Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng

Today I woke up a bit before 6 (no alarm, wow I could not have imagined that a few months ago.. I was the snooze button queen), and began walking towards Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, the most notorious prison of the Khmer Rouge regime. Once a school, Pol Pot’s followers turned the buildings into an incarceration and torture center for men, women, and children accused of crimes against Angker.

According to my GoogleMaps route, walking from Okay Guesthouse to Tuol Sleng would take about half an hour. Along the way, I stopped and got breakfast (noodles and morning glory) at a seemingly popular roadside stall, where a bunch of cops were eating. Only 2000 riel for a huge portion, I sat at one of the little stools and attempted not to make a fool out of myself using chopsticks, as all the cops were attentively watching me eat (I’ve grown accustomed to being scrutinized and watched with curious fascination no matter what I’m doing). Halfway through, I found a little black worm in my noodles. I picked it out, unfazed, and flicked it into the trash underneath the table, finished eating, thanked the cook, and continued on my way.

I arrived to Tuol Sleng/s21 an hour before it opened, and the guards let me in anyway. In the whole complex, it was just me, a well dressed Khmer guy, and 2 monks, all of us in our mid 20s.

I am so very thankful to the guards for letting me in early, granting me an experience away from the tourists (at the very end people started showing up, talking loudly, taking pictures, changed everything).

Being alone in the cells, silence everywhere, I had time and space to really take it all in.

Blood spatters on the walls and smears on the floor. Writing scratched into the walls.. the misery, the tragedy was so obvious and so real, the people who had been tortured in those rooms, who had died.. Standing alone in the same rooms where so much had happened, touching the chains, the locks, the barbed wire.

In addition to the cells and torture chambers, there were rooms that held documentation, photographs of all the victims, I took hours looking at the faces, so many so young. Some were scared, some confused, some defiant. All individuals with lives and families, all innocent of the ‘crimes’ they were accused of.

The well dressed young man and I followed each other through most of the rooms, the tiny brick cells that transformed classrooms into prisons, an institution of learning into a dungeon of torture.

Sometimes I was crying, sometimes he was, and neither of us said anything.

For anyone that isn’t aware of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the horrible, unimaginable war crimes, torture, and genocide inflicted upon the Cambodian people, please look into it. I never knew the extent of the tragedy until I came here, and I feel ashamed, and disappointed that I didn’t study such a huge, horrific event in school. I really don’t know anything.









Phnom Penh

I slept through my first alarm, waking up eventually at 6am, even though I had fallen asleep by 9 the previous night (sleep deprived maybe?). I paid for another night at Okay, hoping I’d make it back in time from retrieving the forgotten passport to enjoy it.

I jumped on the all-Khmer bus at 745am and began the 4+ hours back to Kompong Cham, cursing myself the whole way. I’d seriously forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my body.

I arrived by 11, found a moto, and got my passport, all within 15 minutes (the lady didn’t want to take any money but I insisted), and made it in time to catch the 1130 bus back to Phnom Penh. What luck!!

The bus was having difficulties the entire time (Soriya, of course), and finally broke down about 10 minutes away from the station, but they generously moved us to another bus instead of simply making us walk.

I took advantage of the close proximity to Central Market, and did a bit of shopping, picking up 2 pairs of pants for $4 each (cheaper than I could get in Bangkok, unless I wanted to buy 3 at a time at Pratunam market). Make sure to bargain extensively (but kindly, of course). They’ll start the prices at 3-4 times higher than fair.

After getting back to Okay, showering and getting ready, I decided to walk to Riverside, a picturesque riverside (of course) promenade that follows along the Mekong. Many expats, and thus expat-oriented restaurants, are located along this walk. And where the expats and tourists are, the touts will follow. You’ll be hassled by street kids, tuktuks, massage girls, restaurant waiters, and motos more in this location than any other, which sucks but the view (and breeze!) is worth it.

You shouldn’t give money to street kids because they just give it to their parents or whoever is forcing them to work. I know this. They speak excellent English and will lie to you. Even if they aren’t lying, by giving them money or playing into their scams, you are perpetuating a cycle of dependency and begging. That being said, I did something I would advise against. One particular little girl followed me around, talking to me for quite some time. She asked if I would take her to a video game place, where a game was 500 riel. I said sure, but then a swarm of kids gathered round, and I found this place was quite a ways away, and I didn’t feel right about taking small kids in a tuktuk to a different part of the city. So I told them I’d get them ice cream (bad! not healthy! I know! but they’re kids). As we’re walking, the little girl’s mom comes and makes her leave, so I’m left with 12 random kids screaming for ice cream. A few hectic minutes of ordering at DQ later, and everyone has a cone.

