|Having arrived in Phnom Penh my first priority was to organise a 3-month multiple entry visa at the Vietnamese embassy, so I can catch up with Agnes, Henrik and Marianne later in my trip. I got there just after opening at 08.30am, expecting long queues and lots of administrative work, only to discover that I was their first customer that they would be able to issue me with the visa by the end of the day, all be it for a fee of $ 110. This simplified things for me considerably meaning that I could move on from Phnom Penh much quicker than expected.
Phnom Penh is a big noisy city of 2 million people and when touring its busy streets, markets, shops, it was interesting to imagine the city being completely void of people. The reason being that the Khmer Rouge forced the entire population to leave the city within days of liberating it in May 1975. Basically, for a period of 4 years less than 50,000 people remained in a city that formerly held 1.5 million, with the rest being forced to walk for days out to the provinces to help the villagers grow rice. This forced evacuation from all Khmer towns, the resulting famine and the maltreatment of the workers during the next 4 years resulted in between 1.5 and 4 million deaths during the reign of the KR. The fact that it only happened 35 years ago means that anybody in Cambodia over the age of 40 has had first hand experience of these atrocities. Amazing therefore that most people manage to be extremely friendly and respectful despite everything they have gone through in the past.
My first stop in PP was Tuol Sleng Museum, a former school complex, that had been converted into prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. The prison which was given the code name S-21 and was used by the Khmer Rouge to torture informants and unfortunately only 7 of the 50,000+ people that passed through the prison survived. The rest were murdered and buried in mass graves, in the killing fields outside the city. The complex basically consists of 4 normal secondary school buildings where the classrooms had been converted into either torture chambers or prison holding cells. Prisoners held in the torture chambers were chained to metal beds and beaten or electrocuted with metal rods. Some gruesome photos of the last fourteen prisoners, who were found chained to the bed when the Vietnamese finally overran the KR in 1979, hang as reminders in the empty rooms. Truly unbelievable images of what 'humans' are capable of doing to each other. Amazingly, the KR kept detailed records and before and after photos of each of the prisoners who passed through the prison and these photos are displayed in other rooms around the museum. What is most striking about these photos is how ordinary the people are in the photos, the equivalent of the tuk-tuk drivers and fruit sellers and children (!) that you met earlier in the day. As you can imagine, it quite a depressing place to visit so it was a relief that my return to the hotel coincided with the release of the first of the 33 Chilean Miners, an altogether more uplifting experience and a perfect anti-dote to that mornings depressing scenario.
My remaining days in the city were more enjoyable, relaxing in some of the cafe's along the Mekong river and visiting the National Museum, the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda near the river front. These are well maintained sights with attractive gardens around them and it was nice to spend a couple of hours away from the hectic traffic in relatively quiet surroundings. Unfortunately, my 3 night visit coincided with some very heavy rain storms which prevented me from exploring some the cities many restaurants that had been recommended in my guidebook. Fortunately, the local diner beside the hotel had some excellent local food so I didn't go hungry.
Friday saw me head south to Kampot, a town of 35,000 people close to the coast. It was nice to stay somewhere quiet after the noise of PP and just relax, reading books, watching movies and catching up on e-mails. On Monday, I took the opportunity to join a tour and hike to Bokor Station a former hill station built by the French in the 1920's as a way to escape the heat of the south coast. It originally contained a Church, Hotel / Casino and some buildings by a lake, but it was finally abandoned in the 1970's and is now completely in ruins. The fact that buildings are often covered in mist means that everything has ghostly atmosphere which enhances the feeling of abandonment. More so when you learn that some gamblers are reported to have jumped off the cliffs beside the casino after accumulating too much debt. Returning to Kampot, we then embarked on a sunset river cruise which proved to be a relaxing finish to the day. Tuesday was another take it easy day as Wednesday would see me spend more than 12 hours in buses as I headed across the border into Vietnam and my next destination Ho Chi Minh city.
More news on life in Vietnam soon.