I arrived in Phonm Penh, via speedboat, at around 1:20pm nearby the night market. Ignoring the offers of Tuk Tuk and motorbike (as usual) I walked twenty minutes to my hostel, SLA boutique. I have to say now that this place is my favourite hostel so far; modern light and airy, with spacious and comfy dorm rooms with a clean, large and modern bathroom attached, a large, comfy lounge area downstairs with free tea and coffee until 10am, and the loveliest, friendliest and most helpful staff.
As I was checking in at 1:40 I noticed a sign advertising a tour of the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields for $15, departing either in the morning or at 1:45pm each day. Knowing this was something I absolutely wanted to do and being keen to do something with my afternoon I asked if it was too late to join the afternoon tour – they made a call, booked me in, took my bag upstairs and I was on my way at 1:45 in a minibus to the Genocide museum.
It cost $3 to get in and those of us on the tour (and by tour, I mean the transport to the museum, the fields and back again, with a short film on the history of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue being played on the way to the fields) all wanted to pay an additional $2 each for an English-speaking tour guide, which helped enormously to understand not only what we were seeing but the history of it. Wandering around a school-converted Prison, seeing photos and reading information of how the prisoners (often completely innocent) were tortured was disturbing and really upsetting, and hearing how Pol Pet came to power and eventually treated those on his side equally shocking.
We then drove to the Killing Fields about 45 minutes out of town and paid $3 to get in and $3 for an audio guide – again, not only was this extremely informative as to what you’re walking around and seeing, a couple of the tracks were musical pieces dedicated to those murdered and were so incredibly moving. What was particularly disturbing was how peaceful the site was – with beautiful, grand trees and a calm, quiet atmosphere (probably due to everyone listening to their own audio guide and being moved to silence) – juxtaposed with the horror of what you were understanding took place, as well as actually seeing; as it has rained, both clothes and bone remains of those murdered have risen to the surface, and as you walk around you can clearly see both of these.
It was a lot to take in and comprehend, along with the awareness that prior to now I hadn’t really heard anything about this mass genocide in Cambodia, which scarily only took place 30 years ago. The following morning I got into a conversation with a guy in the lounge area as he was planning his day, and he said to me he didn’t really want to as he didn’t see the point in going to those things for nothing more than a “history lesson” to end up feeling sad – he was quite happy in his “bubble”. I struggled with this as, while I try not to judge anyone for their opinions, preferences and ideas, this was completely polar to how I felt about it – for me it was so important I went for the very fact it pulled me out of my bubble, that it made me appreciate my life and how relatively trauma-free it has been, that I have an awareness of the atrocities that have taken place, and continue to take place, as hopefully we might then have a way of being able to stop them happening (although, sadly, history has a terrible way of repeating itself as though we haven’t learnt anything from it). Yes, at its worst you feel sad and horrified and despondent, but at its best you feel changed and inspired to feel differently about your own life. I dunno, I find it hard to articulate with words why it’s important for me to go to these things, but I recommend that you do.
Afterwards I asked to be dropped off by the night market so I could walk alongside the water before heading for something to eat. I perused a few menus before settling on a bar/restaurant with outside seating area and ordered Amok Fish; a classic Khmer dish (traditionally served with fish but you can also get beef or chicken instead) of this deliciously creamy, coconuty sauce served with the fish, usually inside a banana leaf, either with fries or rice. I went for rice and it was such an incredibly tasty meal. I wandered back to the hostel through the night market – filled with clothes, clothes and more clothes – before heading to bed for the night.
The following morning I slurped on my free coffee while booking the 2:45pm bus to Kampot (with the wonderful advice and help of the super lovely SLA staff) before heading out to walk around Phnom Penh. I first went to. the Royal Palace but sadly didn’t make it in time before they closed for a few hours from 11 until 2 (too late for me to go back to as I had to be ready at 1:45 to pick up) and then decided to skip the national museum to spend more time at Wat Phnom instead; a temple up some steps in the middle of a garden-like area, where you can sit in peace and take in the views around you.
On my walk back to the hostel I stopped at a local restaurant for some lunch. Our tour guide on our bus the day before had been amazing in making some food recommendations for m time in Cambodia so I decided to try another popular Khmer dish called Lok Lak Beef (sometimes spelt with Cs instead of Ks); cubes of beef fried in a lovely tomato-based sauce, topped with a fried egg and served with rice. This was so so tasty, too, and I was already starting to really enjoy the local Khmer food.
Satisfied, I headed back to the hostel before being picked up at 2:45pm on the dot and taken to a big bus for my journey to Kampot…