An Emotional Day in Phnom Penh

On our last full day in Cambodia, we decided to take on two of the most important attractions in Phnom Penh – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. We knew we were in for an emotional day but were unsure of what to expect at either.

After a quick breakfast at our hotel we headed off to the Tuol Sleng Museum. We tried to barter with the Tuk Tuk driver but he wouldn’t budge – a common theme here. We bought our tickets at the entrance and were soon in the midst of Cambodian history.

In a sense, the museum “eases” you into the difficult subject matter that it discusses by showing you the rooms where the “higher-ups” were kept when they were in the prison. The prison is an old high school and each classroom has been retrofitted for one macabre purpose or another.  Each room had the same things  – shackles, a bed and a box for personal effects. Even these were difficult to see as each room had stains on the walls and the floors.

We went up a floor to a few exhibits that had recently been launched. The one that I found the most interesting was about a group of Swedish Khmer Rouge supporters that had visited the Pol Pot regime during it’s heyday. They received a very prescribed tour (similar to the ones in current day North Korea) and reported back to the Western world on the excellent situation in the country (unbeknownst to them was the existence of the prisons and multiple killing fields across the country). As this was one of the only reports coming out of the country it was believed at face value and it seems that it was one of the contributing factors in the massive failure of the international community over the next few years.

After the exhibit we headed to the main part of the museum, the real nitty gritty part as it were. Spanning across multiple rooms on the main floor of one of the buildings were pictures of many of the victims of the S-21 (the former name) Prison. The Khmer Rouge were similar to the Nazis in that they took impeccable records – they photographed and wrote biographies for each person that entered the prison. The pictures were heartbreaking as you could sense the confusion and hopelessness in the facial expressions. Interspersed in the images of the victims (almost all forced to confess to crimes they did not commit) were images of the instruments of torture and how they were used. These only added to the lump in my throat. Reading the victims (11 out of 6000+ survived) testimonies to the horrors of the prison opened the waterworks for me.

Katelyn and I had a really tough time in the last building – containing the cells of the prisoners. The living conditions were horrifying , many cells had no light and very little space. We both entered one to see how much space there was ( I couldn’t lie down) and were both reduced to tears.

After gathering our thoughts we moved through the rest of museum and got our taste of the horrors that were to come at Choeng Ek. Someone had taken a glass case with skulls and laid a map of the movements of people over it.

I’ll break here for a little bit of a history lesson as it is needed to give context. In 1975 Cambodia was in the midst of a civil war and Pol Pot come to prominence as the commander of the rebel Army. On April 17th, 1975 the city of Phnom Penh was captured and Pol Pot was installed as head of government. Within 3 days all forms of money, personal possessions and property had been banned and the cities had been empty. Pol Pot’s mission was to create an egalitarian society based on agriculture and thus forced all citizens to work in the fields. Although he was teacher, he arrested and imprisoned anyone with any form of education, anyone who could speak a foreign language, anyone with glasses and anyone with soft hands. Over the 3 years that the regime was in power over 2 million (out of 8 million) were executed and many more died due to starvation and lack of proper medicine. In 1979 the Vietnamese army moved in and deposed the government. However due to the political climate at the time, many western countries did not believe in the legitimacy of the Vietnamese installed government and treated the Khmer Rouge regime as the government in exile (they were forced to a small area around the Thai Border). Eventually, the political situation returned to normal and the ECCC (a tribunal to investigate the crimes against humanity by the Khmer Rouge) was created. However, by the time it was created Pol Pot and many superior leaders had died. It has still tried a few of the leaders, but to me the sentences for the crimes are nowhere near enough.

After the museum, we met our wonderful friend Sonia for the trip to Choeung Ek. We had met her on the bus and decided it would be a great idea for all of us to go together. We met some spanish girls while we were haggling for a Tuk Tuk and the 5 of us were on our way.

At the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, we were given Audioguides upon our arrival. This is the one time I’ve actually enjoyed having an audioguide as it really helped bring the area to life, as not much remains from the time period (destroyed during the period of Vietnamese rule as people were trying to re-establish normalcy).

