Cambodia Travel Diaries
A week ago I was sweating from sweat glands I didn’t even know existed, unfortunate wet patches forming on my trousers as droplets beaded off my forehead, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, neck, back, chest, tummy, arms, hands, bum, thighs, calves and feet! The only time I wasn’t dripping with sweat was at night, whilst I enjoyed the air con on at full blast (although I complained about being too cold then!). Oh, but what I would give to be able to return! As unflattering as it was I’d take a wet crotch and bum if it meant I could return to Cambodia to explore further and meet more of it’s wonderful people.
Never have I encountered friendlier, more welcoming individuals! It is not surprising they call it “The Land of Smiles”, I have never felt more welcome than when travelling through Cambodia. Unless you knew of their history, you would be completely oblivious of the pain and devastation hidden behind those beautiful smiles, yet despite it, they still exude kindness like I’ve never seen anywhere before.
The following are the travel diaries I write home to my parents (and now a growing number of other subscribers) at the end of each day. I hope they provide you with the inspiration to visit Cambodia one day too.
Day 1 – Phnom Pen
Following a delayed, and rather bumpy flight, from Ho Chi Minh we arrived in the busy capital of Cambodia; Phnom Penh. As it was late we jumped in a tuk tuk and made our way to the hotel choosing to eat in situ before heading to bed.
Our first impression of Phnom Penh surprised us. Knowing that as a country it is significantly poorer than Vietnam, from where we had just come, we weren’t expecting to find a traffic jam of Range Rovers, Lexus and similar large 4×4 luxury vehicles. In fact, I think there were more Range Rovers in Phnom Penh than you will find in the Cotswold Countryside of Britain! There seemed to be three choices for transport, luxury, tuk tuk or motorbike, probably a very accurate representation of the significant pay inequality within the country.
We didn’t spend long enough in Phnom Penh to really get a proper sense of the city however we did find it somewhat underwhelming. I’m sure that with more time we would have found the hidden gems; we didn’t though. A large city without the old worldly charm of Hanoi, the beauty of Hoi An or the chaos of Ho Chi Minh. We found it simply “bleugh”. However, our stay in Phnom Penh had little to do with the city and everything to with Genocide.
Day 2 – Phnom Penh
The reason we came to Phnom Penh was to learn about the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge. In those 4 years over 2 million Cambodians were killed, a quarter of the entire population! Why? Because Pol Pot (leader of the Khmer Rouge, a Communist Party of Kampuchea) wanted to create an agrarian socialist society to create a completely self-sufficient country. As such, they evacuated all the cities taking everyone to the countryside to work on the land. Phnom Penh was evacuated in 3 days leaving a shell of a city behind.
The Khmer Rouge arrested, and eventually executed anybody suspected of being linked with the former government or with foreign governments; those linked with Buddishm or Christianity; those of a different ethnicity; and if that wasn’t enough, professionals and intellectuals for fear of them being able to “think for themselves” and therefore cause trouble. Anybody linked with the suspects (family and friends) was also executed, even children and babies. Pol Pot’s moto was: “Best to kill an innocent than miss someone guilty!”.
Throughout the day we visited two sites to learn more about Pol Pot and his regime: the killing fields and S-21 Prison.
I’m not sure prison is the right word to use to describe S-21 (Security Prison 21). With only 12 of the estimated 20,000 inmates surviving I think torture or murder chambers is probably much more apt. The buildings have now been turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, but once upon a time, in a former life, they were actually a secondary school. I’m not sure whether laughter will ever be heard again within the walls of this precinct.
Prisoners were tortured 2-3 times a day. The aim? To get a confession, any confession, whether that might be that they had links to the CIA, were spies of the former government or had done something wrong, perhaps stolen a mango from the courtyard tree. By gaining a confession to one of these crimes, false or not, it meant they could document it and therefore legitimately kill them It probably also allowed them to sleep well at night knowing they had good reason to murder!
Both prisoners and guards had very specific rules on how to behave during torture, it would be ludicrous not to of course!
The guards also had strict rules on how to torture. I can’t recall them all but here are the main ones:
- Do not derive pleasure from torture
- Do not take your mood out on the prisoner
- Under no circumstances should you allow the prisoner to die without a confession
If a prisoner were to die during torture before a confession was attained it is likely the torturer would also be executed.
