Cambodia – Phnom Penh & The Killing Fields

Now, to be honest, the ride from Battambang to Phnom Penh was the most comfortable bus ride throughout our time in Cambodia. We had used Mekong Express for previous journeys, but the buses they used for those routes weren’t nearly as nice. The seats were wide and extremely cushy and there was working wifi for the duration of our ride. The ride took only 5 hours and cost 9 USD per person.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at around 1:30pm, which was great because it meant we had most of the day to get settled and explore the city. We hailed a tuk-tuk using the handy Grab app and set off to our gorgeous hotel. We stayed at The Bridge Club, which was a 39-story building still partially under construction. We have no doubt that once construction is finalized, this will be a 5-star hotel which will cost a pretty penny. But for now, we got to reap the rewards of a 5-star room for only 20 USD per night. The room had a killer view of the city, a big water dispenser to refill our bottle each day, and one of the most comfortable beds we have slept in on our journey. The only downside was the sound of construction at 8am and a pretty unorganized front desk.

Missed our previous Battambang post? Read it here

Our room with a view at The Bridge Club

After settling into our room, our first order of business was to find a laundry service. Luckily, we found an awesome place called Eazy Laundry that picks up and delivers your clothes to your hotel. They only charge 1 USD per kilo and an extra 2 USD for pick up/drop off service. We made contact and within the hour they had someone at our hotel to pick up our clothes.

Once our clothes were collected, we headed to Phnom Penh. We checked out some nearby shops and the massive Aeon Mall. We then walked over to Coriander Indian restaurant for some delicious and reasonably priced curries.

The next day, our construction work alarm clock woke us up at 8am. This was actually pretty welcomed since we had a pretty busy itinerary planned for the day. Our first order of business was breakfast. We hailed a Grab tuk-tuk and headed towards 126 The Noodle House Factory. Upon arrival, we could see the busy tables packed closely together on the corner sidewalk space and locals pouring in and out of the popular establishment. Based on the number of locals and the steaming bowls of soup being served, we knew this would be one of our favorite meals. We found an empty table and glanced over the menu. We ordered some sliced roasted pork and rice, a bowl of soup, and two Khmer coffees all for just 5 USD. This meal did not disappoint! If you find yourself in Phnom Penh, do yourself a favor and spend your mornings here for a truly delicious Cambodian breakfast.

A delicious breakfast at 126 The Noodle House Factory
Renting our steed from Vannak Bike Shop

Once our bellies were satisfied we walked over to Vannak Bike Shop, which was only about 3 minutes away. We rented a bike for 7 USD per day, which was a bit more than what we were expecting but it was convenient and had decent reviews. We then set off to Tuol Sleng Prison also known as S21. It costs 5 USD per person without the audio guide or 8 USD with audio. We chose the non-audio option since we were on a pretty strict budget, but I have no doubt the audio guide is worth it.

Tuol Sleng Prison is a must when in Phnom Penh, it is also better to see the prison before the killing fields in order to give better insight into how it all began. As for Pete and I, we had read up on the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge before arriving in Cambodia. But that pales in comparison to what you end up learning through Tuol Sleng.

Senior members of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot on the left.
Youth recruits for the Khmer Rouge

I know most of our readers probably know as much about Cambodia and the genocide that took place there as we did when we arrived. So I will provide a little bit of detail about what we learned at Tuol Sleng here.

Firstly, who were the Khmer Rouge? They were a group of Cambodians who believed in communism and the ideals set forth by Chairman Mao. At the time when the Khmer Rouge took over, the country was already weakened. Their leader had been exiled and the country was now in a civil war. When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, they entered in a celebratory matter and everyone was under the impression the war had ended. The next day the Khmer Rouge used force and lies to get everyone in Phnom Penh to evacuate the city. They had told the people of Phnom Penh that the United States was planning on bombing the city. Of course, many believed this, since the United States was already bombing the villages of Eastern Cambodia while trying to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Khmer Rouge were successfully able to clear Phnom Penh of all citizens within 3 days.

Where did everyone go? Cambodians were sent to work in rice fields and farms. The original owners of farms were considered the base people. They were given more of a leader status and had more control over the newcomers who arrived at their farms to work.

The Khmer Rouge believed that Cambodia should return to a pure state of Khmer citizens who only farmed. If you were educated, wore glasses, were a musician, spoke a second language, worked in a military service that was not Khmer Rouge, had wealth, had soft hands, and/or had light-colored skin you didn’t belong and were killed.

Tuol Sleng Prison was originally a high school. After clearing the city of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge turned a place of education into a place of torture and imprisonment. The Khmer Rouge brought anyone who was believed to be CIA, KGB, or working with the Vietnamese to this prison for torture and eventually death at the killing fields. As you can imagine, most of the people who were brought to the prison were neither CIA, KGB or in cahoots with the Vietnamese, but a human can only take so much torture before just saying whatever the torturer wants to hear. Between 14,000 and 17,000 prisoners were taken to Tuol Sleng, it is believed only about 7 – 12 actually survived.