I don’t want to delve into the horrors here as I don’t really feel it is the place. I do encourage you to do a little bit of research as it is very important to understand the importance of this place. If you’re interested in learning about the atrocities committed across the country I can recommend 2 books – Cambodge Année Zero by François Ponchaud (in French but I’m assuming an English Translation exists) and First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.

The most moving part of the Killing Fields to me was the Memorial Stupa which contains the skulls and long bones of many of the victims killed at Choeung Ek.

After a wholly moving experience Katelyn, Sonia and I headed back to the city for lunch. We ate at a place called Happiness Pizza. Which was a wholly misleading name as they completely forgot to cook my lunch. Not so happy when you’re very hungry.

After lunch we headed off for Dairy Queen (Katelyn had a bad craving) and to find a vintage store that I had read about online. I love collecting vintage travel posters and my dad likes old maps, so it was killing 2 birds with one stone.

We made it back to Sisowath Quay and said our goodbyes to the wonderful Sonia. Emotionally and mentally taxed, we went back to the hotel and have rested for a bit and prepared for Vietnam.

The biggest thing I’ve learned today was how strong people can be. Yes, the theme song of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sings about it, but experiencing first hand really drives it home. Most of the people we’ve encountered during our stay in Cambodia have been affected by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime one way or another and the fact that they are as happy and warm as they are is a true testament to their spirit. Many people have lost siblings, parents and even children but the fact that they were able to persevere and to come out the other side stronger than they were is truly inspirational to me.

Sean Penn, Cambodia is Wonderful

If you don’t get the title – go watch The Amazing Race…

Today was a little bit of a lazy day, but we did see a lot!

We ended up getting up late and left the hotel around noon. We went for lunch at a local cafe and then set off for the day. We first went to the Cambodian National Museum and saw lots of artifacts from the Pre-Angkorian era. It was interesting to see the amount of Hindu statues there. Although, there were also lots of Buddha statues there too! Katelyn battled a bit of dehydration while we were there, but with some rehydration salts she was all good in a short amount of time.

We finished off the museum and headed to the Royal Palace. On the way it started to rain, but we pulled out our Rain Jackets and were invincible (much to the chagrin of the other tourists). To me, it was incredibly surprising to see such opulence and grandeur in such a poor nation. The architecture was very beautiful, and to me felt a little more on the human scale when compared to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

On the grounds of the Royal Palace was the Silver Pagoda, which seemed to be a cheap knock off of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. But, we are in Cambodia so. I mean it is kind of expected (I can get you Bvberry and Channel Purses 5 minutes from my hotel).

After we were done at the Palace we set off for Wat Phnom – the name sake of the city. We didn’t stay too long as we were pretty templed out, and my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet. We tried to see the Old Market but it was closed, so we set off for the Foreign Correspondents Club – a Phnom Penh staple.

We originally planned to only stay for drinks ( I had the FCC Tranfusion..amazing!) but both got very hungry so ordered food. While a little bit on the pricey side the food was good and the ambiance was better. Set on the second story of an old colonial building, the view over the Ton Le Sap and Mekong rivers was beautiful. My highlight though was when the older lady working the bar came over with a free drink and said “here. for you. happy hour”. I really couldn’t say no to that.

It was getting dark when we finished dinner, so we booked it back to the hotel as it was eerily quiet on the street near our hotel.

We made it back alive. But now its off to mentally prepare myself for the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields tomorrow.

Sunrise at Angkor

I apologize for the lack of originality in the title of this post, but the fact that I was up to see sunrise at Angkor is a feat in and of itself.

We were up this morning at 4 am – which is when I normally go to bed, quickly grabbed breakfast and met our Tuk Tuk driver at 4:45 and were off to Angkor Wat for sunrise. We got there before the Chinese tour groups and were able to get a spot at the ponds before the crowds piled in.

The sun didn’t rise until 5:45, but the best part of the sunrise was as the clouds in the sky. The light scattering off the clouds was mesmerizing. But alas, any zen thoughts I had were interrupted by the hundreds of tourists there.

As soon as the sun was up (and the hawkers were out), we were back in the Tuk Tuk and off to Banteay Srei. This temple is about 40km away from the main Archaeological park and it took us about an hour to get there by Tuk Tuk. Plenty of time to ponder my life (and listen to Lana Del Rey).