As we’re walking out, the mom (or handler?) of the little girl gets in my face and asks where her ice cream is. I want to say “same place as your morals. nonexistant.” But I don’t. I just keep walking, all the way home.

Forgotten Passport, AKA Just One Example of Why I Love Cambodia

When I arrived in Phnom Penh to Okay Guesthouse, I went to pull my passport out to give it to reception so I could check in. After I realized it was not in my wallet, an immediate feeling of dread came over me.
I realized I left my passport under my pillow at a tiny guesthouse where no one spoke English in the non touristed town of Kompong Cham. This place barely had electricity and definitely didn’t have business cards or web site, can’t yellow page or google that shit (yes I tried).
I wrote down a bunch of phone numbers of surrounding businesses, none of which were correct, and the amazing manager (Phally) at OK Guesthouse calls all of them. in an attempt to figure out if there’s a phone number for my place (there’s not). He hangs up and tells me the bad news, and helps me book a bus ticket back so I can hopefully find it. Oh and the entire time this is going on I’m trying really hard not to cry, as its important to save face and stay composed, but I can’t help it, the emotional American girl side of me is definitely coming out, I’m fighting it, but I am still crying, just a little, and the manager’s wife is rubbing my arm telling me it’s ok.
Then the phone rings. A random Khmer lady Phally had accidentally called went and found my passport and is holding it for me to come pick up tomorrow.  When the good news came, all the staff cheered. The manager wrote down everything in Khmer for me and gave me his phone number in case I had problems and told me to call him when I figure it out tomorrow. I LOVE CAMBODIA.

What it looks like when you rip your bag apart in a desperate attempt to find a passport that is actually hours away
What it looks like when you rip your bag apart in a desperate attempt to find a passport that is actually hours away

Kompong Cham and a Morning on Koh Paen

Yesteday was another early morning after a sleepless night. The downpour started a bit after sunset, with whipping winds and buckets of rain. The restaurant I was sitting at, with a view of the Mekong, even closed early. Sleeping in my own room in a city where no one knows my name, with that crazy storm going on, did not equate to comfortable sleeping.

My alarm went off at 5, and even though I had listened to Vegan Fitness podcasts (no joke) til after midnight, I jumped up feeling ready to rock out. I was on my bike, cruising along the riverside, before the sun had risen.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise 2
Sunrise over the Mekong – so beautiful I had to get 2 photos
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise biking backpacking
Sunrise over the Mekong

After some confusion, I found the path to the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen, an island in the Mekong. I’m so bad with directions. (To find it, follow the road along the Mekong until you see an opening in the barrier that follows the entire length of the walking path along the road. Or just ask anyone “bamboo bridge”)
The bridge is amazing. Built entirely of bamboo every dry season, every monsoon it is washed away. It is strong enough to withstand the weight of any vehicle, even trucks. Its springy surface of flattened bamboo makes for an uneven, off kilter ride, and combined with the lack of side rails to prevent you from falling into the river, it’s quite the scary experience. Add the motorbikes rushing past and the horse carts charging by (yes, horse carts are a very common sight on Koh Paen – awesome!), it’s one of the more unnerving bridges I’ve crossed. (Bridge fee is 1000 riel with return)

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge biking
Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Horse Carts
They still use horse carts on Koh Paen

Once on Koh Paen, the terrifying bridge crossing just a memory (until you have to go back!), it’s impossible not to relax. The 5 hours I was there, I didn’t see one other tourist. Success.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bike Path Biking
Path on Koh Paen

As usual in the more rural villages, small children greeted me with a chorus of ‘hello!’s, and even the adults smiled and waved. A girl on her way to school biked with me for a bit, asking the usual questions. She was shocked when I said I was 24 and not married. She told me she was 17 and wanted to study instead, that’s why she wasn’t married yet.

After seeing the majority of the island, including the temple, schools, rice paddies, and livestock every where, I headed back to town to pack up my stuff, have lunch at Khmer Food restaurant (lovely tofu salad for $2 right on the Mekong), and catch my moto to the bus, so I can get to Phnom Penh today.

Kompong Cham Khmer food restaurant salad
‘Khmer Food’ Restaurant Tofu Salad

The bus didn’t have air con. Of course. ( Sorya sucks. Take any bus company but them if you can manage). But I did meet 2 peace Corp members from Colorado currently stationed in southern Cambodia (they were on vacation and traveling back to work from Ratanikiri). Reignited my curiosity in joining up. Hmmmmm.
I found an awesome guest house named Okay and splurged the extra $2 for air-conditioned luxury. When I went to pull out my passport, I realized I had forgotten it in Kompong Cham. Ughhhhh.