The bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was painless, taking 7 hours exactly with two half hour stops. Our hotel, Hotel Zing, is located two streets along from the bus terminus and opposite the city’s central market. Costing £15 per night, it’s immaculate and undoubtedly the best shower I’ve had in Asia – combined with the location we definitely pulled it out the bag with this one.
We visited the city’s Central Market on our first morning, which is deceivingly huge. Food stalls envelop the main building; selling everything from fresh produce to meat and fish. You could get lost spending hours wandering through it; stretching out in four separate directions. Along one limb are flowers, another there are clothes, and the central hub hosts a huge jewellery centre. There’s something for everything, and to watch local people conversing and haggling was fascinating.
After some lunch, we rented a tuk tuk for the day at a cost of $10 to tour the historical sights of the city. Firstly the driver took us to Choueng Ek Genocide Memorial (commonly known as a ‘killing field’), which was around 45 minutes outside the city. Entrance was $6 per person and this included an audio tour. Having headphones and listening to the tour was great for two reasons: nobody was speaking to one another, the entire memorial was silent, and it allowed you to seriously take in and think about what you were listening to. There were more mass graves at this one camp than I could count; some for men, some for women, and some for children. The camp refused to use bullets because of expense, and so everybody who was murdered here was hacked to death. Beside the pit at the children’s grave was a ‘killing tree’ where babies were smashed against until their skulls broke and they were then thrown into the pit. It was truly the most horrific place I’ve ever visited, remnants of bones and clothes had been washed up due to the recent rains and they had yet to be picked up. There were boxes upon boxes of clothes, bones, teeth. The monument built at the memorial, contained the 5000 skulls uncovered from the graves, seventeen layers high, separated into cause of death and then age. I’ve never visited a place like it in my entire life, and I still don’t really have the words to describe it other than horrific. There were farms outside the barbed wire perimeter of the camp, where farmers herded their cattle. Beside us we seen a mother and calf being pulled along, and it was so nice to see, in amongst all that death, new life.
Afterwards our driver took us to ‘S-21’ a prison in the centre of Phnom Penh. Entry was $3 each, and this time you were to take yourself around the site in whichever . I personally found this much more difficult to go around, mainly because there are rooms upon rooms filled with the faces of the people who were brutally murdered there. You could walk into torture chambers, the ‘cells’ – if they could even be called that – look at horrific pictures of people getting tortured, and see the tools that were used.
Although it was unsettling, unnerving and upsetting to spend a day looking at genocide memorials, it doesn’t compare to what the people who the memorials were set up for went through. I think it is so important to achieve a deeper understanding of a country’s history so that you’re able to better understand their present. When we had finished our day trip, it was as though I was looking at the city with new eyes. Even thinking about what our driver must have lived through was so upsetting, but gave me such a new found intrigue and respect for the people we encountered for the remainder of our trip.
Our trip to Phnom Penh was an all too necessary of our fortunes in life, placed perfectly in the middle of our trip. It was a harrowing day to say the least, but I’m more than glad we done it. Considering I knew next to nothing about the genocide before visiting the country, I feel it’s of the utmost importance to educate people about such atrocities in the hope that it never happens again.