My last proper day away was spent in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia. Off the bus with a few other tourists, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. I was so glad that I booked accommodation before arriving! Because of the pre-planning, a driver was there with a sign and my name on it… a welcome face in an overwhelming crowd. I hopped on the back of his motorbike (my huge green backpack between his legs, I’m not kidding) and we zipped through the streets of Phnom Penh to my hostel on the river.
The atmosphere in the hostel was even more laidback than in Thailand. It was a strange mixture of middle aged male life drop-outs, young travellers and cambodian locals. I arranged a tour of P-P with my driver and then dropped into one of the chairs for some r&r. There’s a noticeable difference between P-P and Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a purely tourist-driven town, while the centre of Phnom Penh is almost completely void of white faces.
My Phnom-Penh tour was organised back-to-front. We started at the end; viewing an orphanage which was a direct result of the khmer rouge violence and ensuing poverty. It was a privately run orphanage, meaning that it relied on private donations for their upkeep. I brought along a 50kilo sack of rice which could feed all the children for only one day. But I spoke for a while with the local French teacher, who said that because it was low season, any donation, no matter how small, was appreciated. It was amazing to spend some time with the local children, who spoke to me in both French and English and were delighted by the little Canadian flag pins I handed out (thanks Mum!).
After the orphanage, I went to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields. Although I had heard stories from other travellers, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Certainly not a beautiful stupa and miles of beautiful green fields and trees. For some reason, the name “the Killing Fields of Cheung-Ek” had brought to mind a scene much more desolate.
There were people stationed at the entrance to the stupa selling flowers and sticks of incense, but my eye caught sight of what was beyond and I was both entranced and appalled. Skulls. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Piled on top of each other in the centre of the stupa, categorized by age and gender but otherwise jutted and propped against each other in disarray. I circled the gruesome monument, came back to my senses and bought both flowers and incense – the money goes to support the families affected by this atrocity. I lit the incense and prayed. How did something so tragic and enormous happen within my lifetime and I be so completely ignorant of it?
The rest of Cheung-Ek is equally chilling. The bones in the stupa represent only a few of the mass graves that have been uncovered. You can walk through, over and around the other graves, the ones they have yet to unearth.
I completed my terrifying journey into Cambodian history by visiting Tuol Sleng prison or Sector 21. The fact that it was a former high school made the place all the more chilling. Just imagine… monkey bars from the playground gym being used as hanging posts. Classrooms installed with iron bars on the ground to chain the prisoners to the floor. Or being divided into cells barely big enough for me to turn around in. Curiously, the Khmer Rouge were pros at keeping records. They photographed every single inmate and their pictures now fill the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Museum.
If you can believe it, I went straight from my visit at the prison to the airport. You might wonder how I could possibly spend the last real day of my trip exploring such horrors. But Cambodia is such an amazing and resilient country, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand that without visiting their history. And it is so recent. It is so relevant. And yet, there are few signs of despair. Everyone is smiling, optimistic, entrepreneurial and excited about the future. The perfect place for me to end an incredible adventure and show that no adversity – even the very worst kind – is impossible to overcome.