Cambodia, or rather Angkor Wat has been on my travel bucket list for a while already and I finally decided to go. The Southeast Asian country I’ve been to most often is Thailand (3 times so far). Phnom Penh, my first destination, reminded me a lot of Bangkok in 1999 when I visited there for the first time. There is no public transport system in Phnom Penh except for busses and downtown there are always traffic jams. Last time I was in Bangkok was 2012 and they had an elevated train and had much evolved. In Ho Chi Minh city they were building a subway when I was there in 2016, which should be finished by now? Not sure. In Phnom Penh though it’s all busses, cars, mostly fat pickups, tuktuks and scooters, although less scooters than in Saigon. There is endless chaos in Phnom Penh, though the worst chaos I’ve seen remains the traffic in India.
On my arrival day I took a walk around the block of my hotel and was a bit spooked. There was no real space for walking and no people on bicycles either. So how do I get around town without being able to walk? To hire a tuktuk seemed like a scary prospect, not so much concerning traffic safety but concerning personal safety, what happens if the tuktuk driver takes me somewhere strange and demands more money to take me back and so on and so forth. The possibilities are plenty. I wrecked my brain about those during the night.
The next morning I asked at the reception of the hotel how to get around and the lady immediately suggested, oh we have a tour for 30 USD and you can visit all the major places in one day. Okay, fine, nice, let’s do that. I paid and was then brought to a guess what, a tuktuk. Lol. It turned out to be no problem though, my driver brought me to all the places, nicely waited and brought me back to the hotel 😉
Money… there is Cambodian money, called the Riel, but the preferred, harder currency is simply USD. If you look like you are not from Cambodia, they kinda expect you to be paying in USD.
Money… Cambodia is pretty poor, the hunt for money = better living conditions is present everywhere. As a foreigner you are seen as a source of money and they expect you to not be sitting on it. But that’s okay, since from a European, Japanese perspective stuff is cheap.
So, there I sat in my tuktuk with a driver who spoke only rudimentary English and the first thing he does is taking me to the Killing Fields.
Cambodia’s recent history is a tough cookie. Politically unstable it was drawn into the Vietnam war and extensively bombed, then the Khmer Rouge came along and “liberated” the country in 1975 proclaiming a communist utopia. They drove people out of the cities into the countryside forcing them to be farmers. They started treating everyone with “soft hands”, or glasses, as a traitor and within the four years of their rule, they killed a fourth of their own countrymen. Out of eight million people, around three million have died. There is not one family that was left unscathed I suppose. There are many killing fields all over the country, the closest to Phnom Penh is only a thirty minute ride by tuktuk away. Some 20,000 people were killed at this place. They built a stupa for remembrance and filled it with some of the skulls that were exhumed at the site. There is a tree where the guards smashed babies against whose parents had been executed. It is hard to comprehend how people can do such things.
The harsh part of the day-tour continued with the prison camp in downtown Phnom Penh, a former high-school, where prisoners were interrogated under torture confessing to “crimes” they didn’t commit and accusing others falsely in the hope it would ease their suffering only to be then transported to the Killing Fields and hacked to death anyway. Bullets were too expensive, most people were killed with axes, hammers and so forth.
After three hours of such harshness the rest of the day and tour felt like balm. The first thing after the prison in town to visit was befittingly a beautiful Buddhist temple and it was great to see something nice and peaceful.
Next up were the national museum and the royal palace. Both of them magnificent buildings of intricate beauty in their designs. What a day of the human spectrum. From the blackest possible depths to highest achievements in beauty.