Phnom Penh (Apr 5-7): Killing Fields, S21 Prison, and a Rude Awakening

The trip to Phnom Penh was quite smooth because I decided to book my trip online with Giant Ibis for $18.39USD/$25.17AUD. I had breakfast at the hostel in Ho Chi Minh and then walked for about ten minutes to get to the bus office 15 minutes early. The bus came and we left just after 8am, and they gave us all scones and water. The ticket guy explained how everything would work, handed out the arrival/departure forms and visa applications, and then collected our passports with payment for the visa (which was $35USD/$47.91AUD). It was then that I realised I had left my photos in my big backpack, which was under the bus (I had completely forgotten that I would need them since it was only the second time that I was required to have a photo). However, the bus company somehow avoided me actually needing the picture, as I think they had some police officers on our bus who processed everything and put the visas straight in our passports before we even got to border control, so they only had to be stamped. We drove for just over two hours and got to the Vietnam border, so we all had to get off of the bus and wait in the building for about ten minutes. The bus worker had all of our passports and got them all stamped for us and then gave our passports back so that we could show the officer on the way out. It was such a smooth process! We got back on the bus and drove a couple of minutes to a restaurant, where we’d have a 30-minute break. I was one of the first ones to order and decided to have one last pho before leaving Vietnam, and luckily this pho did not disappoint! We all got on the bus and got to the Cambodian border, so we all had to get off again and wait in line to get our passports stamped. As I said, the visas were already in there, and the bus worker seemed to know the customs officers well because as soon as we came in, they opened three new lines for us to speed up the process. We got through quite quickly and then once I got on the other side, I went to get a SIM card. I should have known better because of course, he tried to overcharge me. I saw that unlimited data would be 6 dollars, which was a good price so I gave the guy my phone and he started to install the SIM card. However, he asked how long I’d be in Cambodia and when I said two weeks, he said that the unlimited card would only last for one week, so he was trying to get me to pay $15-$20 for one that would last two weeks. This just made me angry so I said that I changed my mind, and I’d find somewhere cheaper. I got back on the bus and we continued to Phnom Penh and arrived at about 3:30pm. I didn’t have any Cambodian money yet (and didn’t realise that I wouldn’t actually need any, since Cambodia mostly uses the US dollar for everything) so I didn’t think I could take a tuktuk. The walk to my hostel was about 30 minutes and Cambodia has been considerably hotter than Vietnam, with constant “feels-like” temperatures of 39 degrees. Especially in Phnom Penh, my skin constantly felt wet the entire time I was there – it was similar to how the weather felt in Kuala Lumpur, except a few degrees hotter. Naturally, the walk was extremely difficult (especially carrying all of my bags and my newly acquired painting) and I noticed right away that I was underdressed. I was wearing shorts and a tank top, but I noticed that everyone (all men and women) were wearing pants/jeans and long-sleeved shirts. How were they surviving in this weather?! I got to my hostel and checked in at The Big Easy for $4.50USD/$6.16AUD per night in an 18-bed dorm. I decided to go straight to Hard Rock Cafe to get my drumsticks, which was a 20-minute walk away. I just have to say that I love Hard Rock Cafe and the way that they train their staff because it doesn’t matter what location you go to, you’ll always be greeted with friendly smiles and the workers are always so helpful. I noticed that they didn’t have any city-specific drumsticks this time, and since I knew that there was another location in Cambodia, I asked if it would be possible for them to check if there’d be any city-specific drumsticks there. They told me that they’d message the other location, but since it was 5pm, they might not write back for awhile. He said that I could have a drink at the bar, so I decided I might as well. Believe it or not, this was a first for me! I can do many things alone – sit at restaurants, cafes, go to the movies, etc. But I’ve never had the guts to go sit at a bar alone. This was a good starting point for me because there were only two other people in the bar so I didn’t feel as awkward. I ordered a drink and sat there for about an hour, and one of the workers even came and sat with me and told me about how Khmer New Year would be the following week.