We managed to get to Banteay Srei before the masses did. It was amazing to see how the Sandstone has withstood the test of time – this temple predates Angkor and the carvings there were pretty amazing. We climbed into the Tuk Tuk, waited for our driver to finish his breakfast and then we were off to Beng Melea.

It took us about an hour to get to Beng Melea and by the time we got there it was getting steamy outside. This was one of my favourite temples as it wasn’t as conserved as the others and the piles of rocks, and the trees that had grown around them were stunning. This one also had lots of lush greenery around to make it magical. Alas, our incredible time was interrupted on more than one occasion by the multiple asians taking selfies. It was tough to navigate the steps and the ever present selfie sticks but we got on like pros. The signs around the boardwalk weren’t clearly marked and on the way out we got sketched out as we had to climb down a set of stairs into a dark hallway. As soon as we got to the top a local started following us and we quickly bailed on that idea. We decided to head to a viewpoint that overlooked the main gate of the temple and then tried again – with success (and no sketchy guys following us).

We found our way back to the main path, and ran into about 7 buses full of tour groups. Perfect timing. We waited for our driver (who was exploring the temple) and then were off to the Roluos Group of temples – the oldest ones in the area.

By this time, we were both pretty exhausted and listened to our music for the hour ride. It was a great time to get lots of thinking done – but I definitely confused myself about what I want to do after I graduate.

We got to the first temple of the group – Preah Ko and walked around it. Although, there wasn’t much there to see. I ended up having to go into the jungle around it to water the plants – which was a little unnerving because we had seen a sign and Beng Melea advertising the amount of land mines they had removed from the area.

We climbed back in the Tuk Tuk (both still alive) and were off to Bakong. It was really neat to explore this temple as it dates from the 9th century. It was definitely a great way to end the day.

We came back to the hotel to go for lunch – I had amok curry and it was amazing. We then took the longest nap ever and slept through dinner. I was a little peckish so I headed off to a corner store to get some snacks for the bus tomorrow and to nosh on tonight. I miraculously found Nature Valley Granola Bars and Protein Bars. There is some sort of higher being.

I’m off to back my bag. Hopefully its easier with the bigger bag I bought (thanks for having a North Face outlet Siem Reap!) – but I doubt it.

Splurging in Siem Reap

Well, today was a wonderful day. It cost me a little more than I was expecting but it was well worth it.

We got up a little later as we were going to hire bikes, but bailed on that as Katelyn wasn’t feeling so hot. We hired a Tuk Tuk to take us to Angkor Wat to climb to the top and then on the “Grand Circuit” as it is called here. Interestingly, this one was cheaper than the one yesterday but it was for longer distance. The things that make you go hmm.

Katelyn still wasn’t feeling 100% and I didn’t want her to feel worse so I climbed the Angkor Wat summit myself. All in all, it was so cool to be that close to the spires but I don’t think that the view was anything to write home about.

We were back in the Tuk Tuk and off to Preah Khan in no time. This one was very similar to Ta Prom. But, I liked it better as there was much more visitor information. It was also the only spot I’ve seen cylindrical support columns in the entire Angkor Archaeological Park.

We ate lunch, and I had Amok with Chicken. Basically Thai green curry but the Cambodian version. It was still wonderful, and much needed after the morning we had!

After lunch we headed to Neak Peah, or the Royal Baths. Well, we were told they were baths. It was just a spire in a green field, still pretty cool though. We then went to East Mabon, which we climbed. This one was similar in style to Angkor, although on a much smaller scale. After that we hit up Pre Rap, another temple similar to East Mabon and Angkor but this one was better preserved than East Mabon. It also featured a little more visiual interest in terms of ruins at the base (lots of little buildings that we couldn’t guess what they were).

We decided we wanted to hike up Phnom Bakeng (with all the chinese tour groups). The hike through the jungle was great, but the restoration efforts at the top kind of hampered the view. It was still pretty cool to see how big Angkor is from a distance!

After no time at all we were back in town for dinner (Lok Lak for me!) and cheap beer ($1 for 1L, yes please). We wanted ice cream after so found a neat spot called the Blue Pumpkin and I had 3 scoops – Cinnamon/Speculoos, Jackfruit and Khmer Fruits. All were quite great.

