After the Temples of Angkor, I took an eight hour bus ride south-east to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on which I met Jon Regan, a top bloke from Essex. He‟d been travelling for 18 months and planned a further 18 months, finishing off with a ski-season in Canada during the Winter Olympics. He‟d unfortunately been burgled in Siem Reap. Apparently, his dormitory had been completely cleaned out by a thief in the middle of the night. People apparently noticed a quiet guy who came into the room after the lights had gone off; he‟d just sat down in a corner. At around 3am, someone screamed, the lights came on and everyone had lost some valuables, with the guy nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately for Jon, he‟d lost a laptop.
Phnom Penh is definitely more off the beaten track than, say, Bangkok. I had been really looking forward to getting there; it carries a mystique and a romance for me, ravaged by war and genocide, a far-flung and exotic place, a pioneering and Wild West city for foreign correspondents, spies and arms dealers. There are fewer tourists and definitely much less widely spoken English. There are potholes in the road and fewer travel agencies geared towards backpackers. Where else do you see bona fide signs in hostels and guesthouses asking patrons to refrain from keeping firearms and explosives in your room and, instead, to check them in at reception!
Probably in Phnom Penh more than any other part of Cambodia, the shadow of the despotic Pol Pot and his abhorrent Khmer Rouge regime still hangs portentously over the people some three decades later; a visit to the Cheong Ek killing fields some 17km outside the city and to the Tuol Sleng torture prison goes some way to explaining why. As with so many countries in this region, Cambodia was heavily influenced by Marxism and its myriad variants. The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and aimed to turn Cambodia into an agrarian society and immediately began to purge the people of supposed traitors and undesirables such as those who didn‟t come from farming backgrounds. The system eventually began to breakdown with the threat of starvation looming despite rice production being prioritised. However, before the regime had the opportunity to implode, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and took Phnom Penh. In the three years of Pol Pot‟s rule, a staggering 1.7m people had been killed or simply disappeared out of a total population of around 8m.
Eat, Drink And Be Merry, For Tomorrow We Die
Cheong Ek is dominated by a massive tower, which on closer inspection, is filled with skulls. It‟s grisly and macabre and incredibly difficult to fully comprehend. These skulls were dug up from the shallow graves of this small field and placed on display so that they are not forgotten. People were killed here with medieval methods (such as with a blunt instrument like a shovel swung at the head) so as not to cause too much noise when the murders were taking place. Decades later and bones are still visible on the paths around this killing field. It seems trite to comment on this place but there‟s the nagging feeling as you walk around that it‟s impossible to fully take in what happened here even when confronted by the physical reality of piles and piles of skulls stacked up in a glass tower not more than three feet from your face. You‟re aware that you should feel absolutely horrified, but the overall feeling is more of quietude.
The Cheong Ek killing field is just one example of many killing fields all over Cambodia. It may seem strange to think that such a place is heavily promoted in the guidebooks and by the local tourism groups; distasteful even. However, it‟s undeniable that these sites are tourist attractions (if that‟s the appropriate description) and the undesirable alternative would be a slow forgetting. We remember the dead in the cemeteries in Normandy; we remember the Holocaust; and we remember the victims of countless conflicts around the world. Perhaps the constant reminders of the unspeakable Khmer Rouge regime will go some way to preventing a repeat within Cambodia for future generations.
After Cheong Ek, we went to the Tuol Sleng torture prison (S-21), in central Phnom Penh, which had been a primary school before reinventing itself as the primary purging instrument of the Phnom Penh-based Khmer Rouge. Now a museum, you can walk around the interrogation rooms, which have been preserved and which generally contain just a rusty bed with no mattress and accompanying implements of torture; electric clamps, shovels, hammers, drowning tanks, pliers etc. The black and white pictures of people after being murdered are arresting and horrifying; people emaciated and mutilated. Anyone brought here for questioning generally didn‟t survive and either died here or at Cheong Ek. People eventually confessed to anything and informed on family members, friends, anyone. In 1977, S-21 claimed 100 victims a day. These events only happened around as little as 33 years ago, meaning that anyone in Cambodia of 37 years old and older has memories of this time. Everyone was terrified of the knock on the door requiring someone for questioning; everyone knew what the outcome was likely to be. Part of the story told here was of those who did the questioning and performed the torture. Many were young recruits from the countryside, some of whom were idealistic pro-Khmer Rouge, others who supposedly did it simply as a job and others who were fearful of recrimination. Exactly the same questions that were asked of the guards at the Nazi extermination camps apply here: what could cause normal people to torture and kill other human beings?
Phnom Penh itself is a really cool place to hang out in. People are friendly and there‟s a Wild West, untamed element to it. It‟s so invigoratingly different in Phnom Penh; it‟s totally different to the UK; you‟ve got to keep your wits about you here: for example, crossing the road in Phnom Penh is an art form. There are motorbikes going off everywhere and they don‟t stop; you have to just walk slowly and purposefully across, not make any sudden or unexpected movements and pray that they continue to swerve around you. Another really interesting aspect to city living here is that people‟s front doors are the size of a shop front and these doors are left open for most of the day and night. You can see the whole of a family‟s living room as they just watch TV, or sprawled out onto the street watching the world go by. The street is just an extension of their house where next to the motorbikes are tiny tables and accompanying stools for all the family to take their meals and be part of the life of the local community.
