Ciarán & Elaine's Travelog

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

Leaving Siem Reap we noticed immediately outside the main tourist areas how bad the roads were – covered in huge potholes and often just a dirt road. The 6 hour drive to Phnom Penh was broken by a lunchstop at a roadside ‘café’ where the menu was a choice of either fried noodles or fried rice (I’m going to turn into a grain of rice soon). We were happy enough with the rice considering what the locals were eating – fried cockroaches, grasshoppers and now, one we hadn’t seen before – deep fried giant black spiders. Disgusting!

We paid $10 for our air conditioned spacious coach for the 6 hour trip. We thought it was good value but when we saw how the majority of Cambodians were travelling I think we would’ve been happy to pay $100. The Cambodian people were all wedged into tiny 12 seater minibuses; each one must’ve carried at least 30 people with a minimum of two people to every seat and at least 5 on each roof along with mopeds and whatever produce they were transporting. It was crazy to see these minibuses racing along the road overtaking each other as the mopeds and people on the roof swayed precariously from side to side.
We arrived in Phnom Penh to be greeted by utter mayhem outside our bus as all the tuk tuk drivers fought to get close to the door to get our fare. Battling to get out the door, with our backpacks whilst being grabbed at by about 30 pairs of hands we raced across the road and hid behind a big sign while we got our bearings. Considering the bus had just stopped at a random street, not a station and we couldn’t find a sign with the street name this wasn’t to easy so in the end we had to go back to the tuk tuk drivers and negotiate a fare to get us to the area where all the guest houses are. Our drivers name was Setho and as he drove us around in circles to all the hotels he’d get commission from he convinced us that we should allow him to take us on a tour of the area the next day.

So the next morning we set off with Setho, first to the Vietnam embassy to apply for our visas, then we headed 18km’s out of the city to The Killing Fields. As we approached the fields Setho told us that his father had been one of Pol Pots victims and had been massacred at the Fields. We don’t know a huge amount about Pol Pots regime, or the genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970’s which killed over 1 million people, but we could still feel the unbelievable sadness of this field where thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered. As we stood looking at the Stupa which houses more than 8,000 skulls of the victims (on many of which we could see bludgeon marks or bullet holes) and thought of how they died after the most terrible tortures it was nearly impossible not to cry.
Looking at the ‘Beating Tree’ which they beat babies against to kill them before tossing them into one of the mass graves was just devastating. Another tree was also named. The ‘magic tree’ used to blare out music at deafening volumes so that people working in the vicinity wouldn’t hear people moaning, crying and screaming for their life.

After the Fields the gloom continued as Setho drove us to S-21 the Genocide Museum also know as Tuol Sleng. Before Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng used to be a school but during the genocide electrified barbed wire was put around the gates and over 14,000 people were brought here blindfolded and tortured for months on end….. Every victim was photographed when they arrived at S-21. The photos of terrified mothers holding their little babies and pictures of little children and old men were all so desperately heart wrenching….

Each of the victims of S-21’s details were recorded in case they might escape, which wasn’t very likely considering they were shackled to the floor and kept in the most horrible conditions imaginable. They were tortured in terrible ways for their ‘crimes’ which could range from being an educated person to somebody who wears glasses….. We walked around S-21, looking at the photos of hundreds of those victims and couldn’t even begin to fathom what kind of monster would do something like this.
Of the 14,000 people that were sent to S-21, only 7 came out alive.

Thoroughly depressed we left S-21 and Setho offered to take us to an orphanage. We declined the offer, as we’d had all the misery we could handle for one day and instead went to the Royal Palace which was very grand but we really weren’t in the mood to sightsee at that point so headed back to our hotel.

Phnom Penh is a city of about 1 million people of which an estimated 10,000 children are homeless. It’s a thoroughly depressing city and without a shadow of doubt the most impoverished place we’ve been to. Unlike other places where the poverty is really bad, for instance in Bolivia, in Phnom Penh there is a palpable air of desperation.

Even 30 years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge you can feel it’s a city that’s not yet back on its feet. We saw no old people at all and when we asked about this we were told it’s because Pol Pot killed them all….. With no educated people or older generation the city has obviously been struggling for a long time.
We’ve never experienced anything like the amount of begging in PP. The average wage here is $1 per day but we’ve been told that a lot of families survive on less than half of that.
Obvious land mine victims are everywhere with their hand out which is so sad but worst of all are the children.... Little kids as young as 1 and 2 years old are wandering around the streets by themselves, tugging at our legs with their hands out, the saddest eyes in the world and distended bellies…. A little 5 year old girl called Norlina who only looked 3 nearly broke our hearts as she played at the side of the busy road, we were all set to run to the adoption agency with her and bring her home. We had dinner at Friends restaurant which is a training school for former homeless children run by an organisation called They provide training and support to thousands of homeless children in PP and all profits from the restaurant go towards funding more programs.

On the street a lot of the children carry heavy baskets full of books to sell to tourists. At first we said no to all of them but eventually Ciaran decided to buy a book and called one of the little boys over. Once the other children saw this they all swarmed around, with one little boy in particular very upset that Ciaran had earlier said no to his books. He told Ciaran that he hoped his heart was breaking for what he'd done to him and by the look on Ciaran's face I'd say it was.

Later we sat along the main street having a drink and chatting to a girl who worked in the bar. Her name is Alech and she ran away to Phnom Penh when she was 14 after her father died and with no money the family had to live in the neighbours shed. Her first job in PP paid $12 per month and then she got her lucky break working for a hotel for $40 per month, they told her that if she didn’t learn to speak English within a month she'd lose her job, so she learnt English and now earns $60 per month. Luckily for her an English couple met her a couple of years ago and after getting to know her offered to sponsor her studies so she now goes to the best University in PP and hopes eventually to be a tour guide. It was so refreshing to see some hope in somebody..... Strangely enough she told us that her 4 best friends all married foreign tourists and are now living all over the world, one of them is actually living in Naas and is seemingly not very happy with the Irish weather!!!

We took a motorbike taxi home even though we were less than a 5 minute walk to our hotel but we would've had to walk through the old market which is seemingly where all the local gangs hang out at night and Alech reckoned our chances of making it home without being mugged were fairly slim.....

Visiting Phnom Penh was definitely an experience that we won’t forget in a hurry.....


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