I was feeling a little tired but we stumbled upon a really nice spa near our hotel and I decided I needed a massage. While a bit of a splurge it was cheap compared to home and definitely worth it! My shoulders have been acting up because of my backpack so it was definitely needed!

After meeting the little Cambodian lady who would be my masseuse, she took me upstairs through the massive spa! She pointed to a couch and told me to sit down.. I was a little confused but complied. Out of nowhere a bowl filled with lemongrass, limes, water and mangoes appeared. She put my feet in then proceeded to massage and scrub them with salt (side note: any future mate/suitor will be required to do this once a week).

She then led me to the massage room, I got changed and we were off to the races. It got a little awkward as I didn’t take off my shorts (#protectingmycash) so she, without warning, proceeded to move my shorts halfway down my butt and start massaging. A little warning would have been nice but I’m over it.

90 minutes later I was done and feeling tired. Which is good as we’re getting up at 4am to watch the sunrise at Angkor tomorrow. Pray for us.

Angkor Wet

Well, it was a went one today. It alternated between absolutely pissing rain and being so humid that I was dripping with sweat (which is an achievement for me).

We got up this morning and went for breakfast along pub street. I had an espresso (a tad out of character, but so good) and some banana pancakes and soon we were off for the day! Our Tuk Tuk driver met us at our hostel and took us right to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is probably the coolest place I’ve ever been. While the history is astounding the thing that I find most incredulous is how the Khmer people were able to create such an structure with the tools we know they had. The carvings were also incredibly detailed and amazing to see. We were unable to head to the top of Angkor as it was “Buddha Day’ and thus were resigned to save it for tomorrow.

We were back on the Tuk Tuk and headed off to Angkor Thom. We went through the South Gate of Angkor thom, and I think I found my long lost brothers among the statues along the bridge. Our driver dropped us off at Bayon, and we set off to explore the compound! I found Bayon a little cooler than Angkor Wat as we were able to wander off and explore areas free of tourists. But, as soon as we got to the top we found them all.

I spotted a really cool picture spot and stopped to take a few pictures of Katelyn. I accidentally walked into another family’s photo and in the process of apologizing told them about the spot. Katelyn and I offered to take a family photo, and we found out that they were from London, ON! What’s even cooler is that one of them taught at Western. It really is a small world (especially when you’re a mustang).

After Bayon we went to Baphuon, and in the process it started to pour. My packable rain jacket was such a solid investment, especially for today. We got to Baphuon and explored it for a bit. We were able to climb to the second level and in the process had to take refuge from the rain, again.

After exploring the temple, we were forced to exit a different way than we came in and had to walk through the jungle. It was really neat to stumble upon some other temples in the jungle. These were hardly visited by tourists and were so neat to see contrasted with the rich green of the jungle.

We found our Tuk Tuk driver and headed off to eat lunch near Ta Phrom. Our tuk tuk driver took us to a restaurant he knew, and I had incredible Lok Lak (marinated beef with a fried egg and rice). It managed to POUR rain again, while we were eating and we were forced to change tables due to the fact that it was coming down sideways.

After lunch we headed back to the famous Ta Phrom. It was featured in a Lara Croft movie… but, don’t ask me which one because I don’t know. We explored, took the obligatory tourist photos at the Lara Croft door and then again were forced to take shelter from the rain. Just before it started to rain, I offered to take a picture for a small group of tourists. Turns out they were from Sweden and we had a lovely chat while waiting out the worst of the rain!

Katelyn and I were exhausted so we decided to head back into town to rest and grab some snacks. We found an awesome café and our waitress was an Expat aussie – a welcome change! They also had a rhubarb tart that was on par with my mom’s.  We got some postcards and then headed back to the hotel to rest and write our postcards.

We booked some flights for Lao and Vietnam tonight, as we are pressed for time for the rest of the trip! I would love to take the bus more often but we don’t have the time for multiple 24hr bus rides (also no gracias).

Ok, I’m off to contemplate buying wasabi Face wash. Yes, thats a thing. Yes, I will bring some back if you want.

NOTE: If you’re reading this and would like me to bring you back something. Send me a message and I will attempt to fit it into my bag (among the entire market I bought yesterday).

Markets and I don’t mix.