At Tuol Sleng, you can see the various prison rooms, how prisoners were tortured, how the Khmer Rouge documented everyone who came through the prison, and how the international community did not know what was happening, which you can read about below in the photos.

Where different forms of torture took place
Various prison cells

After an educational and sobering few hours at the museum, we headed over to the Tuol Tom Poung, also known as the Russian Market. Here you can find anything and everything. Souvenirs, clothing, car parts, produce, meat, food stands, woodwork, etc… We grabbed a couple Khmer coffees and walked around. We love Cambodian trinkets. In our opinion, Cambodia has some of the best souvenirs and accessories in Southeast Asia.

We then walked over to Brooklyn Pizza Bistro where we shared a sandwich before heading back to our hotel for a rest.

That evening we set out for the Phnom Penh Night Market. Here you can find cheap food and barbecue. We bought several different barbecue items and some sticky rice for about 6 USD. After getting our food, we found a place to sit on the provided straw mats. We loved this. It felt like we were having a massive picnic with everyone.

Grabbing some chow at the Phnom Penh night market

Upon finishing our meal, we decided to check out the streets around the night market. Now, do you remember our previous blog in Battambang? Where we discussed the brothels? Well, let’s just say that experience was a prelude to Phnom Penh.

We found ourselves in the heart of the brothel district. Loads of scantily dressed ladies lined the storefronts. And who were the men shuffling in and out of these businesses?

White. Middle-aged. Overweight. Men.

As we were walking, two of these sex-pats walked past us. The one saying to the other “you go check out that shop, I am going to see the product over here.”

A feeling of disgust ran over us.

Now, please keep in mind, we are not against prostitution in any way. In fact, if it is legal and regulated and the women are in complete control, we have no problem with it. The problem in Cambodia is much deeper than that. A lot of ladies who are providing sexual services are not doing it because they want to. In Cambodia, a lot of women have been trafficked or coerced into it. A lot are forced into the trade, against their will. And most of the time, these women are watched like hawks. If they are not putting on a show, not providing services, and not attracting customers they are beaten or worse. Of course, not every brothel in Phnom Penh is doing this, but would you know if they were? Probably not.

The next day, our construction alarm clock woke us up at 8am. We headed out for a curry and rice breakfast before trekking over to Choeung Ek, also known as the killing fields.

Tip: A tuk-tuk will cost you around 20 USD to get to the killing fields and back. It is far more cost-effective to rent a scooter for the day and drive yourself over there.

Entrance to the killing fields was 6 USD per person and included the audio guide. The audio-led tour gave a detailed story of how people arrived, where they were placed, and how they were killed which was by farming tools. Bullets were too expensive so the Khmer Rouge killed using other barbaric forms. Most people were blindfolded with hands bound together. They were then bludgeoned to death with various instruments. Loud music blared through the speakers to mask the sounds of screams. Babies were smashed against a tree (later to be known as the killing tree). The bodies were dumped in mass graves. Not only did we learn about what happened at the killing fields, but we also had a recap of what was learned at Tuol Sleng, we learned what happened to Pol Pot, the Angkar, and the Khmer Rouge soldiers and we listened to the stories of the survivors. We also learned how the Khmer Rouge were dethroned. It was not from the west, but rather by the Vietnamese.

The killing field
Speakers were hung from this tree to mask the sounds
Monument holding the remains of the lives lost at the killing field

The Khmer Rouge were trying to push toward Vietnam in an attempt to reclaim the Khmer/Angkor kingdom. Of course, the Vietnamese pushed back and eventually pushed the Khmer Rouge to the border of Thailand, including Pol Pot. What was fascinating was most of the western world was in the dark about most of this. Most of the west was under the impression that the Khmer Rouge was still in power even though they were pushed to the border. In fact, the Khmer Rouge still had a seat in the United Nations. Approximately 1.7 – 3 million of the 8 million Cambodians were killed during the 4-year occupation of the Khmer Rouge.

In the two days we were in Phnom Penh, we learned more about the history and struggle of the Cambodians than we could have ever learned in a classroom. We truly feel that one must learn from history in order to avoid repeating it.

Upon returning to the city of Phnom Penh we grabbed a couple coffees and went for a swim at our hotel. After cooling off, we headed out for some dinner and 50-cent beers.

The following day, we went to our favorite breakfast spot 126 The Noodle House Factory for a bowl of soup and our favorite roasted pork and rice. We then dropped off our scooter, hailed a Grab to the bus company, and set out to the southern town of Kampot.

Continue with us to Kampot…

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