Feeling like an iPhone on 2% battery after stepping out of hospital and into the sweaty midday heat, I dragged myself to the nearest travel agents and we booked tickets to head to Phnom Pehn. The ease of travelling in these countries is incredible, and we were put down for a 6 hour bus journey beginning just half an hour later. An air conditioned mini bus was like a delicious, cold cuddle, and I spent most of the journey pretty spaced out, watching the world go by. In Cambodia, the world going by mainly involves clusters of small villages, children wobbling around on bicycles, tractors crawling up hills and chickens running around as if they’re headless.
We had booked a hotel that was a lot more expensive than usual, because it had a relatively nice room and a swimming pool, and we figured I would need a few days of recovery time. Pulling up in a tuk tuk, it was safe to say that we were pretty let down. It was apparent that the “swimming pool” was in fact a metre squared and half full; more of a pond without even having any fish to make it look a little more appealing. It took “Instagram VS real life” to a whole new level. Luckily, we had followed advice and booked a hostel on a road very full of hotels and guesthouses so we just ditched it and haggled down another room elsewhere to $5 a night. It was a horrific room and there were ants covering the entire floor – something we only realised after paying up for the night which was quite a let down when you’re going for a cosy evening in the room and then find yourself playing “avoid the lava” on the floor. We sure do get used to squalor when we are trying to meet our daily budget! We spent a lot of time hiding from the room in coffee shops.
The main reason people visit Phnom Pehn is to learn more about the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide, conducted by the Khmer Rouge. Nearby is the “S21 Prison”, a converted school (which is harrowingly still set up as a school, with playing bars outside and desks inside) which was used as a torture prison for thousands. As well as this, there are the Killing Fields, which are disgustingly self-explanatory. It is very difficult to explain, but I cannot physically bear or see anything to do with genocide. Any pictures send me off into panic, and if I was to learn about torture methods, I would be troubled by it for a very long time. Because of this, Ollie went to visit these sights alone, and found the experience to be harrowing. I researched it in my own time when there was no risk of seeing the awful before and after pictures they display at the prison, and have obviously found it very upsetting.
The war has been something that is still noticeable in Cambodian culture. We have found that as a country, it is trying to shake off the past and reinvent itself through tourism. It has been hideous to notice that there are very, very few elderly people. It is so difficult to get your head around the fact that this is because of the mass genocide that led to the deaths of one in four Cambodian people, and affected every other person. I cannot begin to understand how these atrocities continue to happen every day; in Burma, Syria, North Korea and countless other countries. I would like to be hopeful that as a race we could learn from our history, but it is very difficult to remain positive when you see history repeat itself. When you’re in a country with a history like this, it just makes the election of Trump – and the victory of hate over love – all the more painful. I suppose there is nothing that we can do but remain hopeful that we will one day learn that we are all the same, and that we won’t have to wake up to bad news every single day. We did see this brilliant sign in a cafe – “everyone welcome, except Trump”.
In all honesty I felt a bit down whilst we were in Phnom Pehn. I found it quite draining to step outside each day and have tuk tuk drivers harass you about taking you to the Killing Fields, or talking about the war – making it seem as though Phnom Penh had little else to offer. Ollie and I both felt quite home-sick and unsettled, and I can imagine that it was because of the negative history that we couldn’t really escape. We were staying in road 172 which was pretty touristy so had a lot of nice places to eat, some night life and was really central to anywhere you needed to go. Tuk tuks are ridiculously cheap and you can go anywhere in the city for $1-2; which we took full advantage of. What are legs even there for when you could arrive in a chariot pulled by a worn-out motorbike? In the evenings we would go to the riverside and eat on rooftop bars which are dotted around everywhere and are really good with affordable food providing you manage to find a more low-key, local one. If you’re on a higher budget or are feeling like treating yourself, many of these rooftops play host to incredible restaurants and cocktail bars which are well worth investigating.
We also spent a lot of time in the Central Market. As a charity shop queen and general clothes hoarder, I was in heaven. The market is just huge and we would get lost in there all day, haggling down absolutely everything. It’s essentially fake heaven. Any brand you’ve ever loved, in cheap plastic. Perfect. Ollie’s camera was slowly giving up the will to live so we spent most of our time looking at the technology side of the market before we eventually splashed out and treated him to a ‘proper’ camera in the hope that it would last longer than a $10 GoPro! After spending our pocket money in the market we decided to have a wander, and stumbled upon a big park near the Presidential Palace – filled with lovely flowers, water features, children playing football, elderly people doing mass Zumba classes (entirely out of time with each other) and all the local teenagers. We were in people watching heaven and passed a lot of time sitting here drinking iced coffee and just generally relaxing, which was lovely. This area actually turned out to be my favourite part of the city, as you could just sit there unnoticed and watch the world go by. This is where I finally saw Phnom Pehn put down its dark history and have fun, which seemed like hope at last.
It rained or was just generally grey for the entire time we were there which added to the feeling that we were ready to move on. We have absolutely fallen in love with Cambodia and think that just over 3 weeks was the perfect amount of time to be here. It is so varied – from the ancient temples to the bustling Pub Street, the beaches and islands of the South to the vivid history of Phnom Pehn. Next up was Vietnam, which we had to book visas for with a travel agents; paying $70 for both of us and leaving our passports for a few days which we found very risky! Thank goodness it all went smoothly and we were on the bus at the crack of dawn for a 6 hour drive across the border – only after a huge breakfast at our regular spot, Sonny Side Up. They knocked breakfast out of the park, so head there if you’re in the area!