Friday, September 8th

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was always going to be a difficult day but I did not fully realize exactly how difficult it was going to be. I think it is good to see more than just the pleasant tourist sites but to actually try to understand everything about how a country works and where it has been. Sometimes it is not very nice.

We were up at about 6:30 when we headed to the top floor for breakfast. They have only a very simple breakfast here with fruit fruit, instant orange juice, coffee, tea and a few basic baked goods.

When we met Rous in the lobby at 8:00 am she explained that we would have another local guide for the day. She introduced us to “Smee” (sorry, no idea how to spell it!) who would be showing us around and explaining what we were seeing. She studied accounting and English literature but was told by her mother to be a tour guide to tell the story of Cambodia to visitors. She has been a guide for 10 years. There are seven people in her home in which her parents live. The pay is good and she feels it is up to her to take care of her parents in their old age – a feeling she says is shared with many in the country.

Our first stop was to be the “Choeung Ek Genocidal Center” - a killing field that was formerly a Chinese graveyard a short distance to the south of the city. As we travelled through the city she explained a bit about the history of the genocide as we passed through polluted industrial areas with odd coloured water and rubbish everywhere in some way echoing the horrors that we were told about.

In 1863 Cambodia became a protectorate of France taking over large parts of what were, until then, large parts of Thailand. The French were not well loved as they imposed high taxes and sent many men to France to join the army in the two world wars.

Polpot studied in France where he joined the communist party. He was interested in creating an egalitarian society of farmers in Cambodia. As he grew up 80% of the people in the country were farmers. When he finished his studies he moved to the forests of Cambodia and taught communism and formed a guerilla army. Eventually, supported by the Viet Cong (Ho Chi Minh’s army), Polpot and the “Khmer Rouge” (red, ie, communist Khmer) he was in a position of authority having overthrown the corrupt military dictatorship of the Khmer Republic capitalizing on the general discontent with the French. Now he was able to enforce his radical political ideas on the populace with his aim focusing on the rich and educated. For example, if they had glasses they were likely to fall into this camp so were to be sent to the camps. In Phnom Penh his idea was to force everyone into the countryside to farm and see who survived with those that were unsuccessful obviously educated and sent to the camps. The way he had people move to the countryside was to tell them the city was a target by US bombers. Foreigners were confined to three places in the city for deportation.

During this time the capital was largely deserted though the prison (“Security Prison 21”, now the “Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum” which we would visit later) forced confessions from their prisoners before being sent to the killing field located some distance out of the city because of the smell. Here they did not use guns to kill people as bullets were too expensive so they used farming equipment, their bare hands and whatever else they could find. DDT was often used on the bodies to not only help with the smell but also kill those who remained alive in the mass graves.

There were 343 killing fields in Cambodia. In the killing field we visited there are 129 mass graves.

Shortly after 9 am we arrived at the centre where our bus dropped us off at the front gate many of us already now quite contemplative having heard what the guide had to say. Inside we were asked to meet near the gate at 10:30 if we went off on our own. We agreed to go around with the guide so she could show and explain what was there.

The middle of the center is dominated by a large stupa with tall glass windows through which you can see skulls and other bones piled up at different levels. Previously there had been sheds set up with the bones laid out on them but recently they have received funding for a more appropriate shrine.

Passing to the left of this we were led to a wooden walkway. As we stepped onto the walkway it was pointed out what was sticking out of the ground where we walked: Some bones and clothing.

The walkway passed over many large oval depressions, these were the killing fields where they still regularly find bones.

A tree in the middle of the area has a sign: “The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed”.

Another tree had another sign “Killing tree against which executioners beat children” (generally smashing the heads of infants by swinging them against the tree by their legs) with a small covered area immediately adjacent covered with peace offerings of colourful bracelets where many children’s bodies were found with a sign: “Mass grave of more than 100 victims - children and women whose majority were naked.”

Further on there were signs throughout explaining what we were seeing including a small display of the farm implements that were used.

Mel was looking very upset and I was not doing too well either so we went off on our own at this point quiet reading of the horrors here. We needed to visit the stupa containing the tower of bones (“Would you please kindly show your respect to many million people who were killed under the genocidal Pol Pot regime”) so after taking off our shoes, out of respect, we purchased a small bunch of flowers which we placed beside the entrance before entering.

