Our plan was to get up early enough to have time for a tour of the War Remnants Museum, which is supposed to be really good. But we’re unlucky with the buses and instead take to wandering in a direction we haven’t been yet. Eventually we find a cozy little café to sit down for a mid-morning coffee and just look at people. Something we’ve been noticing all over Vietnam is the hilariously ubiquitous pantsuits, without fail worn by elderly ladies and found in all sorts of gaudy colors and patterns. To top it all off they usually have the cone shaped straw hat as well, they really are a walking cliché of everything Vietnamese.
Heading back to the bus station we happen upon the morning market next to the hostel which we haven’t yet explored since it’s been all tours, all the time here in Saigon. Since we both love markets, we take some time to wander around and look at all the wondrous things; live frogs, fish, snails, strange fruits, scampi and pantsuits, pantsuits, pantsuits! I just wish I was better at filming, so as to properly capture the spirit of it all!
About fifteen minutes before the bus is supposed to leave, a guy shows up to fetch us at the hostel. It’s not like it’s far or hard to find or anything, but it seems to be the standard around here. On the bus they collect money for the visa right away and off we go. They’re showing an entertainingly stupid Bollywood movie, it really has everything – thoroughly unlikable characters, inane, predictable plot and a deplorable misogynistic machismo message. It’s also characteristically long, with an 80 minute flashback to a previous incarnation of the main character, an hour or so into the main plot. It does its job of passing the time excellently though, and before long we’re at the Cambodian border crossing.
When planning the trip I found a site where you could get e-visas. I didn’t get any though, since they were twice the price of a normal visa. While waiting in line I see that a family on the same bus as us all have them, but it doesn’t seem to earn them any advantages. They don’t even get faster service. In the end the process is rather expedient and I really see no reason to get the visa online. As we set off toward Phnom Penh, Jello Biafra is manically singing in my head – “It’s a holiday in Cambodia, where people dress in black!” while outside the window casinos are swooshing by, each more unsightly than the previous one.
There’s a quick stop for lunch at what looks more or less like a garage and we’re left to point at what looks tasty. The vegetarians behind us opt for plain rice, which turns out to be a smart move as the stuff we though was just salad, actually has bits of pork rind in it! The road to Phnom Penh is surprisingly good, it’s also really straight and the bus is hurtling on at over 100 km/h. That, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no shoulder on the road leaves little wonder over the horrible accident statistics the guy at our table at lunch quoted.
Stepping off the bus in Phnom Penh there are loads upon loads of tuk-tuk men swarming us. I go to get some local money and find that the ATM dispenses both Cambodian riel and US dollars, the tuk-tuk man explains that most prefer dollars however so we only get some souvenir riels. Our way to the hotel gets held up when a parade decides to pass, our driver shakes his head and explains that it’s the reigning political party that arranges these stunts to make it appear that they’re popular, especially now with the election just weeks away. Our hotel is in the backpacker district and turns out to be very nice indeed. Jen had uncharacteristically enough splurged on a boutique hotel, which is basically a regular hotel, but tiny. We manage a walking tour of the backpacker area before a late dinner, which is wholly uninspiring and jam packed with the usual backpacker bars.
We had arranged for the guy from yesterday to meet us in the morning to take us around for the sights, starting out with the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The drive there doesn’t paint a flattering picture of Phnom Penh, it looks a lot like the more run-down parts of India (which is saying something), and with predictable regularity the governmental campaign booths are declaring how good a job they’re doing. The Killing Fields area is actually just a small area, devoid of buildings and other signs that it used to be a death camp in the vein of the Nazi ones. The audio tour explains why – as soon as the regime was toppled, the locals tore down all buildings on the site to eradicate all visible traces of it. So what’s left is a series of signs and cordoned off areas that used to be mass graves.
The facts are chilling, apparently over two million people – over 20% of the population – were killed in camps just like this one all over Cambodia. Bullets were precious, so usually sharpened shovels or bamboo sticks were used to kill people. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was ostensibly out to create the perfect communist state where only honest blue collar workers are allowed. That meant that anyone with academic training was a target (incidentally the same people least likely to fall for this rhetoric…). It went to almost comical extremes, where in the end anyone who could read, or indeed had glasses, was a target.
As you walk around, you are likely to see actual bones sticking out of the ground, the groundskeepers are regularly picking them up but there are just so many and during the rainy season new pieces are washed up every day. You move from stop to stop, listening to the audio tour, which is very well put together with eyewitness accounts mixed with hard facts. It’s chilling to think that it’s such recent history, the worst of it transpired around the late seventies, with Pol Pot being toppled in 1979. But the Khmer Rouge stayed around as a resistance movement operating out of Thailand and even kept their seat in the UN all the way up until 1993!
The tour ends at the memorial stupa built in the middle of the compound, inside which they’ve put some of the bones they’ve dug up. The lowest levels are filled with skulls while higher up there are femurs, pelvises and so on. You can’t go up though, so all you can see up close are the skulls which all of them bears various signs of blunt force trauma. It’s like watching an episode of CSI – except that it’s real…
Our driver has been waiting around and tries to talk us into taking a detour to the nearby shooting range. “You can shoot anything you like! Machine gun, rocket launcher, Gatling gun, throw grenades – nobody cares, only in Cambodia!”, he boasts smiling. We turn him down though and he takes us to our next destination; Toul Sleung prison. Toul Sleung is a former school turned prison where they kept a lot of the perceived dissidents and tortured them in the most horrible ways. There is not much to see here though, you walk around and all you see are empty rooms and a few photos. One of the buildings has a few, unbelievably cramped, ad-hoc cells and you can also see old bed frames to which the prisoners were strapped while being tortured.
Out in the yard we run into a deaf old man, selling a book with the account of his experiences as a prisoner here. The torture they subjected him to is what made him deaf and we end up buying his book. That is as much depression we can take for one day however so we tell our driver to drop us off at the Russian Market which, even if it sounds sort of tacky, turns out to be a lot of fun. They sell pretty much anything you can imagine and is packed with locals which is really fun. We pass by meat stands, street food hawkers, flower salesmen, t-shirt hawkers, art dealers, scooter parts shops (seriously, I swear you could build an entire scooter out of parts here!), jewelry stores, rug salesmen and the usual tourist trinkets as well. It’s a labyrinthine place and you easily get lost, but it really doesn’t matter since if you at any point just pick a direction you soon enough find yourself outside again.