times.
We eventually get to the final building, and up ahead, a sight that just makes it that little bit more real.
Glass cases with the skulls of some of the victims. Along with a description of how the person was killed, which was mostly evident when you actually had a close look at the skull, anyway.
Yep, while I’d been able to keep control through most of it, this had made it very different. I’d actually now reached a point where I didn’t want see anymore, and while we’d pretty much seen it all, anyway, there was still plenty of information that you could listen to on the audio.
But I was done, so I removed my headphones and headed outside.
I walked past Lisa, who was still listening to her audio, while sitting in the shade of a tree. It was clear she too was having a hard time dealing with what she had seen and heard.
I walked back in the direction of the entrance, and up ahead there’s an old guy sitting at a table. There’s also a younger girl there, as well as a large poster with both a photo on it and a fair bit of written information.
I don’t take too much notice of it until the girl comes over and begins talking to me. Initially I’m not sure what this is all about, and to be honest, I’m not really in the mood to talk to anyone.
As she goes through her spiel, with me still trying to work out what she’s actually doing, I hear her mention the word, ‘survivor’.
That gets my attention for some reason, and I have a closer look at the poster. There’s a name on it; Chum Mey; and all of a sudden I realise who it is.
It also makes me remember a conversation that I had with a friend several years ago, after her and her family visited Cambodia and Vietnam. I’d completely forgotten about it till this moment, but she’d told me at the time about visiting Tuol Sleng and then meeting one of the survivors.
I look at the photo on the poster, and then look at the guy sitting at the table. Yep, it’s him, and the reason I recognised the name, is because I remember seeing it written on the wall of one of the cells.
I thought I was struggling before, but that was nowhere near as bad as I am now.
I want to talk to him, but I don’t know what to say. I want to hug him, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate. I’m even struggling to look at him, and that’s not just because my sight is blurry with tears.
The girl then asks if I’d like to buy his book. I mean really, how could you not.
She also says we can have our photo taken with him.
I manage to stammer out that I need to get my wife, and walk back to see where Lisa is. She sees me looking for her, and I motion her to come up. She’s looking a bit fragile from the whole tour, and I know I’m about to make it a whole lot worse for her.
When she gets up to where I’m standing, I point at the poster, mainly because I knew I wasn’t able to speak.
I then gesture in the direction of Chum, and yep, I’ve just made it a whole lot worse.
We buy the book, and then have the photos taken. And even that was tough.
Neither of us know what to say, so we end up saying very little. Even if I did know, I’m not sure I was capable of actually saying it, anyway.
In the end it was several ‘arkouns’, mainly for the opportunity to actually meet him, along with a handshake or two.
A really tough moment, but at the same time, a very special one.
We said our goodbyes, and continued towards the entrance.
Just up a bit, sitting at another table, was another older guy.
Seriously, I’m not sure I can keep doing this….
His name is Bou Meng, and he too is another one who survived the atrocities that went on here.
Of course we buy his book as well, and again, I’m not sure how I could say no, anyway. A couple of photos done, and a handshake, and it’s time to go.
It’s been a real eye opener, as I thought it would be. And it’s also been tough. Again, as I knew it would be.
But I’m also very pleased we came; as hard as it was to see and hear things about what went on here.
Drop off our headsets as we walk out, and just outside the gate a Japanese student approaches us. He wants to ask us some questions, which we’re happy to oblige, but the fact that that is making me think about what we’ve just seen, makes it very difficult to actually talk.
Yep, tough day, and we’re only half way through it….
We find Sa, and we’re on our way again about 11.00am. Traffic is still chaotic, it’s now really hot, and at different times it’s incredibly dusty. So dusty in fact, that Sa drops in to a local convenience store to buy a couple of face masks.
Continuing on, and I have absolutely no idea where we are. And that then makes me think about the people that did this same journey many, but not that many, years ago.
What were they thinking, in what I would imagine would be their absolutely shattered minds, at the time?
Apart from looking at the everyday stuff going on around us, we don’t do much else. It’s actually a pretty quiet trip, and I’m not sure either of us really know what to say.
Over what is quite possibly the worst bridge I have ever seen; loose sheets of heavy steel keeping us above a small creek piled high with rubbish; and then into a more rural type setting.
Not long after, we arrive at the Killing Fields. Entrance fee is $6.00, which includes the audio guide, and then it’s off to find some water to help deal with the heat.
Time to do this; but not before getting a replacement audio when it cuts out a couple of minutes into the tour.
Quickly fixed, we continue walking around the site. It’s actually quite a peaceful place, but the audio explains the horrors that went on.
While a lot of the original buildings are no longer there, the commentary points out things to look at, that you would not ordinarily notice.
Like Tuol Sleng, it’s just so hard to imagine what went on here. And like Tuol Sleng, there’s all the emotions of sadness, anger, and utter despair. As well as disgust, that this could be allowed to happen.
We get to a lake, and take a few minutes to just stand in the shade and listen to more of the audio. While there, a group of about six local? tourists come along.