A narrow space around the central column of bones allows you to walk all around. The bones are grouped by different categories such as sex, age or method of murder (the later often easy to determine when looking at the damage inflicted on the bones) - “Evidence of killing by crowbar”, “Evidence of chemical treatment”, “Evidence of killing by bamboo stick”, “Evidence of killing by iron tool”, “Evidence of killing by Bayonet”, “Evidence of pushing against the wall”, “Evidence of bullet”…On the bottom is a pile of clothing. Of course, all of this is only a representation of the numerous victims.

Outside we had a little sit down and cry with a few of our fellow travellers coming over to have a kind word.

Later we headed over to the museum where we had been told a film would be shown at 10:10. Again taking off our shoes we entered. The museum gave a bit more background to the Khmer Rouge such as organization charts as well as the area. I had a look around while waiting for the film to start but Mel sat outside quietly talking to some of the others from the group on a bench.

The film was quite awful but it’s message was unfortunately muted by the terrible editing and terribly cliched music and dialogue though this was hardly an important point. It showed pictures of the civil war as well as people leaving the city bringing the things we had seen outside to life (as it were).

I am woefully ignorant when it comes to history, even local history but when you see the evidence of it first hand it really brings it home. It was quiet on the bus as Smee gave us a few minutes to ourselves before talking to us again but this time on a lighter note about contemporary life in this part of Cambodia:

  • There are many garment factories, some of which she pointed out as we passed by them on the way to our next stop
  • Cambodians love to drink beer which is why there are so many advertisements for it around. Palm wine and rye whiskey are also drunk, often home brewed. Ladies often will not drink before marriage as this is seen as being quite bad but for men this is not the case.
  • The Chinese are quite present in the country with many Chinese condominium developments. There presence is generally tolerated because of the employment they offer to the people.
  • Speculators are buying land in the city to rent or sell to foreigner at significant mark-up.
  • There are three million people in Phnom Penh.
  • There is free school for those between 6 and 18 years old. School children wear uniforms and sit consistent national exams for university entrance. University is not free with fees up to $10,000/year.
  • After the war there was not much left of the country so people ate pretty much anything which is why there is a now nostalgic demand for food such as frogs, and insects.

Our next stop was the “Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime” ( which was formerly a school in the middle of the city that was converted into a detention centre in the war for many that would eventually be sent to the killing fields. We were dropped off at the front gate where Smee and Rous got our tickets. A small tunnel with seats and spray misting down led through into the compound.

The tunnel passed under “building A” where high level prisoners were held in dreadful conditions though much better than other buildings as this one had large cells for its important guests. It is three stories tall and contained 20 large cells. When the facility was liberated after the war there were four people found dead chained to their beds (in each room on display there are pictures of the bodies that were found there).

Building B now houses a number of pictures of the torture and victims of this place.

The compound now features several memorial gardens including the main one that has a gallows still standing. The far garden has a series of stone slabs on which are engraved the names of some of those who suffered here. There are signs throughout including one detailing the regulations that the keepers gave to prisoners, “The Security of Regulation” (sic):

  1. You must answer according to my questions - Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is not order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

There were two men on the grounds of the museum that are survivors of the prison that sit at tables selling books that contain their important story. After a brief conversation we agreed it would be good to read these so stopped to purchase a book. We greeted “Bou Meng” who was an artist. I was beyond words and shook his hand. As we purchased the book ($10) the older gentleman insisted that Mel have a seat behind the table with him to have their picture taken. This pretty much did it for Mel and I as we cried and hugged each other afterwards.


As you might expect from a former school, the buildings are multi-storied concrete structures that were crudely re-purposed for prisoners. On the ground floor of building C on top of a tile floor there are crude brick cells that the prisoners, of course not construction workers, were forced to build. The walls tilting at ridiculous angles with the mortar amateurishly squishing out everywhere. So unstable are the cell walls that steel bars are now needed hold them vertical. The cells themselves are tiny, perhaps only two feet across, three or four feet deep with no roofs (not necessary) or doors (so that guards could easily see what they were up to). Prisoners were chained to the floor.

On the first floor, which is also open to the public now, the cells are made of wood because of the excessive weight that bricks would cause on the structure. The wooden cells are not any less horrible. All of the cells in building C have been touched much as they were found though, of course, they would have been filthy and pungent in the extreme though such grime has long since gone.

After a brief tour of buildings A, B and C our guide let us wander around as we wished. Outside of C Mel and I stopped at a small display stand to donate some money to a group that seeks to bring school children here to understand more about their countries’ history.

Building D is full of torture devices and more pictures often showing the devices in use though at this point we were in a pretty fragile state. We never made it to see other exhibits on the first floor. Outside there the occasional small group of quietly crying people to which we added our tears.

Passing by the two survivors we agreed that we would want the second man’s book as well (also $10), “Chum Mey” a mechanic whose cell we had seen in building C. He also insisted on a picture with Mel as he handed over the signed book.


We had a final hug then returned to the main entrance to have a sit down in the cooling mist before the bus arrived at 12:30 to take us back to the hotel where our guide’s scooter was parked. We all agreed on a tip for our guide for the morning as well as Sony, our driver. On the way to the hotel Smee made it very clear that they forgive the Khmer Rouge for what they did but know as Buddhists the guilty will be punished and suffer with “bad karma”.

We had the afternoon free but a few decided to go with Rous for lunch. We walked from the hotel for about 20 minutes to the The Fresh Chilli Restaurant. An interesting place with pool tables as well as a sign on the wall “Have you tried it yet?” with prices for shooting various weapons including an AK-47 ($50/magazine), and at the other extreme a rocket launcher ($300).

They also had a rather murky large glass jar with several black somethings in the bottom on the bar that turned out to be “tarantula whiskey” (the “black somethings” being the spiders). Of course, Marilyn had to try it but for some reason no one else did…

I had a wonderful fresh, naturally sweet, orange juice ($2.75). The menu did have western food but we chose to stick with Khmer, or at least, relatively local: “Beef Char K'dao” ($5; served with rice) - a bit woody - and “Fried Cashewnut Chicken” ($5; stir fry served with rice). Mel's “Coke Light” was a fairly expensive (for us) $1.50. Certainly not the cheapest meal we have had…but reasonable.

After lunch we all split up with a few people wanting to visit the market and other places. Mel and I wanted to go have a look at the river. A short distance from the restaurant between us and the river is the “Wat Ounalom” buddhist temple, the gate clearly visible to the east of the restaurant.

Passing through the gate it was immediately far less busy and we were obviously in the residential area with two and three story apartment buildings on either side of the quiet road with the occasional monk dressed in orange passing by. Arriving at the front of the temple area itself there were thousands of small flags hanging from strings stretching across the compound (there is a festival coming up very soon). Several small shrines in front of the main temple buildings housed small statues to various deities (and donation collection boxes) and beside the main gate was a large golden bell with log poised to strike housed under a tall utilitarian structure with a corrugated iron roof. There were very few people around though when we climbed the steps (difficult in the hot weather) to one of the main buildings there were a few people inside praying. Another ornate temple that again seems to be very well used and appreciated - Not a spot of rubbish anywhere, the place immaculate. Still a bit too garish for me…

Outside the main gate we crossed two busy roads to get to the pedestrian promenade beside the river lined with palm trees as well as flags from various countries.

The path is elevated from the river with a 30 foot slanted bit of concrete leading to the water’s edge. We sat in the shade on hard concrete benches and watched the river traffic for a time – A few double-decker tourist boats but mostly barges and narrow fishing boats. This section is the “Tonle Sap River” which joins the Mekong river proper a short distance to our right but even so it is very wide here.

As we walked south past where we ate last night and towards the royal palace there were a few people with their children fishing using long fishing poles on the slanted concrete near the water. After initial stares we sat down and they got back to their fishing as we watched. It was just nice to be stopping after a very emotional morning. Nice not to be having to do anything. It was a bit hot though despite it being overcast throughout the day.

Continuing on we arrived opposite the palace on the riverfront. A large ornate (though concrete) shrine on the water was busy with tourists taking pictures of the river and the palace under the shade. The palace itself is on the other side of a small square park (“Royal Palace Park”) on the other side of the road. Crossing using a crosswalk over the busy road that follows the river there were a few people selling corn here to feed to the numerous pigeons though the park is generally unremarkable with paths crossing diagonally across lined with ornate old-fashioned street lights and the occasional barren flag pole. The massive and ornate “Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya” (“Moonlight Pavilion”) dominates the far side of the park and marks an entrance to the Royal Palace. Pride of place in the middle of the facade is what I believe a portrait of the current king’s mother (Norodom Monineath). We had agreed that we would not be able to devote the time required to visit the palace so gave it a miss on this trip though it is likely a highlight for any tourist in Phnom Penh - We were just tourist-ed out and wanted to sit and have a cold drink.

