When we left Thailand, we flew into Phnom Penh, the largest city in Cambodia. Thankfully our Airbnb hosts arranged a Tuk Tuk to meet us at the airport, because Grab and Uber are not available here, and the addresses aren’t very consistent or accurate, so getting to a place like an apartment can be tricky when you don’t know exactly where you are going. This can be the downside of staying at Airbnb’s, because most drivers don’t know every road in a big city and it’s not like a big name hotel where you can just tell them the name and they know, but luckily it worked out great here. We were also only a few blocks from a major market that all the tuk tuk drivers did know, so when we needed to catch a ride back we could just ask them to take us there and walk the last bit. Also, the tuk tuks here are different than anywhere we have seen, and while we saw a few of the three wheeled vehicles we’re used to, the vast majority were trailers attached to small scooters. Yes, scooters here pull trailers for you to ride in. They also have small scooters pulling large trailers for construction and other delivery services. Apparently, the tow capacity of a tiny scooter is actually pretty good. Below: Our ride from the airport, us on the way to our Airbnb, and a sweet tuk tuk we rode in the next day!
While in the capital city, we ate a ton of different foods (of course!) and explored town a bit. We hadn’t heard a lot of great things about Phnom Penh, and we would have to agree. It’s just a big city and it’s pretty dirty, but the people are fairly friendly and it’s not difficult to get around, once you understand that the street numbering doesn’t make sense a lot of the time and you just need to ask where landmarks are that are near your destination.
We spent our first day in town buying rail passes for Japan (which you have to do outside the country) and getting the bus tickets we needed for the duration of our stay here. We went with the higher-class bus that targets westerners and provides snacks and drinks instead of the cheaper local buses, so we had to spend a whopping $13 per ticket (average). Hopefully the service lives up to the reviews it has gotten, and we aren’t getting hustled. After we took care of travel logistics, we went to the Central Market.
We spent the second day walking a bit more of the city and visiting the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, which documents a lot of the atrocities that happened in the country during the 4 years the Khmer Rouge regime was in power. We’ve all heard of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, but we weren’t really familiar with the genocide that happened in Cambodia right around the time America left Vietnam. Because of the lack of records and amount of records that were destroyed and how much turmoil the country was in before, during, and after this period, there are a lot of number thrown around about deaths, but here is the basics of what we heard. At the single secret prison we visited (which was one of almost 200 similar locations) somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people were tortured and sent to their deaths in the killing fields. As a whole, over a million people were killed during these 4 years, and some reports list over 1.7 million. Roughly 1 in 5 people died over this span. A telling statistic now is that 70% of the Cambodian population was born after 1979, the year the Khmer Rouge were ousted. Quite a few Europeans came and visited the regime while they were in power and were shown only what those in power wanted, and made to think that Cambodia was a communist paradise. As a result, the Westerners spoke out against the refugees that managed to escape and were telling the horrors of what was actually happening. This lead to a lot of mis-information being presented in the world media and many people still not knowing how much tragedy took place here. The UN still recognized and allowed many of the Khmer Rouge representatives to act for their country, even though their party was no longer in power, for decades after the conflict ended. Trials for those in power have only taken place within the last 10 years, and the country is still trying to rebound and recover.
We spent almost 3 hours at the museum, and they had an excellent audio guide that walked us through the site. Cara’s note: This experience was similar to our visit to Dachau concentration camp in Germany, in terms of learning about how ugly the human race can be. But what made it more uncomfortable for me is that the Khmer Rouge were torturing and killing people during our parent’s lifetime, and trials for crimes committed did not begin until 2006 when the UN funding and judges were finally sworn in. That makes all of this extremely recent history.
Cambodia is definitely the least developed country in Southeast Asia that we have visited, but so far the people and the food have been great. We are looking forward to the next couple weeks here! These are the places we will visit while in Cambodia: