As we boarded the bus at the Sinh Cafe tour company in Ho Chi Minh City, Jen and I were looking forward to the Mekong Delta tour that would ultimately take us to Phnom Phen, Cambodia. Sure, for an extra $40 per person we could’ve flown and been in Cambodia in under 2 hours but we’d heard some good things about the Mekong Delta from fellow travelers and figured since we’re here we should see it. The tour was a two day affair of bus and boating on the Mekong with an overnight stop in Chau Doc, a small town in Vietnam along the Cambodian border. Sounds nice, right? In theory, yes but after four months of Southeast Asia, I’m afraid to say that Jen and I have become somewhat weary of these types of tours. After a while, you just want to get to where you’re going. It was only after our first stop at a local handicraft village that I realized that maybe we should have opted for the flight. First of all they are not villages, they’re stores and they’re not offering anything that you haven’t seen a thousand times before in the city streets.
The rest of the day consisted of a sub-par meal (is rice and pork fat really considered “a traditional vietnamese lunch”?), a performance of traditional vietnamese song and music (yikes!), and our arrival in Chau Doc. After seeing what the first day consisted of, we weren’t expecting much of the included accommodations. As it turns out we were right in keeping our expectations low. The second day started out with a row boat tour of a nearby floating village (sigh!) but the majority of the day was spent on the long tail boat to Phnom Phen. Figuring we’d be on the boat for the next 6 hours or so, Jen and I chose to sit in the back of the boat which offered a flat platform where you could stretch your legs or even lie down. Well, what looked like a definite step up from the regular bench seats turned out to be both good and bad. Sure, we were probably more comfortable than most of the other people on the boat but at the same time, we were probably 15 degrees hotter than they were as well. The platform-like area that we chose just happened to be right above the boat’s engine so instead of being merely hot in the 30 plus weather, we were literally roasting.
As it turns out though, our tour saved the best for last as the provided accommodation in Phnom Phen was quite impressive. This was not a case of keeping our expectations low, although at this point they were at an all-time low. The room was actually clean, big and very comfortable. In fact, we would’ve stayed there for the rest of the time but unfortunately the room was outside of our budget (yup, $25/night is officially out of our budget) and a bit too far from the city center. What kind of sealed the move to the city center was the fact that it took us over an hour to get back from dinner our first night in town. What is actually a 10 minute ride turned into an hour long adventure because, despite nodding his head and smiling, our tuktuk driver had absolutely no clue how to find our place, even with the hotel provided map. In the end we realized that he actually had no idea how to read maps, or maybe read in general. He, of course, didn’t want to tell us that and jeopardize the $3 fare. I think that was the first time we actually had to fire our tuktuk driver and find a new ride. (Jen still made me pay him $2 for the ride to . . . nowhere. Sucker.)
So the next morning we set off on a search for a new place to stay. We spent probably another hour in a tuktuk randomly driving around looking for a nice and cheap place (nonexistent in Phnom Phen, we learned), and finally settled on the OK Guesthouse. If ever there were an appropriate name for an establishment, this was it. Other than the dark and damp smelling rooms, the signs within the rooms kind of summed it up. While they start off as a general warning to tourists regarding the sex industry, things like “No matter how interested a girl may appear to be, she is most likely a prostitute and will demand money the next day” and “Please do not bring back any unregistered guests” they also go onto say that if you do need to bring back a "guest" to make sure you sign them in and walk them out. Nice.
After settling in, we set out to take in some of the sites. The National Museum offered us a taste of what to expect at Angkor Wat with an impressive collection of Khmer artifacts. Equally impressive was the Royal Palace, which displayed an assortment of architectural influences ranging from Khmer to French, and the Silver Pagoda, where the entire floor is covered with silver. While it may sound impressive, the section of the floor that was visible resembled more of steel than silver. Despite getting a late start in the day and battling the midday heat, we ended up with a full day of sightseeing.
In hindsight, our initial plan for day 2 of sightseeing was a bit ambitious but at the time it seemed pretty straightforward. Getting an early start to the day and having rented a motorbike, the plan was to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and then the Tuol Sleng Museum, both of which serve as a reminder of the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge. On April 17, 1975 (um, my birthday) the Khmer Rouge engaged in one of the bloodiest revolutions in the world, when they took over Phnom Phen and went about collecting, imprisoning and ultimately killing millions of Cambodians, including the majority of the country’s educated people. From what we learned, the Khmer Rouge’s intentions was to make Cambodia a peasant-dominated rural society, where its citizens would live completely off the land. For fours years, money was abolished and urban centers were like ghost towns. It is estimated that approximately 2 million Cambodians (perhaps 1/5 of the country’s population) died as a direct result of the policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge.
After consulting with the LP, I found out that the drive out to the Killing Fields was about 14km outside of town and that thankfully, the route there is clearly signposted. For those of you who have been following the blog, you may recall one entry where I praise myself for my keen sense of direction. Well, as Jen is all too quick remind me, this experience has brought me back to reality. What should have been a 30 minute, uneventful drive turned out to be a frustration filled 3 hour trip. Did I use the odometer to gauge our distance travelled, you ask? I did but even as we reached the 40 km mark, I still didn’t think we had gone far enough. I mean, I didn’t see a sign and neither did Jen, so the best thing to do is to just keep on going, right? Only when it became glaringly obvious that we had gone too far (a mere 50 km from our starting point, when Jen finally lost all patience) did we finally stop, turn around and start asking some locals for directions.
After hours of driving, we finally arrived at the Killing Fields and while I can’t say the trip was worth it, the towering stupa (religious monument) filled with the remains of Khmer Rouge victims was eye-opening. Touring the surrounding grounds, more evidence of the horrors that took place here can be seen in the form of mass graves, and human remains and clothing that are poking out of the ground. While I had heard of the Killing Fields prior to coming to Cambodia, seeing it in person gave me a better understanding of how tragic the events really were. It was quite a raw and disturbing experience to see the stupa filled with actual people’s skulls, and actual people’s bones on the ground.
The next day, we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was the prison used by the Khmer Rouge to house and torture their captives who would ultimately be taken to Choeung Ek. From the exterior, if not for the barb-wired fences surrounding the complex, Tuol Sleng still gives the appearance of its original intended use, a high school. Yet, once you enter the building itself, you are quickly reminded of the grim history surrounding the school. What’s interesting about the museum is that much has been left in the way that it was during its use as a prison. As we entered the first “room” in building “A”, which was used to house accused leaders of the opposition, you quickly realize the harsh living conditions these prisoners endured. Each room was 6 x 4 meters and in the middle of the room remained the bed frame and is some cases, the shackles that were used to tie down the prisoners. In addition, many of the rooms contained grim photographs showing the prisoners who were found dead in those actual rooms. In most cases, these photos showed prisoners who had been severely tortured laying on either blood soaked mattresses or floors. In fact, in some of the rooms you can still see blood stains on the floor.
Buildings “B, C, & D” consisted of a series of small individual cells that were created by dividing the floor with brick walls, and larger rooms that were used as mass cells. In some of the larger rooms, mug-shot style photographs of all the prisoners were on display. Apparently the Khmer Rouge were impeccable record keepers. What really stood out was the age range of the prisoners, anywhere from children to grandparents. Overall, Tuol Sleng was probably one of the more powerful museums that we had seen in Southeast Asia. Coming to Cambodia and not knowing all of its history, the museum was both graphic and informative. It certainly left Jen and I with a better understanding of what Cambodia and its people have gone through.
Apart from the heavy sights, Phnom Phen was a fairly nice city. It had nice coffee shops and restaurants (usually overpriced, but many were donating money for worthy local causes so we didn’t mind), a pretty good market, and loads of public green spaces. We mostly took it easy in the evenings though, so our impression might be a little rosier than some. One of the stranger things we encountered was a monk begging for cash from us in the afternoon. Still not sure if he was hungry, or heading down the wrong path, however I’d personally bet on wrong path. (I thought monks only ate in the morning? We did see some articles in the local papers discussing issues with monks in Phnom Phen.) Walking the streets, it was evident that there is definitely a lot of poverty and troubles in this city. After 4 days, we decided it was time for us to move on to Siem Reap.
For more photos http://gallery.me.com/adamschen