The markets here are fantastic, as are the side streets and back alleys – a fascinating slice of Cambodian living. The main market in central Phnom Penh, Psar Thmei, is everything I wanted it to be: slightly dishevelled, incredibly busy, each stall heaped full of foods I‟d never seen before, slightly smelly (but not in a bad way!) and always a spectacle. The produce here is so fresh, with the fattest prawns still alive in cold flowing waters. However, it‟s the sort of place that would be immediately closed down in the UK, which is unfortunate because it means that we miss the visceral nature of somewhat less squeamish markets (such as this one) with events like live fowl being killed to order in front of your eyes. The cooking classes in the UK are always exhorting us to get to know the provenance of our food and to know the process of slaughter that puts meat on our tables; perhaps we should be looking more at cultures like these, although it‟ll be a long time before that happens.
I knew there’d be some foodie treats in store in Phnom Penh; things I wouldn‟t find elsewhere: I loved the little snacks I found on the stalls on side streets and in narrow alleyways teeming with life (with people doing their washing, children playing and old women cooking) such as un-ripened green mangoes, sliced into thin segments and dipped into a salty, sugary dip. I tried deep-fried crickets (about two inches long – crispy, chewy in parts, salty and not too tasty!) At a small family-run place, with vague concerns over my stomach’s health, we ploughed into garlicky clams from the huge, muddy river (Tonle Sap which splits Phnom Penh), mountains of fried, sticky chicken wing tips, and baked embryo eggs: literally eggs with a semi-formed chick inside it. You crack it open and peel back most of the shell and you’re met by proper black feathers, a semi-formed exoskeleton (you can even see the bones under the wings attached to the bird’s ribcage and you’re able to extend the wing), the chick’s head; face and beak all surrounded by hard yolk – really nasty stuff! I kind of ate around it and pushed it to the edges of my plate, whilst feeling a bit sheepish for my prissiness as Cambodians all around me wolfed them down with a bit of sugar, chilli oil, garlic and gusto, devouring two or three each. I drew the line though at deep-fried spiders – I just couldn’t face them!
Another popular tourist activity in Phnom Penh is firing machine guns at a range; we went to a range run by the Cambodian Special Forces Airborne Unit (I think it was the 911 Para-Commando Battalion, a Cambodian Special Forces unit based a few miles west of Phnom Penh. Apparently, many are trained by the Kopassus, an Indonesian Special Forces unit), but I didn’t fire anything as it was way too expensive: about USD40 for 30 rounds – USD40 for just two seconds of firing; you’ve got to be kidding me! I’d heard that it was possible to fire a rocket launcher at a cow; I didn’t disbelieve it; it’s possible, I’m sure, to do almost anything here.
We explored the Phnom Penh nightlife with two of Jon‟s friends, whom he knew from his time in Siem Reap, Becs Riddell and Mel Hardman, two young Australians from Sydney who‟d been volunteering in orphanages. We went to a hostess bar where, as soon as you enter, you‟re surrounded by scantily-clad young Cambodian women who welcome you in and who then pour your beers for you (so that you drink slightly faster), dance suggestively on the bar and generally just flirt outrageously, with the boys, and on the rare occasions that they come in, with the girls. The conversation generally goes a bit like this:
“Do you like Cambodia?” “Yes, of course!”
“Are these your girlfriends?” “No”
“What you want to drink? Let me top that up for you! Another beer? Same again?” “Do you like Cambodia?”
“Er, yes of course!”
After, we went to another bar where we tried a little experiment; Jon and I would go in alone and Mel and Becs would wait outside and come in ten minutes later. We weren‟t prepared; as soon as we walked in, the only customers were a few European-looking guys and about 40 hostesses. I‟m pretty sure they weren‟t hostesses; more like encouragers of boozing with some prostitution on the side! We were surrounded and definitely more than slightly embarrassed by this much attention; several women just watching you drink and giggling to each other. It was a bit of a relief when Mel and Becs came in; the hostesses retreated until it became clear that they weren‟t our girlfriends; the hostesses came back over, but this time the shameless flirting stopped and the conversation became more natural. We then went to a surprisingly decent nightclub called Heart of Darkness with much better music than I‟ve heard in many clubs on this trip. Afterwards, on the way home, we saw a sign for karaoke. We pushed through this makeshift, plastic door to be greeted by two, pretty drunk, pretty Cambodian girls who poured the drinks, drank our beer and dominated the microphone; we had to fight for the mike. I popped to the gents when I accidently interrupted one of our hostesses doing her business on the squat toilet with no walls around it in the corridor next to the stairs and in front of an open balcony! She ran off squealing!
Cambodia is a wonderful country to visit. Despite being firmly on the backpacker trail, Cambodia still offers a huge sense of adventure. It‟s the classic Indochinese experience: a rice-growing culture, largely agrarian, pre-industrial, with a charmingly inefficient infrastructure, unbelievably friendly people, and fantastic food which is cheap and full of flavour. From the hairiness of my introduction at Poipet to the eternal splendours of Angkor Wat to the frontier feel and unpredictability of Phnom Penh, this is a country to which I’ll definitely return.