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I decided to go back to the hostel and come back the following day. On the way back, I stopped at Wat Phnom to take some pictures and I think I actually snuck in through an entrance because when I left, I realised that I should have paid. Oops!

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As soon as I got to my room, I was planning on having a shower but started talking to an American guy named Lef. He asked if I wanted to go downstairs for drinks (because we got one free welcome beer), so I agreed. I was also able to set up a SIM card at the hostel. The actual SIM card cost $4USD, and then it was $1 per week for unlimited data, so I only had to pay $6USD/$8.21AUD. The problem with Cambodia is the beer is usually the same price or cheaper than just getting a coke. We had a couple beer and then I was craving nachos, so I looked up “nachos near me” and surprisingly, there was a place less than ten minutes away called Cocina Cartel. I finally got my nachos, which were a bit more pricey at $8USD/$10.95AUD, but they definitely hit the spot! After our late-night dinner, we headed back to the hostel and I went to bed because I was told to be in the lobby by 9am to go on a tour.

On Saturday morning, I got up at 8am and then went down for breakfast at 8:30am. Unfortunately, no one else had expressed interest in going to the Killing Fields or the S21 Museum, but the lady told me to wait and see if anyone else came downstairs. At about 9:30, a British girl came downstairs and asked about getting a tuktuk, so she came and sat with me to have breakfast. Lucy and I clicked right off the bat – she came from the other side of Cambodia, so she gave me tips on what to do and see during my time there. She had been travelling with her boyfriend, but they just started travelling separately because she was meeting up with her mom in Thailand, so this was her first place being alone after a long time. We talked for at least 30-45 minutes and then an American guy named Nate came and sat with us. He said that he’d go shower and then come down so we could leave. While we were waiting, a German girl named Suzy came down and asked if she could come, but she said that she was meeting up with friends for breakfast first and still had to shower, so she asked if we could leave closer to 11 or 11:30. By that point, I had already been waiting 2 hours and by 11:30, it would be 3 hours so I felt like I was wasting half of my day sitting in the hostel lobby. Since it was my only full day in Phnom Penh, I really wanted to get going. Lucy felt the same way, but neither of us wanted to say anything. The three of us (Lucy, Nate, and I) sat and waited for another 45 minutes, but Suzy still hadn’t even gone upstairs to shower yet so we told her we wanted to leave by 11:30 (cause she was trying to push for 12). Luckily, she agreed so finally at 11:30, we were about to leave and another girl from Germany (Antonia) came up to us and asked if we were going to the Killing Fields. She needed to go upstairs and change, and I felt like we were never going to leave. However, we finally did! We had a tuktuk for the entire day, and we had to pay $5USD/$6.84AUD each. We decided to go to the Killing Fields first, which took nearly an hour to get there. By that point, I decided that I should probably get some food since it was just before 1 and we’d probably be in there for at least a couple of hours. I decided to get a morning glory, but it still didn’t sit well with my stomach (it seems like some type of spice in Asian foods was setting my stomach off every time).

