I left Kampot tired and hungover hoping for an incident free ride to Phnom Penh. I wasn’t so lucky. I got the early bus so I could spend the afternoon site seeing as I only planned on staying in Phnom Penh for two nights before heading up to Siem Reap. The bus stopped for a food/toilet break around 10am and feeling brave I decided to buy some meat on a stick from one of the road side sellers. What I ended up buying looked like a spit roasted frog. I started eating and it tasted ok, it was full of lemon grass stuffing, but then I felt something go crack in my mouth. I though it was bone in the frog and kept going. When I finished eating my tongue made the unpleasant discovery that the bone wasn’t the frogs, it wad mine. My second back tooth on the bottom left side of my mouth to be precise. Discovering this gaping hole put me in a stressful mood as now I had to spend my afternoon finding a dentist.
When I finally got to Phnom Penh I split a tuk tuk with Chantel and Ella to the Boeng Kac lake district where all the cheap backpacker hotels are. This place was a serious dive, a real backpackers favela. Guesthouse 9, the place we had planned to stay at at, was partially submerged in the lake due to recent rain so we ended up at some other hotel that wasn’t right on the water. It was still pretty dingy but at $1.50 a night I couldn’t complain too much. After checking in I hit Google and discovered Phnom Penh is supposed to have great dentists, at a fraction of the price of western ones, and thus people fly over here to get work done. Next I hit the phone and found most of these were closed for P’chum Ben. I managed to find an open one at the International SOS Medical Centre, and get a booking for 5pm the same day. In Australia it takes 3 months to get a dentist booking, here 3 hours. I ended up getting a filling for $135 USD from a nice New Zealand lady. Tooth crisis dealt with.
While waiting for the dentist I visited the royal palace and silver pagoda which was near by. Unfortunately P’chum Ben struck again anew couldn’t actually go into the palace because it was in use. The pagoda was really impressive though as were the immaculate gardens. After getting back to the hotel from my dentist trip I found Chantel had had a spell of bad luck of her own. While I was off getting my teeth drilled she had managed to lock herself in her room, slip over in the shower, bang her head and get a nasty electric shock from a power outlet. Phnom Penh must be cursed.
Later in the evening after Kristina and Owen had caught up with us we tried to go out for dinner at a place called Friend Cafe, which was recommended by the lonely planet for good food and a good cause; training and rehabilitating street children. Of course it turned out to be closed for P’chum Ben too. We ended up at one of a whole strip of similar looking restaurants on the river front and got decent food with a sprinkling of being harassed by kids selling books and tuk tuk drivers selling drugs. One young boy was especially sleazy. He came in with his books slinking along like he was all OG and dressed like he came from Harlem. He leaned next to us and goes “hey babe you buy a book” to Chantel. We went through our usual polite but firm Do-not-want! routine and then he started insulting us. He told me I looked like a lady boy cause my hair was apparently too long. I told him just cause he was jealous of my beard was no need to get mean. Then Chantel asked if he could grow a beard, and I broke the news to him “no beard, no good”. He then started saying shit to Chantel and we finally dropped the polite act and told him to get the heck away from us. He slinked back out of the restaurant telling us we were bad people. I would have liked to slap him.
The first unfortunately eventful day of Phnom Penh behind us, the second day was reserved for the almost compulsory trip to the Chorung Ek Killing Fields and Toul Sleng museum, also know by it’s Khmer Rouge designation of Security Prison 21 (S-21). These two places showcase the height of the atrocities commuted by the Khmer Rouge. While in Vietnam I’d heard travelers describing their visits to these places and how people were usually reduced to tearful messes.
To get to the Killing Fields we needed a tuk tuk, which was driven by a tiny (and possibly special) Cambodian who went by the name of Rain. Rain had also been my driver the previous day and ferried me all around phnom Penh in my short visit. I split the ride with Owen, Chantel and Kristina, with the agreement that we split up upon arrival so we can take in the site in solitude. This was how I visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum in Hiroshima (along with a sever helping of sleep deprivation), and that has been the single most memorable museum I have ever visited. Sadly the Killing Fields didn’t stir in me the emotional reaction I expected. It was haunting seeing the 9000 skulls and countless bones encased in the giant stupa erected at the centre of the field, however I felt really removed, like a distant observer who cant pull himself into the picture. Reading First They Killed My Father had primed me for the atrocities, as had details from fellow travelers, and thus the sunny killing fields seemed more a monument to the deceased then the chilling execution and burial ground of some 17,000 Cambodians it had been. There was a small photo exhibit which was more what I expected, with images of the graves being excavated and details of how the prisoners were executed with farming tools to preserve bullets. The most horrific was a lone tree, still standing, which was used for murdering babies by holding their legs cracking their skulls on the tree.
The subsequent visit to S-21 was more resonant, though still not as much so as Hiroshima (perhaps because I am a physicist and it showed what can when employs scientific knowledge without regard to politics and it’s eventual purpose). Usual people recommend visiting S-21 first as it was the prison of those deemed opponents of the Khmer Rouge before they were sent by truck to the killing fields for execution and burial. We chose to do it the other way around so as not to arrive at the fields under the grueling mid day sun. S-21 consisted of several buildings of what used to be a high school. Now they provide stark testimony to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The rooms are filled with rusty old beds and gruesome black and white photos of it’s suffering inmates. The Khmer rouge documented everyone who entered here, and their are photos of lithe numbered inmates lining countless boards across it’s many rooms. Interestingly I found inmate number 1, and he was only a your boy, possibly 12 years old. The Khmer Rouge spared no one, not even their own.
In the last building there were two exhibits I found particularly moving, both of children who were members of the Rouge. The one was photographs of children who had been child soldiers, and through a letter written by a surviving sibling told why they joined the Rouge, usual to prevent starvation of themselves an their families, and how they “disappeared” when the Rouge started turning on it’s own members as it imploded under paranoia. The second exhibit was of children who actually worked at S-21 and gave an account of the horrors try were forced to subject inmates too, lest they be killed themselves, and how they tried to continue living normal lives after Vietnam liberated Phnom Penh. It was chilling to see the present photos of these children, now grown into men and women, realizing the burden they carry with them every day of their lives. It was also difficult to blame them, they were just trying to survive, the real blame lies with the leaders, many whom currently still escape prosecution by pleading ignorance to the knowledge of S-21 and what happened there.
After the killing fields and S-21 we didn’t feel like doing much and tried to find a cafe to chill out in. We tried 3 from the Lonely planet and Kristina’s German guide book that sounded really nice, but they were all closed for P’chum Ben. Defeated we returned to the hotel and sat around in the bar/restaurant. That night we went around the corner of our guesthouse to a little Indian shop font which advertised an enticing all-you-can-eat buffet for $3, complete with banana smoothy. The food was delicious, but neither all you can way nor buffet. It came out as 6 little sampling of dishes on a big plastic sectioned tv tray like a young child might eat from where his vegetables are separated. While waiting for the food to cook the little tv in the corner was showing Biodome, which we watched in it’s entirety (talk about slow service…), 90s comedies really don’t age well, and I can’t help thinking that in another 10 years young people will cringe at the badly dated Will Farrel et al comedies of the 2000s.