We followed the busy riverside road north. After picking our way over and around the pavement clogged with scooters, stalls and people (often we ended up on the road facing the fast moving, busy traffic) Mel ducked into a modern shop which I first took to be a florist as there was a large assortment of flowers and wreaths near the front door but it ended up being another branch of the “Café Amazon” that we visited yesterday. It turns out that this was the opening day (we even got a discount on our drinks - 20% off!).

Mel had a cappuccino frappe and I had another iced lychee drink. Looking for a seat we walked towards the back of the restaurant then following signs to the upstairs, along a very long barren hallway to the front staircase. The narrow first floor had tables overlooking the busy road and river below but was very busy with many people on their phones or laptops with the free Wi-Fi. We managed to find a table by the window to sit in the air conditioned comfort and have our drinks. The traffic is constant and heavy here which was very entertaining to watch. At one point a truck with a very large cow in the back drove by under us but you can see the whole of life go by just sitting here.

At about 3:15 we headed back to the hotel which was a lot further away than I had expected. The road in front of the hotel (178 Street) goes all the way to the river so we just had to turn left at the Foreign Correspondent Club (one of the few buildings in the city that I believe from what Rous said that was never completely abandoned in the war). We have never walked the full length of the road so did not appreciate how long it is…again, in the heat it was quite a stretch. All sorts of things to look at along the way, not just a lot of small shops. A school here, trees over there, someone having a haircut on the pavement, a stall selling baked goods, scooters everywhere…

Our Hotel

At the hotel rather than returning immediately to our room we went up to the breakfast floor, the 8th, to have a look the city all around us. PJ and Steph were already there with drinks (I had to go back down to the ground floor to get some as the bar on the 8th was closed - $7 for Mel’s beer while I stuck to tonic water rather than an American soft drink). Rachel and Carl joined us a short time later as we sat and just relaxed. As the area was open to the outside it was not exactly cool so Mel and I eventually retreated to the air conditioning of the room (well, it wasn’t immediately cool as it was off but a short time later it was…). And relax…

At 7 we met everyone in the lobby for dinner. We had all agreed to go with Rous to her recommended spot around the corner. We have been doing this a lot - Could we do any better? Unlikely, she does have the advantage of knowing the area (!). Down the street, turn to the left then the first right and we were there - Romdeng Restaurant ( which is operated by the same charity as the restaurant we visited in Siem Reap (where the young staff are learning practical skills for careers in the restaurant trade). It also has pretty much the same menu. The restaurant is in a compound that consists of a large central house/structure surrounded by trees and outdoor seating areas. We were put beside the lit swimming pool (not being used) along one side of the building. We spent much of the evening having the staff adjust the floor fans to give us a bit of a breeze in the heat.

Mel had the “Vegetarian Amok” (roast tomato, zucchini and pumpkin; $6.00) served in a lotus leaf while I had the “Fish Amok” (“Romedeng’s Fish Amok in Banana Leaf”; $6.75) with a side of jasmine rice. On the side I had several “Lychee, mint and lime slushy” ($4.25) - very delicious - over the course of the meal. For dessert I had the deep fried banana with ice cream and caramel. The dishes were all very good and despite sitting at one end of the table we had a great time talking with everyone and listening to the frogs calling out from the bushes.

Rous suggested a trip to the “Sky Bar” offering great views of the city (and expensive prices to match) but Mel and I decided to be boring and return to the hotel to relax and pack for tomorrow. Back at the hotel I used the wifi to check into our flight online as it was now 48 hours before our departure though it is hard to believe it - we not even in Vietnam yet!

An extremely heavy day but one I think was important. It is great seeing the sights like Angkor Wat but it is also good to be reminded of the history that surrounds this great beauty. Often as tourists we hit the highlights ignorant of what has actually made those highlights in the first place. Through the struggles of the people greatness is achieved. Yeah, corny, sorry. I am tired.

>> Saturday, September 9th