The torture methods they described were hideous, from removing teeth and finger nails, to water boarding; from cutting people open and inserting millipedes in to the wounds, to hanging them until they fainted and then waking them up by inserting their head in a bucket full of faeces. If I’m honest I blocked the majority they were that disturbing. Although those were the designated torture methods, the overall existence within S-21 was also one of suffering. If they had one of the nicer guards, they got a small portion of watery rice soup a day, maybe a cup of water with it. If they weren’t lucky enough to be in that section though, it may have been every few days that they got access to that extravagant feast.
It is not surprising that prisoners made up confessions. Execution was certainly a more favourable outcome to torture and life in S-21. An Australian prisoner tried to use his confession to alert the world that all was not right in Cambodia. He had been sailing round the world when his boat had been damaged in a storm forcing him to moor on the coastline. Now that is bad luck! In his confession he gave the names of his commanding officers within the CIA. One of them was Coronel Saunders from Kentucky (KFC), others were equally outrageous celebrity names that the Khmer Guards could not identify but that he hoped any Western country would. Unfortunately these confessions were found too late for him and too late for the 2 million others who died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
As you can imagine the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was pretty gruelling but the second location we went to was somehow even worse!
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Choeung Ek is one of the 300 killing fields found in Cambodia. The site of 129 mass graves where over 17,000 men, women and children were executed as part of Pol Pots plans to develop an agrarian socialist society. This is where those who confessed to their fake crimes at S-21 came to be executed.
To begin with a truck load carrying 30-50 prisoners would arrive 2-3 times a month. The prisoners would be checked in, blindfolded and lead to their burial site. Not wanting to waste bullets or make noise the prisoners would be brutally murdered by clubbing them round the head with whatever instrument they had available. As the regime was coming to an end and the pressure was mounting on the Khmer Rouge, two or three truckloads carrying 100 or more prisoners started arriving daily. After being checked in, prisoners would be placed in a waiting “room” completely unaware of what lay ahead. Music would play to drown the screams of those dying. Many weren’t even killed properly, left in the grave barely alive awaiting a slow agonising death.
One of the particularly brutal scenes was a burial site containing predominantly babies. These would be picked up by the legs, swinging them so that their heads would collided against a nearby tree. When the site was finally discovered the tree was covered in blood and brain matter. The tree is now adorned with bracelets and tear jerking letters and notes that passing tourists have left in memory of devastating loss.
Both S-21 and Choueng Ek did a really good job of delivering a very heartfelt but factual account on the atrocities that happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. I find it so hard to believe that in the modern age these mass murders could be justified, and even worse, that humanity hasn’t learnt from these atrocities as different cultures continue to kill en mass to achieve their beliefs.
Walking amongst the graves you are reminded of the reality as a bone protrudes from the ground, or the remains of flowery garment reaches the surface. Despite these being collected every 3 months, they will continue to surface for years to come as a harsh reminder of what lies beneath the soil. I said it after visiting Auschwitz and I will say it again after a very gruelling day here, everybody should visit at least one of these locations. We must never forget what our species is capable of!
We finished off our visit at the memorial, a large Buddhist Stupa displaying over 5,000 skulls. A stupa is a Buddhist commemorative monument usually housing sacred relics. In this case the skulls and bones of the victims. That is an image I will never forget. Visiting S-21 and Cheuong Ek was a very sobering experience, but also a very worrying one. How is it that the graves were discovered in 1980 yet Pol Pot was still allowed a seat in the UN for a further 10 years? Why, despite finding out what he was capable of, did he receive votes from the US and UK for him to keep that seat? I’m guessing Cambodia simply didn’t have any natural resources worth fighting over.
On to something merrier
To lighten the mood after a long morning our tuk tuk driver took us to the riverside for a late lunch where we enjoyed our first Khmer meal: Fish Amok for me (one that became a firm favourite throughout the rest of the holiday) and Beef Lok Lak for Doug (one he liked so much he now cooks it at home!). Water, rice and fish are the staple ingredients of Cambodian cuisine and whilst it’s similar in concept to it’s neighbouring countries it remains distinctly different. Much milder than Thai food, dishes are made using fresh ingredients with lots of pickled and tangy flavours.
