We left Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on a bus for our first land border crossing in to Cambodia! We weren’t quite sure what to expect but we had our exact USD for the visa ready. The bus driver nor conductor spoke English so it was quite frustrating when they took everyone’s passports and weren’t able to explain what was happening. It all worked out okay though and we were given our passports back and walked through the border crossing checkpoint.
The bus dropped us off and we went to try and withdraw some cash. It was a nail-biting endeavour when the machine froze with Dave’s Monzo card still in it, fortunately it spat it back out in due course. If anyone’s wondering how we’re withdrawing cash/paying for things by the way, we both have Monzo accounts and it has been a literal life saver. They charge 0% on cash withdrawals/payments, plus provide a more favourable exchange rate compared to other highstreet banks and has so far worked in every country. We’d heard that Cambodia used US dollars as well as Cambodian Riel but we didn’t realise the extent that the USD is circulated. The only time we had Cambodian Riel was when we were given change smaller than a 1 dollar note. We didn’t actually manage to withdraw anything when the card froze so we walked to our hostel in the dark which we usually try to avoid. All fine, we just arrived dripping in sweat which I’m sure pleased the receptionist. The hostel was probably one of our most grim we’ve stayed actually but we were surprised at how expensive Cambodia was! Definitely the priciest Asian country we’d encountered so far. Anyway the hostel was grim because we saw numerous large rats when we were playing pool outside and we stayed there a few nights in a dorm and saw no one changed the sheets between new arrivals (hallelujah for the silk liner sleeping bag). Also, we got back one evening and someone had moved in to my bed and reception told me to just move to another bunk. Needless to say, they got a crap rating on Hostelworld.
Now, on to Cambodia. Cambodia was probably my number one country I wanted to visit on my list. I’m not quite sure where the obsession came from but I was so excited. Phnom Penh (pronounced P-nom incase you’re reading it F-nom like I was, oops) is where the Killing Fields are located so we spent our time visiting these historic places to learn more about the genocide in Cambodia committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 where millions of innocent people died. We first went to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, the main Killing Fields so to speak. We each got an audio tape to guide us. It was the best museum/historical site I had ever been to. I sound insensitive when I say best, what I mean is that it was genuinely one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever listened to or seen but it was so educational and well told. Nothing was sugar-coated. Everything was raw and honest. They had excerpts from trials, stories from survivors and stories from torturers too. They also had lots of propaganda slogans that Pol Pot used that I’d never heard before. Horrific things like “To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss”, “Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake”. I think one of the most painful parts was a tree in the site called the killing tree where executioners would kill babies by hitting them against it; another slogan used to justify it went something like “To dig up the grass, one must dig up the roots too” meaning they killed babies to avoid them seeking revenge for their families in later life. As we walked around listening, I kept finding myself trying to conceptualise the timeframe by comparing it to my own life. The liberation from the regime only happened 13 years before I was born and my Dad would have been a teenager! My Grandad was part of the UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Operation) and organised medical supplies to the refugee camps on the Thai border. What really blew my mind was that the Khmer Rouge trail only became fully operational in 2007 where for the first time, some were held accountable for their heinous crimes. For that, I would have been 15 years old. 15! By which point, Pol Pot had lived a free life and died of old age – outrageous. There’s a Stupa (memorial structure) at the site too. It is filled with the skulls of the dead of all ages. You could see where there were huge cracks and dents from the blunt objects used to murder all of these people, a truly sobering experience.
The second site we visited was Tuol Sleng, S21 prison which was equally bone-chilling. S21 was a converted high school which made the whole experience even more cruel. We went inside the torture rooms and saw all the tools and torture devices used. We saw so many photographs of victims faces and it made the number of around 1.7 million dead even more real. We also saw photographs of the interrogators and they were honestly so young. Apparently they were often handpicked from poorer, rural villages; some didn’t look older than fifteen. The interrogators and torturers were there to force absurd confessions from all the prisoners before execution. There was a really interesting story about an Australian man who was captured and taken to the prison. His forced confession was used in the trial of Duch (leader of S21). We heard his brother read out part of the confession where he’d written his affiliations to the KBG and CIA, citing names from popular culture, I think one example was something like Sergeant Pepper (The Beatles). It really brought home the absurdity of what these innocent people had to do and how they had to sign their own execution warrant. There was also an artist who survived being held at S21 and there were lots of his paintings at the site. The paintings were of the torture that he’d experienced and witnessed and they were some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. Anyway, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Cambodia, you must take the time to visit the genocide museums.
After our time in Phnom Penh, we got a bus up to Siem Reap which was one of the best bus rides ever! They said it would be 7 hours but we got there in 5 and there was on board wifi that was so good I managed to watch a film on youtube! The bus company was the Mekong Express (if you ever need it). We found a really good deal on booking.com and we stayed in a fancy hotel. (I swear if you saw the variation of places we’ve stayed, you wouldn’t believe us that all of them were a similar price). Anyway, massive upgrade from rat infested Phnom Penh hostel. It had a salt water pool that we enjoyed when we weren’t out visiting the temples of Angkor.
The temples added to the pricey-ness of Cambodia, a 3 day pass to the temples was $62 each but it was definitely worth it. I also took my favourite photo from our year so far; a Changeable lizard on one of the temple ruins. Apparently the male’s throat becomes a firey orange/red during mating season (see below!). We probably visited over 15 temples throughout our 3 days but have a few favourites for different reasons. Dave’s favourite part was looking for the most intricate stone carvings and I liked when the jungle took the temples and stone and tree roots entwined to become one. The first temple we went to was Angkor Wat at sunrise, even though this had by far the most tourists, it was still really enjoyable to see such an iconic temple. All the temples reminded us very much of Bagan, Myanmar, just on a much larger scale. Bayon temple really stood out as a favourite because of the huge, carved, stone faces. I knew of this temple and had seen pictures but somehow hadn’t clocked that many of the faces were actually smiling. It was just so impressive even now and I couldn’t help wondering how striking it must have looked when it was first built around 1190AD. I bought yet another painting (to Dave’s utter delight – obviously), this time in water colour of one of the faces. Another favourite temple was Ta Prohm. This was the first temple we saw that had been properly consumed by the surrounding jungle. It’s also where Lara Croft – Tomb Raider is filmed, which my sister and I used to rewatch so many times when we were younger. The temple Beng Mealea which is much further afield than the standard temple route was completely in ruins. This was probably one of the biggest temples we visited, or maybe it just felt that way because there was barely anyone there which added to the eeriness of the abandoned, jungle-swallowed ruins. The final favourite, which was the temple we actually ended on, was Banteay Srei. It’s translation is the Citadel of Women and legend has it that the carvings are so intricate, it must have been built by women. It apparently dates as far back as 967AD which makes it all the more mind-blowing. Honestly, the detail in the red sandstone was unparalleled to any of the other temples we’d visited and it’s 1050 years old!!
After Siem Reap, we went to volunteer for a week at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary! We have so much to say and so many photos of elephants and the most adorable baby monkey that we’ll share next time.
Thanks for reading,
Sophie & Dave
PS – we look dreadful in most temple photos because we were just dripping in sweat. The first day especially was so hot. One of the temple ticket inspectors asked us if we’d been cycling rather than getting a tuk-tuk between temples because Dave was literally drenched. We had to politely laugh and say, nope, just can’t handle the heat!