Cambodian Climes – Chapter 2

After my adventures in the temples, I continued on to Phnom Penh. It’s a six hour (ish) bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and it cost me $8 with Phnom Penh Sorya Transport (PP Sorya). The ride was comfortable enough but, on arriving in Phnom Penh, I discovered my backpack had been searched and my USB pen drive stolen. The pen drive was the most valuable thing in my backpack and I suppose that’s why it was taken. Moral of the story, do not leave anything other than clothes and toiletries in your backpack. If you have valuables, take them to your seat with you and do not leave them on the bus when/if it stops.

I stayed at Eighty Eight Backpackers in Phnom Penh. It’s a bit far away from everything and I found the prices to be a little too high. The staff are friendly enough and the common area/bar really is good to meet people in. The dorms were clean but noisy. The one I stayed in basically overlooked the bar so if you wanted an early night or a lie in, forget it.

I had several thing I wanted to do in Phnom Penh. I wanted to visit the killing fields of Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 prison), The National Museum and Independence monument.

My first stop was The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It’s quite a way outside of Phnom Penh so you’ll need a moto/tuk tuk (we paid $12 for a Tuk Tuk to the killing fields and were then dropped off at Tuol Sleng Genocide museum afterwards). Admission is $5 and includes an excellent audio guide. You follow the audio guide as it directs you around the killing fields. The stories told are almost unbelievable. Once I had started hearing the stores, I really didn’t feel much like taking any photographs so I have none to share with you. There is much more information on the Killing Fields website here. I found it incredibly hard to walk around the killing fields and listen to the audio guide. I can’t really say it was a ‘good’ visit because what happened there was atrocious so to label it as ‘good’ feels wrong. I would say it’s an important thing to see and that if you can go, you should.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum left me feeling much the same. Admission was $2. The prison was originally a school of four buildings. Once the school became a prison, three buildings were used to house prisoners in tiny cells and one building was used to torture and interrogate prisoners. I really didn’t want to take any photos but I did because I wanted other people to see just how awful the conditions were (you can see ever more upsetting images on the Tuol Sleng website here). Here are a few images of the wooden cells prisoners were kept in.

Tuol Sleng Cell

There were 2 rows of cells per floor of around 28 cells per row.

Tuol Sleng cells

Remember, these ‘prisoners’ had done nothing wrong, really. People were regularly arrested by the Khmer Rouge for being educated, having a trade skill or because someone who had been tortured into a false confession implicated them in a fictional misdemeanor.

One building was left as it was found when Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979. You can see the razor wire used to prevent any kind of escape. Here’s a view from out of one of the cells.

Tuol Sleng

The other three buildings have been changed in order to host a truly graphic set of photographs, Khmer Rouge records and survivor accounts.

Reading some of the ‘confessions’ was heart breaking. I remember one man had been arrested because he lived in a province which had complained there was not enough food for everyone. That’s all. He lived there. He may not even have been complaining himself, he simply lived somewhere that had got a reputation for complaining.

Again, I can’t say this is a ‘good’ place to visit or that I enjoyed it. I didn’t. It was harrowing and I felt unable to speak for a good long while after we’d left. Given the choice again, I would still go to Tuol Sleng because I don’t want to forget what happened there.

Phnom Penh doesn’t have all that much to see in my opinion and I found the City itself quite hectic and stressful. It was also blisteringly hot. About the only thing I didn’t see in Phnom Penh was the Royal Palace. I’d seen the Palace in Bangkok and imagined the Palace in Phnom Penh wouldn’t be all that different. Also, the Palace is only open 7:30-11:30 and 2-5. It’s all outside and, unless you go early in the morning, there are long queues. This coupled with the heat meant I decided not to go. I did go to the National Museum though which is just around the corner. This is what it looks like.

National Museum

It’s $5 to get into the Museum and it took me about 45 minutes to walk around. The signage in English is good and some of the exhibits are interesting. I liked this crown set just after you walk in.

National Museum crown

Most of the exhibits are artifacts recovered from various Khmer ruins across Cambodia. Having just spent three days looking at Khmer ruins at Angkor, I can’t say I was over awed with the museum but I did still enjoy it. There’s plenty of sculpted Gods to look at and lots of good signage to explain who they are. I can’t remember the name of this God but I felt sorry for him as he was missing lots of arms.

National Museum Shiva

I also liked the enormous Garuda waving at you as you enter the museum.

National museum Garouda

Once you’ve walked round for a while, I can recommend taking a little rest bite in the gardens at the centre of the museum. They are very picturesque and there’s a coffee place too.

National museum garden

The last section of the museum wasn’t so heavily focused on the Khmer statues and branched pout a little. There was a wooden boat cabin used by royalty and I thought this piece of decorative carving was particularly beautiful.

National Museum wooden carving

The National Museum is worth a look but don’t expect to spend hours and hours there. It’s just not big enough for that.

Lastly, I toddled off to see the Independence Monument. It commemorates Cambodia’s Independence from France in the 1950s. It stands in the centre of a busy junction. Here it is

Independence Monument

And that is it really. I went to Phnom Penh and, to be honest, I didn’t like it nearly as much as Siem Reap. The Tuk Tuk and moto drivers were pushier and creepier (I was stalked more than once) and I did not find the locals as willing to help me out if I was a bit lost. I felt much more inclined to sit in the hostel rather than venturing out to find a bar in Phnom Penh than I did in Siem Reap so really, I probably didn’t see as much as I could have but, that’s because I didn’t really want to.

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