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Anyway, we got to the Killing Fields and had to pay $6USD/$8.21AUD for admission, which also included an audio guide. I’m so glad that we got audio guides as well, because I wasn’t very familiar with the Cambodian history, and hearing it made it so much more real. I was literally sitting there, taking notes about everything I heard so that I could share the information. It’s such a dark history, and it only happened less than 50 years ago! In the late 1970s, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge movement. He wanted everyone to be treated as equals, who all worked at labour-intensive farm jobs. Within three days, everything in the cities closed. All of the people were moved out of the cities and ordered to go to collective farms, and religion and education became forbidden. Many people were worked to death or died of starvation, because they’d have to work 12 hours per day with unsuitable living conditions. If someone was thought to undermine Pol Pot’s plan, they would be killed. This included doctors, lawyers, teachers, professionals, nuns, anyone with soft hands, anyone with glasses.. and they would be arrested. Pol Pot created an army using many young people (teenagers) who were from the peasant class and had very little education. From 1976-1978, people were brought to the Killing Fields and they were killed the night that they arrived, one by one. The army didn’t use guns because bullets were too expensive, so they’d use every type of tool imaginable to beat the people to death – I won’t go into details but it was morbid. By 1978, trucks were coming in everyday with up to 300 people each time. During this period, 3 million people out of the 8 million population were killed throughout the country (more than 1 in 4 people!), and in the Killing Field area alone, 20000 people were killed. The bodies would then be poured into mass graves. Some of the people weren’t completely dead when they were buried, so they would pour DDT on top of the bodies to finish off the job. One of the saddest parts of the tour was when we came to the Killing Tree. This tree was used to kill babies. The soldiers would hold the babies by the feet and hit them against the tree, because they didn’t want any kids to grow up and seek revenge. It was such a heavy and emotional day and even though it was hard to hear, I also thought that it was necessary to learn about. The tour ended with a building of multiple levels – the first ten levels were made up of 9000 skulls, and each skull was marked with how the person was killed or tortured. The upper levels included other bones. In the Killing Fields area, there were 129 mass graves, and bones and teeth still get uprooted every few months. There is only one senior officer (out of four) who has started undergoing trial, and he’s the only one who admits that anything ever happened – the other three still deny everything, even though the proof is there.

After spending two or three hours there, we all got back into the tuktuk. It was a very quiet ride at first, as I think all of us were still processing everything that we had just learned and seen. Nate was pretty good at lifting everyone’s spirits while we were on our way to the S21 Prison Museum. We got there at about 4pm so it was only open for another hour. We saw that admission would be $5USD/$6.84AUD but then an audio guide would be an additional $3USD. We decided not to get the audio guide since we didn’t have much time, and we assumed that there’d be information written down. However, we were very wrong and I kind of regretted not getting an audio guide because I think it would have helped a lot more. We walked through all of the buildings, and saw all of the prison cells with single beds, along with pictures on the wall of the prisoners on those same beds. The cells seemed to get smaller and smaller, and there were bloodstains still on the floors. At the very end of the tour, they had hundreds of pictures of the prisoners and then they also had pictures of the dead bodies holding numbers, which was extremely difficult to see.

Once again, I just felt heavy again. I have heard multiple stories about people thinking of doing the Killing Fields one day and then the prison the next day, but then decided not to do the other one because they didn’t want to have two full days of sadness. I’m relieved that we did everything in one day, even though it was a lot to take in. It’s crazy that I had no idea that any of this happened, but made me realise how important it is to make myself aware of this kind of stuff. We got back to the tuktuk and made our way back to the hostel.

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By that point, we were all soaking wet because it was so hot that day, so everyone decided to shower. I decided to take a Grab Bike back to Hard Rock Cafe in order to get my drumsticks (since I had heard back from the other location and they said they didn’t have any), and then when I got back, I showered and met up with everyone for drinks. I found out that the restaurant had poutine, and I was beyond excited to have one!

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It was pretty good too! After a couple of drinks, we decided to get some food for everyone else, but everyone had difficulty agreeing on a restaurant so we ended up walking for quite awhile. FINALLY, everyone agreed on a restaurant, so everyone else got dinner and we all chatted some more. This restaurant had pints of beer for 50 cents each! After dinner, we ended up separating from the group, and Lucy, Antonia, and I headed back to the hostel.

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Lucy and I continued having drinks at the hostel bar, and sat with some of the expats who were living in the city. It’s been weird because everywhere in Cambodia, there seems to be expats who have lived there for years, and all of the hostels I’ve stayed in (with the exception of one so far) are run by those expats and not by locals. This was one of the first times in all of my travels where I went out for more than just a couple of drinks, and it was because Lucy and I got along so well. It was nice to feel like I had a normal friend to vent with about everything, and both of us were so sad that we only had one day together because I think we could have been really good travel partners. However, we’re still writing each other now so I wouldn’t be surprised if we met up again in the future. Lucy went to bed at about midnight because she had to catch a flight the next morning at 8am, so I stayed up and talked to some of the workers there. I went to bed shortly after because I’d be leaving the next day for Kep, which I’ll save for the next post. Love always

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