Well, that is if you wan’t me to buy everything. I kind of got a little excited tonight and bought 6 pairs of pants, 4 scarves and 2 tanks. I think I spent maybe $30. You go Cambodia.

We had a longish day, but man was it worth it. We got up at about 8:30 and met our new friends Sophie and Phillipe to head to the Cambodian border. We stopped to get some new passport photos as Sophie had forgotten hers and mine were too large. We were then off to the border.

I found it really cool as we were able to cross the border on foot! We went through an arch in the shape of Angkor Wat and got our visas on the Cambodian side. In no time, we were off through passport control and on our way to Siem Reap.

We got into Siem Reap about 1pm and checked into our hostel. We went out for lunch after and walked around town. I ended up finding a wicked deal on a North Face backpack as they sell last season’s stuff here (makes sense as its made here)! We wandered through the markets in town and then Katelyn found somewhere to get a SIM Card. I’m horrible with losing things (RIP $10 bill) and don’t want to risk losing my SIM card to do that. As soon as she was done we popped into a store and before we knew it we were caught in a monsoon.

We waited it out in the store until it let up (or so we though) and grabbed a Tuk Tuk to get our Angkor Passes. We underestimated the amount of water in the streets and soon found ourselves ankle deep in rainwater (#RipBirks). We slowly made our way through the rain to the Angkor Ticket office.   If you buy it after 5pm it doesn’t count for that day and you can use it on the next day!

We had sent our Tuk Tuk that took us to Angkor back as we had to wait for our passes. So, we grabbed another one and arranged a tour for tomorrow. We’re going to bike the 2 days after that but wanted to know the history of the place. We were soon exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat with very tourists around. It was surreal to be in a place that I’ve only dreamt of being. I can’t wait to explore the rest of it!

We headed back to the hotel to get arranged for dinner. We were soon off to Pub Street and then the night market for dinner and some shopping! I ended up having some local crocodile for dinner (as it was cheapest out of the proteins) and it wasn’t bad! The cheap beer helped wash it down well.

Before we knew it we found ourselves haggling with the ladies of the night market. No, they are not prostitutes. They are ladies that work in the night market. Get your mind out of the gutter. We learned their ways and were soon beating them at their own game (as evidenced by my spoils of war). My favourite item I bought has to be a Tank Top that says “No Money No Honey” on it. I wanted to get a few other ones but alas they did not fit giants like me.

Alrighty, I’m off to watch some TV. I’m going through Friends withdrawl.

Travel Blues.

I don’t normally get the travel blues which is why this is so weird/unnerving to me. Yes, I know I missed a post yesterday but this will cover it. It wasn’t that exciting of a day anyway.

Yesterday was a mammoth travel day – we flew from Heho to Yangon then waited at the Yangon airport for our flight to Bangkok. We ended up having singaporean food for lunch, but neither of us were too concerned about that as we were both starving.

Our flight was about 45 minutes late leaving Yangon for Bangkok and we got in a little later than we were expected. We made it safe to the Hostel in Bangkok which was a pretty incredible place – I’m super upset that I was so wiped because it looked like a great place to meet people.

We woke up this morning with every intention of taking the sleeper train to Chiang Mai. But, when we went to book it at the train station it was booked solid for the next few days. Instead of waiting in Bangkok we decided it would be fine to do the loop in reverse.

The plan was for us to be in Siem Reap, Cambodia tonight but that isn’t exactly how it worked out. Our train was 1.5 hours late getting into the Attarnyaphet (the border town on the Thai side) so we decided to find a place to sleep for the night then cross the border tomorrow as we are both exhausted. We met a lovely french couple on the train who have the same plans as us, and we decided to stay at the same hotel so we could share a cab to Siem Reap tomorrow to save money.

Now, it might be because I’m tired. It could be because we’re not doing anything. But I really don’t know. The last 2 days I’ve been super “blue” – I don’t want to say I’m homesick because I’m not. I’m just upset and I have no idea why. I really don’t have any reason to be upset either. I’m on the trip of a lifetime and am eternally grateful to Katelyn for letting me crash her trip. I have no idea what this is but I hope I can shake it soon.

Again, I apologize for not blogging yesterday. I don’t even know why I’m apologizing to you. I should be apologizing to myself for not blogging everyday. But, I’m over it.