Unfortunately we weren’t particularly adventurous during our time in Cambodia (still at this stage recovering from a dodgy tummy) which I regret as eating on the street seemed a vibrant and lively affair. Having said that, there was not a meal in our time there that we did not enjoy!
Whilst having lunch we got to know our driver a little better and learnt that that evening his idol, a Khmer Kick Boxer, was fighting out of town. Having shown a bit of interest in the sport he invited us to join him. I have to say although it isn’t really my thing it was a rather enjoyable experience and the energy in the room was electrifying. We bribed the security guard with $1 each which got us front row seats as well as ring side access for Doug to take photos. That in itself was a worthwhile experience! Whilst I enjoyed the 4 matches, I couldn’t quite work out what was going on, I did however enjoy taking photos of the spectators as they were engrossed in the sport.
Day 3 – Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
A late night at the boxing match meant we missed out on exploring the city and highlighted the fact we simply had not given ourselves enough time to really get under Cambodia’s skin. We thought 5 days would be enough, in hindsight 2 weeks would have been better!
Our journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a long one. After leaving the city we travelled for mile after mile through the dry Cambodian countryside. The ground was cracked from lack of water, the sun bearing down on the grassless expanse, the houses on stilts hinting at a different season that we weren’t seeing. During the wet season Cambodia is prone to heavy rain and flooding which is why all homes are built on stilts. During the dry season, when we were there, the underside of the house becomes a multipurpose space, somewhere to dry clothes, relax on a hammock, raise animals.
Peeking into the homes as we sped past I was once again reminded at how lucky we are to have all the things we take for granted. There was little more than 4 walls and a roof to these homes, many no larger than our sitting room yet they were the living quarters for families of 6-10 members. Large windows (and lots of them) encouraged air flow during the stifling hot months although many families had moved downstairs, into the open air where the shadow of the house offered some shelter from the scorching sun.
En route we stopped off in Kampong Khleang, a small fishing village on the shores of Tonle Sap lake. Tonle Sap is Cambodia’s greatest natural resource and the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It is also more importantly the principal source of fish for the country. Although rich in fauna and flora, life on the shores is not easy with water levels varying by up to 40 ft between the dry and wet season. Villagers have opted for two styles of houses: on high stilts or on buoyance aids. Because the water levels were so low we couldn’t get on a boat so we only saw those on stilts. Looking at the steep ladders leading into the home I couldn’t help but think how complicated even the simplest of tasks must be (example, carrying the shopping in!).
We arrived whilst the kids were on recess, running around in the red dirt bare foot, uniforms progressively getting dirtier as they played, loud shouts of hello echoing as they shot past us. These were the lucky kids whose parents could spare them from the home allowing them to get an education. As we walked further into the village we came across those kids who weren’t so lucky. Needed at home to look after their younger siblings whilst their parents work, cleaning the house, doing the washing and changing nappies even if they themselves might not be much older than 9 years old.
As we passed one of the houses a group of kids were playing with their make believe guns (sticks). We were obviously intruders crossing the enemy line as they jumped out of their not so subtle hiding place to shoot us whilst shouting “bye bye”. As I pretended to have been hit they laughed and ran up to us to high five us. They may have had no shoes, and may have been wearing old dirty and torn clothes, but their smiles were priceless. The enjoyment they were getting out of those sticks beat any thrill you could ever get from an Xbox. That was imagination at it’s purest.
Arriving at our posh hotel after leaving such deprivation made me feel embarrassed that we were being quite so lavish. It wasn’t that we’d purposefully booked the equivalent of a 5* hotel (it was only £40 a night after all), it just happened to be in budget and have good reviews. Had I realised we were going to get quite so much for our money I would have spent less, but as we were there we made the most of the pool, spa and gym. But most importantly, the free water!
One thing I would like to change about travel in developing countries is the availability of filtered water without the need to add 3-4 plastic bottles a day each to the environment. We came across one hotel throughout our travels (Phong Nha Farmstay) that allowed us to fill our bottles of water, thus saving during our 3 night stay 18 large plastic bottles from ending up in landfill! Others, such as this one, provided us with cold filtered glasses of water whenever we sat by the pool, which was definitely appreciated but in reality didn’t serve to reduce the problem by any more than 1 bottle across 3 days.