They’re chatting loudly, with some even laughing and joking around, and they seem to be having a great time.
I’m stunned. And appalled.
While they’re not wearing the audio headsets, and therefore obviously not listening to what I’m hearing, I wouldn’t have thought it would be too difficult to understand what this place is about.
They continue past, so we head in the opposite direction. Struggling to hold it all together, I don’t need to see them having a good time.
We get to an area where the audio mentions a mass grave that contained women and children, which is really hard to listen to. As well as see.
I then suspect that I’m about to see the only real thing I know about this place, and sure enough, the voice on the audio starts talking about the killing tree. It’s where babies and children were killed.
And there, in front of me, a couple of metres away, is the tree. Again, I can’t imagine, and I just can’t understand.
I have to turn away.
We walk back towards the area where we started, which is where a very large monument stands. But’s it’s not just a monument, as it holds the skulls of the victims. We go in, although I didn’t really want to, and it’s all just so surreal and so difficult to comprehend.
Back outside and we stand in the shade of a nearby tree, again, trying to take in everything we’ve seen and heard. While we try and compose ourselves, we watch a group of young girls taking photographs while posing in front of the monument. Yes, posing in that silly way that you might if you were down the beach, or in front of some tourist site, or something.
I just don’t get it.
We head out the front, emotionally drained, and find Sa, and we’re soon on our way just before 1.00pm. Back along the roads we came in on, and while it’s lunchtime, I don’t really feel like eating anything. But I do feel like I need something, so I yell out to Sa and ask if he can find a juice place, or maybe even a sugarcane juice vendor; he can pick, I’m not fussed.
A few minutes later he pulls up out the front of a guy on the side of the road, who does sugarcane juice.
Our sugarcane guy is more than a little surprised to see us, and he can’t juice his sugarcane quick enough. Three cups quickly filled, and I ask how much. He needs to use Sa as translator, and it turns out they’re 50 cents each.
I loved the interaction, and I think he did, too.
Back in the tuk tuk and soon that earlier traffic and dust becomes a thing again. Almost an hour later we’re not far from the hotel. I ask Sa to drop us outside the Frangipani, and I do that for two reasons. One, we want to go to the restaurant that we went to yesterday for lunch, and that’s not too far away from it. And two, I don’t want the ‘G Eleven’ tuk tuk driver to see us in another tuk tuk.
Every time we walk out the door of the hotel, he asks if we want a tuk tuk. But like in Siem Reap, we just prefer to walk. And when we booked Sa yesterday, having only just arrived in Phnom Penh, we hadn’t yet seen the G Eleven guy. Now I’ll feel a little guilty if we rock up in another tuk tuk. It kind of feels like we’ve cheated on him…..
Back outside the Frangipani, and we bid farewell to Sa. Down a block or two and we find yesterday’s lunch place. The guy is doing some kind of maintenance by pushing concrete pavers around, but that’s not going to stop them serving another lunch.
Beef and capsicum for me, Pad Thai for Lisa. And because we don’t have enough sugar in our systems after the sugarcane juice, a couple of Cokes.
All very pleasant, and it was nice to sit for a while and cool off. As well as take in what we had experienced this morning.
Lunch done, we headed back to try and find our exchange place from yesterday. Knowing which street it was in, wasn’t difficult. Knowing how far up it was, well, yeah…..
We walk, and walk, and then walk some more.
And then finally, we see her. I had no idea we were this far up.
Exchanged $100 at 68 cents again, and hopefully, that’s enough to see us through the rest of the Cambodian component of our trip. Yep, it’s now a bit of a juggling act to run out of money, including Riel, at the right time.
We head back towards the hotel, and while we had suitably cooled off while having lunch, all that good work has now been undone.
It is hot! The lack of shade, along with the constant stream of various vehicles going by, is just making it hard going.
Eventually back to the hotel, air conditioner turned on, and up, and cool down and recovery session begins. I really need it, as not only is the heat an issue, I just feel really knackered. My legs are aching, and I generally just feel a bit flat.
I’ll put it down to the heat, the amount of walking we did, as well as the emotion of the day.
After a short-ish nap, I then head off for my usual afternoon thing. Lisa’s feeling a bit ordinary with a stomach that’s making noises that it shouldn’t, so she stays behind. For a change….
Down to the river and I see my beer lady. Before I have a chance to say anything, she’s hunting through her esky looking for the coldest beer. “Where’s madam?”, she asks, as she hands me the beer.
I love it that she remembers, but I love it more that she found me a really cold beer.
Her young daughters are keen for me to open the beer. Apparently there’s a competition being run by the brewery, and depending on what’s printed under the ring pull, determines whether you win something, or not.
I quickly disappoint them with my first effort. Oh well, there will be more opportunities.
I spend the next hour and a half just watching the world go by. Yep, I’ve said it before, but I just love this time of day. That down time, after you’ve done what you set out to do and see that day, and it’s now time to just sit back and relax. Something interesting to watch is a necessity, and while beer may not be an absolute must, it certainly seems to go hand in hand, and just make it that little bit more special.
