Adventures as Miss Saigon

Phnom Penh, afternoon of days 1 and 6, morning of day 7

Posted on: January 7, 2011

After approximately 7 hours snoozing on and off in a bus that was winding it’s way through the highways connecting Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh around 2pm. Our first mission upon arrival was to find some place to stay. I had confided in Laura a few days earlier that the idea of arriving in a city without a place to stay worried me, but I was trusting her and Wendy, seeing as they are much more experienced travelers than I am! We found a tuk tuk driver (basically a motorbike with a carriage attached to the back of it…very common in Cambodia it seems!) to take us to one of the places listed in our photocopied version of Lonely Planet. Our first hotel turned out to be under construction, but we lucked out with this newly opened hotel called Smiley’s nearby the construction site. Three single beds, a functional bathroom with hot water shower, and super cute and smiley young men working at the front desk was good enough for me! We booked in for that night, and for our last night of our travels before heading back to HCMC. The middle of our trip was spent traveling through southern Cambodia (and our hotel rooms were booked and confirmed for our other locations…haha).

looooong bus rides with Laura

in the tuk tuk

Our first afternoon in Phnom Penh was spent at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned prison by the Khmer Rouge, where an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured before being taken to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields). Cambodia’s recent and violent history was tough to take in, especially considering we were on the grounds of a former school. Walking through classrooms that had been turned into cells, where people were actually imprisoned hit me hard. This wasn’t some museum full of pictures and artifacts (although there were plenty of both)…this was real.

school turned prison

One of the most haunting parts of this museum was walking into classrooms (large cells) with nothing but a rusting iron bed in the middle of the room, and a picture of the mutilated body of a prisoner chained to the bed. The pictures were taken by the Vietnamese when they found the prison in 1979. Equally as disturbing was seeing barbed wire still intact around the balconies of one of the buildings that had been put up to prevent prisoners from jumping to their deaths in order to escape the torture and interrogation.

former classroom

cells

don't touch

Skipping ahead to our return to Phnom Penh at the end of our time in Cambodia, we had to make a visit to Choeung Ek, otherwise known as the Killing Fields. In 1979, mass graves were found Choeung Ek, containing the bodies of approximately 9,000 people, many of whom were prisoners at Tuol Sleng.

memorial stupa

Upon arriving at Choeung Ek, we walked through a little museum and watched a movie about the history of the Killing Fields before walking through the field of mass graves. Some graves were excavated and some were merely roped off. While walking on the small worn paths that separate the graves, I had to keep reminding myself that the pieces of cloth embedded in the ground was not just someone’s lost mitten – the cloth was no doubt pieces of clothing from the people that were buried here. For me, the most chilling part of Choeung Ek was the Chankiri Tree, where infants and children of prisoners were killed. Before leaving, we paid our respects at the stupa, which contains clothing, bones and over 5,000 human skulls.

butterfly at the killing fields

chankiri tree at the killing fields

flower by one of the mass graves at the killing fields

human skulls inside the stupa

Visiting these sites was not easy for me, and was not taken lightly. Sadly, this is all part of Cambodia’s history and I needed to experience it. It’s still unreal that violence of this level took place just over 30 years ago.

Despite the tragic past, Phnom Penh was a wonderful city to be in. Our tuk tuk driver took us to dinners on the waterfront, to a beautiful tea shop, to a used book store (luxuries we don’t seem to have in HCMC) and anywhere else we asked to go. I would head back to Phnom Penh in a heartbeat.

dinner guest by the water...elephant crossing signs were spotted all over

come back!

2 for 1 Angkor beers

Now, on to day 2…Koh Kong!

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