That night we wondered into town to highly acclaimed Pub Street. A quick look round at the overpriced westernised venues was enough to highlight this wasn’t our scene. Instead we set off down the dark streets to a residential area where we found a really great BBQ restaurant. Steak and beer for $4 each, you can’t complain at that!
Day 4 – Siem Reap
You can’t come to Cambodia and not visit the Angkor Archaeological park, the home to the Khmer Empire during the 9th and 15th centuries. Considered by many as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, it spans over 400 square kilometres and consists of scores of temples, impressive monuments, a number of different ancient urban plans, large reservoirs, hydraulic structures and communication routes, Angkor hints at an exceptional civilization. To think that 6-12 centuries ago they had such complex water management systems and yet in the 21st century there are over 4 million of people in Cambodia without access to clean water!
To attempt to do justice to what lay ahead of us we decided to book a photography tour. More often than not I write in these updates the fact that none of our photos do justice to the beauty or the magnificence of a location; we wanted to change it this time, however, I’m afraid I need to write the same again. Yes, we got some amazing photos, photos we would never have got without the help from Darren, our instructor, however no photo does justice to the sheer scale of each of the temples. What we did manage as part of this tour however was to capture through the lens some of the intricate details carved in the walls; the small-scale beauty, the play of the light. If you want to see the full picture however, I suggest you book yourself a plane ticket!
As part of the tour we visited 4 temples:
- Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples and the largest religious complex in the world; the postcard image that everyone associates with the region. We got there for 6 am to watch the sun rise above the spires as the majestic silhouette reflected in the “puddle”. During the wet season this is quite likely a big lake however with months of no rain we all scrambled around the small body of water in the hope that the right angle would provide us with an Instagram worthy picture.
- Ta Phrom, locked in the embrace of strong muscular roots and famous for it’s appearance in Indiana Jones and Tomb raider, is without a doubt the most charismatic of the temples.
- Preah Khan Temple, the temple of corridors. I’m sure that is not what it is famous for, but it was the symmetrical endless corridors that we were practicing our photography skills on. Built towards the end of the 12th century the level of intricacy of the carvings is astonishing, particularly in the Hall of Dancers. Art is certainly a craft that has been around for a long time!
- Bayon, the mesmerising temple of smiles (although literature calls it the temple of faces). 216 giant faces adorn the temple looking down at you from every angle. We didn’t spot it when we were there, but the carvings on the outer wall depict vivid scenes of every day life in 12th century Cambodia, battlefields, death, praying (apparently to a phallic symbol!), picking lice out of each other’s hair, hunting and even giving birth. I think we missed out!
As amazing as the temples were however, the highlight of our day was when we left the temple complex and the tourists behind and visited a little local monastery. A small little wooden village where rescued animals roam and young boys learn the tasks of being a monk. A couple of the kids volunteered to pose for some photos in exchange for some donations to the monastery. Money is scarce so donations make a big difference. Although the impromptu photo shoot allowed us to get some good photos, what made the day perfect was being invited into the monastery whilst they went about the morning routine.
Monks don’t eat after midday so it was all hustle and bustle whilst they cooked their meal and laid out the “table” (floor). Being privileged enough to hear them make their prayers before they tucked into their food will be a memory I will never forget. The stark contrast of their home, with no chairs, no tables, no comfort, yet a large plasma TV showing National Geographic wildlife programs will be the other memory I will cherish forever!
Day 5 – Siem Reap
For our final day in Cambodia we skipped the pagodas and city tours and instead headed to the NPA Explosive Detection Unit and APOPO, two NGOs fighting to de-mine the countryside to free land and create safer living conditions for the locals.
As you will have gathered earlier on, unexploded ordnance and land mines are a real problem across both Vietnam and Cambodia. It is speculated that 5.8 million cluster remnants remain on Cambodian soil in addition to a further 5 million unexploded landmines. A large part of the country remains unsafe yet villagers have no option but to harvest the land to feed themselves.