Again, so much going on like yesterday. The young girl feeding pigeons, and managing to get quite a flock of them around her, until another girl comes and scares them away. Was quite funny, but I did feel for the feeder girl.
The ice delivery guy, who delivers the big blocks of ice that the vendors have their drinks sitting on and under. I’d noticed ice deliveries a couple of times since we’d been here, and with this tropical heat, I reckon it’s not a bad job.
And then, in amongst the idyllic scene of happiness and enjoyment, a fight between two vendors. Not a physical one, but a very heated one. One guy had upset a woman – pretty sure it was over turf area – and she wasn’t happy. He decided to stand up to her, but after a few minutes he made the right decision and walked away. There’s no way I would have taken her on.
All part of the fun, and never boring. And, it took my mind away from something that was puzzling me.
It was the Tonle Sap river behind me, which flows into the Mekong almost exactly where I was sitting. Looking at the river itself, all my directional senses (yes, I know they’re not always great) tell me that the river should flow in a south / south easterly direction towards Vietnam. Which is to the right as I’m looking at it.
But it’s not, it’s actually flowing to the left, which as far as I’m concerned, is upstream.
More than a little confused, and slightly worried that I’m as wrong as Lisa normally is, I check Maps.me.
Yep, it also confirms what I think is the way the river should be flowing.
I then have this vague recollection of reading about the water reversing at a particular time of year, up around the Tonle Sap lake, but I wouldn’t have thought that that would happen at this time of year.
In the end it’s all too difficult, so I decide to concentrate on what’s going on in front of me, including trying to find a winning can ring pull.
I’m successful at only one of those things, but I do have a bit of fun with my beer lady’s daughters in the process. They were just lovely kids.
Beers and watching done, it’s time to head back and pretend to be concerned about Lisa’s stomach issues.
Back down the blocked off road beside the Palace, and while there’s a rather large wall between it and me, you can see some parts of the ornate buildings on the other side.
It then occurs to me that that is what I should probably be concentrating on. But I’m not. I’m thinking about what I’ve just been doing, and what I’ve just seen down by the river. As well as what we experienced, and learnt, earlier today.
I guess it comes back to that ‘sights’ versus ‘sites’ thing. And that’s alright, I’m more than okay with that. Hey, maybe that’s why I got just as much of a kick, or perhaps even more, out of riding around the temples of Angkor, rather than actually going through them…
Back at the hotel and it’s time to spend some quality time in ‘that’ shower. Carefully make my way into it, get down on my knees; which sound like lyrics to a song; and begin the process. I then notice that the water is starting to pool around the drain in the floor; yes, it’s not even directly plumbed; so I need to reduce water pressure so as to not completely flood the bathroom.
Yep, loving this hotel choice….
While Lisa is still struggling a little, we head out to find dinner. And that will involve at least a bit of a walk, as we will not be returning to the place across the road. Down into the street that the Frangipani is in, and just past the hotel there’s a small, very local looking, place. Not seeing anyone in there that looks like us, it looks promising.
With a little encouragement, Lisa makes the decision that I want her to make, and we head across to see if they can accommodate us.
They’re quite busy, but of course they can, and with a slight adjustment of seating arrangements, we’re soon sharing a table with a young Cambodian couple.
Lisa plays it safe with noodles and vegetables, while I have noodles and beef. Had a bit of a chat with our table guests, who seemed lovely, and enjoyed the interaction with the staff and owners. Oh, and the food was really good, too.
Couple of beers thrown in, and all up it came to just under $5.00.
Really could do this every night….
Head off to find somewhere that isn’t like last night’s beer place, and end up one street back from the river, at a restaurant / bar.
A couple more beers, and a small plate of spring rolls a bit later on, as Lisa starts to feel a little better.
We then have an issue with paying the bill. The first $20 note I use has a tiny tear in it, and the girl won’t accept it. The second one I give her has a small stamp on it, which I hadn’t even noticed.
I’d read about notes needing to be in good condition, but hadn’t had any problems so far. I’d also heard about it in Vietnam, but again, had never had any issues, so this was definitely a first.
I understand the reluctance if it’s half ripped, or if someone has coloured it in, or drawn a moustache and glasses on whichever President is on it, but to knock back notes with miniscule imperfections is something I just don’t understand.
Anyway, we’ll need to be more careful when checking notes in future….
We head back to the hotel via Circle K for some supplies, ‘getting rid’ of one of those horribly disfigured $20 notes in the process. One down, one to go….
A final beer on the bed, along with the usual stuff, as well as plenty of contemplation about we’d done today. That long looked forward to, but also dreaded day, that had now come to an end.
Extremely pleased that we’d done it, but no great desire to ever re-live it.
Very tired, both emotionally and physically, and with legs still aching, we called it a night before 11.00pm.
Last full day in Phnom Penh tomorrow. And last full day in Cambodia, too.
Not really looking forward to it, but will hopefully make the most of it.