My visit to Phnom Penh started out as depressing as that of Ho Chi Minh. This was mainly due to the fact that I was abducted within minutes of getting into the city.
It started out inoccuously enough. Walking out of my hostel, I turned right onto the short road, eventually meeting the river Mekong, which was a muddy, sprawling sight, but quite beautiful in the setting sun. I walked down the bank just a short way, when I heard a voice behind me saying “Hello there”. He introduced himself as a fellow traveler (from the Philippines). He seemed very nice, and we chatted about this and that, and so when he offered dinner with his family, I happily agreed. We got a tuktuk across town to his uncle’s apartment who he was staying with. Some cousins, aunts, etc were there, and we shared a lovely dinner of chicken curry, banana flower salad and potato. Things turned strange, though, when the uncle – a croupier at a nearby casino – invited me to play blackjack. He led me by the shoulder into his bedroom, where a card table and chips were waiting. Although I tried to explain to him that I already knew blackjack, he kept going over the rules. He then showed me how to cheat rich bankers, one of which the uncle said would be coming soon to play. It wasn’t a very subtle affair. He would simply raise his fingers in a simple pattern to tell me what card was coming next; I could then bet accordingly to always beat the rich competitor. My nerves began prickling when he said he would offer me 30% of all the winnings we would swindle off the rich banker. He would put up all the money, but if I wanted to add any more myself, then that would be fine. I later found out that this encounter is quite a regular scam for tourists, who are usually drunk at the time. I, luckily, was sobre, and in charge of my faculties enough to know that I was about to be robbed barefaced. I got out as quickly and politely as I could. Thinking back on the meeting in the tuktuk ride home, I realised I had actually stolen a free dinner off the scam artists. Although this made me feel a little better, the whole experience soured my impression of the country. In a naive, condescending way, I had thought all the locals would be happy and friendly; always willing to help a stranded tourist. I forgot that in every country, there will always be bastards.
My bad mood continued into the next day when I visited the city’s two most famous landmarks: Tuol Sleung prison and the Killing Fields memorial. The prison, which was housed in old school buildings, was bleak. In one block, old metal beds occupy dozens of rooms, beds which were used to torture and electrocute victims of the Khmer Rouge’s regime. On the walls, photos show the last occupants of the beds, as they were found at the end of the Regime in 1979.
In other blocks, hundreds maybe thousands of photos have been pinned up, showing occupants of the prison at the start of their ordeals. Other rooms had been divided into dozens of tiny brick cells, with no light or proper sanitation, to house the many prisoners, before they were tortured or sent to the killing fields.
My journey to the killing fields was pleasant; in an open sided tuk tuk, with bright sunshine and a cool breeze. But the journey for the people coming from the prison in the 1970s was anything but. Herded in by the dozen into the backs of overcrowded trucks, in the middle of the night, and with no knowledge of what was to come, it must have been terrifying and bewildering. The fields themselves were similarly confusing. Blaring nationalistic music was played constantly on tinny speakers, an attempt to cover up the screams from the hundreds dying every day. Without guns (which were too expensive apparently), most of the murders were done with knives, axes, farming equipment, even razor sharp palm leaves. The most emotional part for me was the killing tree – an inoccuous looking tree that was the backdrop for the murders of hundreds of women and children. To this day, blood can still be seen on its branches. Similarly, bone and hair and rags of clothing are still surfacing from the mass graves dug around the site. A memorial tower with hundreds of skulls sits in the middle of the site.
You can imagine the mood I was in when I was leaving. Now imagine being asked by the tuktuk driver – his hand holding a glossy leaflet with smiling westerners on it – if you would like to fire an AK47 or a bazooka. I tried to explain to him the concepts of tact and decency, but I guess they got lost in translation.
I perked my mood up a little in the evening by going out for dinner and drinks with some fellow travellers from the hostel, and talking to the hostel owner, who living in the country for decades, had some great stories to tell. Stories involving children abandoned on his doorstep, and stories involving being nearly blown up by communist insurgents. Cool stories like that. I needed to perk up even more though, so I booked myself onto a coach for Kampot – a sleeply little village near the south coast famous for being one of the most relaxed places on Earth. I’ll let you know how it went.