Amongst the ordnance, the plastic landmines are the worst. These were created specifically to injure troops as it would slow down their comrades who would have to help them to safety. As a result of these, Cambodia has 25,000 amputees, the largest per capita in the world! Meanwhile, unexploded ordnance is estimated to have killed over 2 million people, 38% of whom were children. Villagers, children, lifestock, wildlife and machinery are all at risk of becoming the next victim!
Both the charities we visited do the same job, they use the animals exceptional power of smell to detect the ammunition. Unlike metal detectors that detect everything and miss a lot, both rats and dogs are trained to detect only the ammunition, meaning time is saved by not exploring every bit of metal detected manually. They also both help to narrow down the area affected making manual search much easier.
Because of the uncertainty of where exactly the explosives are, large areas have been cordoned off as unsafe. However, the cordoned off area is likely 10 times larger than the actual affected area putting great restrictions on the locals. The dogs and rats can check this area quickly and efficiently helping return much needed land to the villagers. To give you an idea dogs can clear an area 50 times faster than humans whilst rats can clear an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes! They also have the advantage of being significantly cheaper than dogs and humans (2 bananas a day after the initial €6,000 training fee!).
It was great to watch them working. At the NPA we watched 3 non-service dogs find hidden pieces of plastic, watched how they work on a short lead, long lead and off the lead before they gave us an agility demo. Lovely Belgium Malinois dogs with a sense of humour (a couple didn’t do as asked!!). Of the three two didn’t pass the required level needed to be service dogs which is why they do demos and the third was a retired “old lady”, soon to be rehomed to a loving (non-dog eating) family.
I don’t believe I mentioned it above, but we saw quite a lot of spit roast dog meat whilst in Vietnam and Cambodia. We even heard of a lady who having had a loving Labrador for 15 years ate him when he died from old age! It’s easy to judge but hard to put yourself in their shoes, I just hope I’m never in a situation where I think eating my husband, cat or dog is necessary! (Disclaimer, they don’t eat their husbands, I say it as a reference to the level of love I have for my dog).
At APOPO we saw a similar demo of the rats searching an area, bypassing metal and digging out only objects containing munition. Incredible! In 2018 the APOPO team cleared 12 minefields covering over 1.4 million square metres. They found 143 mines and 142 unexploded ordinance helping over 12,000 people enjoy a much safer life. Not bad a for a team of only 29 rats!
If you’d like to donate to a worthy cause, then please can I ask you to consider either of the above two charities, every penny will get put towards making life safer for Cambodian families.
Day 5 marked our final day in Cambodia, a country torn apart by war and conflict for over 3 decades: civil war, US bombings, Khmer Rouge regime and finally the Vietnamese invasion. Anyone over the age of 21 will have lived during a time of conflict; anybody of my age or above will remember it. Yet their smile conceals it all, it would be hard to know of the terror and suffering of the country, so good are they at hiding it.
We booked Cambodia as an afterthought, yet it has given us so much pleasure; we certainly did not give the country the time it deserved since we have not even scratched the surface of what is on offer and we would not hesitate to return. If you are thinking of tagging it on to Vietnam, don’t. It deserved a visit in it’s own right!
So what is the difference between Vietnam and Cambidia other than the language and currency? Well, they are similar, but oh so different at the same time. As they like to say in South East Asia, “Same same but different”.
They are both at very different stages in their development. Cambodia is significantly poorer and in fact it remains one of the poorest countries in Asia with 2.66 million people living for under $1.20 a day. Over 50% of the population is under 25 years old and 37% of the children under 5 suffer from malnutrition. The country is committed to grow however endemic corruption, limited resources, high income inequality and poor job prospects make it a daunting task. Add to that the fact that the country lacks education, particularly out of the city. Not only were many of those educated murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime but the lack of resources and prolonged fighting has meant that many children have not and still don’t have access to schools.
The country is certainly changing and I hope that the income from the 4.5 million tourists a year starts to line someone other than the government’s pockets so that children can stop working and instead get an education to help increase the rate of development of Cambodia.
Goodbye Cambodia! I hope you are able to keep your beautiful smiles and welcoming nature as you develop into a wealthier country.