Leaving Vietnam 🙁
Our day leaving Vietnam was mixed with emotions. We had spent a month exploring the country, meeting amazing people and conquering the many scenarios our motorbike trip threw at us. We did however have the largest worshiping temple in the world to look forward to in Cambodia so our emotions didn’t dwell for too long. The day long bus ride started about 45 minutes late but so does most modes of transportation in foreign countries. The ride was comfortable with stops to use an actual bathroom! I remember in India the buses never stopped for bathroom breaks and when it did we’d have to squat outside.
Once we got close to the border the bus attendant collected our passports, $35 and arranged our visa into Cambodia. We crossed the Vietnam/Cambodia border around noon. Like cattle we were herded into the immigration ofﬁce where we ﬁrst needed to get a departure stamp for leaving Vietnam. With passports in hand we loaded back onto the bus drove about 2 minutes, got off the bus again, headed into the Cambodia visa ofﬁce and got our visas. The whole process took maybe 45 minutes.
As our bus rolled into the capital city of Cambodia we could immediately see differences between there and Vietnam. More cars ruled the road than scooters, signs were in English and Phnom Penh didn’t have much character for a city. I think we were so pleasantly surprised at Vietnam that nothing could compare. As we stepped off the bus we were greeted by a very nice tuk tuk driver who spoke pretty good English. For those who don’t know what a Cambodian tuk tuk is imagine a scooter with a hitch pulling a carriage.
Our driver took us to the Mad Monkey Hostel where we hoped there was vacancy since we didn’t have a reservation. As we pulled up we could hear music blaring and 20 something year olds hanging out by the pool drinking. It felt like an episode of the Real World or Jersey shore. We weren’t disappointed when they didn’t have anything available.
The Cambodian Dollar?
Our driver recommended a hotel in a better area so we went with it. After a long day on the bus we just wanted a room. Once checked in we needed to eat! We stopped at an ATM to get out some Cambodian currency and it dispensed US dollars!?!? Obviously surprised we continued to dinner scratching our heads hoping we could use a credit card. At the restaurant the menu was in US dollars…. we were so confused. Our waitress informed us that Cambodia takes US dollars and the Cambodian Riel. We still haven’t discovered why and it continues to bafﬂe us.
The following day we wanted to visit the Choeung Ek killing ﬁeld from the Cambodian genocide (1975-78). After a small mix up with two tuk tuk drivers that looked alike, we were on our way with our driver from the day before. Outside of town off a dusty city road is where the killing ﬁelds lie. It was here that thousands of people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime lead by Pol Pot. On April 17th, 1975 Pol Pot’s regime entered Phnom Penh and deceived its citizens to evacuate the city and stay in more rural areas to avoid American bombings during the war. They were told the evacuation would only last three days. Little did they know, they were entering their own genocide.
Pol Pot believed there should be no social classes and everyone should live equally as farmers or village people. To ﬁll Pol Pot’s personal agenda he separated families into working ﬁelds and concentration camps. Those who had professions, were intelligent or a political leader were killed because they threatened the agenda, entire families included. 1/4 of the population was killed, died from malnutrition or disease during this time.
At the killing ﬁelds we were given an audio walking tour. As we visited each point of the tour we were given a detailed account of what happened there. Walking along an elevated wooden pathway through a soccer ﬁeld sized area, we were surrounded by green grass, trees and a lake covered with lily pads. In the center of the ﬁeld is an open grassy area were parts of the ground are sunken and now resemble rolling hills.
Each sunken area, a grave that held hundreds of bodies each. As we made our way through the tour one of the stops encouraged us to walk along the gravel path lined with trees on one side and a lake on the other. During this walk you could listen to a beautiful classical performance called “A memory from darkness”, written in memory of the genocide. I was so moved I teared up. Music has that effect on me though. It can make a moment in history come alive.
As we completed the tour the ﬁnal stop was a stupa dedicated to those who died at CE. From the outside it resembles a small temple with four glass walls. As you approached the entrance you were asked to remove your shoes and could buy a ﬂower as an offering. It was a beautiful and eerie feeling being inside. From ﬂoor to ceiling are hundreds of human skulls and bones on display in a huge glass case, all categorized by age, male or female. The cracks and holes in the skulls give some insight as how they possibly died. As we walked around the four sided case you understand the pain and suffering that occurred at the killing ﬁelds.
As if visiting the killing ﬁelds weren’t enough, we headed to a second genocide museum inside the heart of Phnom Penh. The museum facility is called S-21. Once a school, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a torture facility. It was there that they tortured and forced people to write false confessions about being a US or Russian spy. Again guided by an audio tour we relived the accounts of what happened there. Classrooms were turned into cells with only a metal framed bed and ammunition box to use as a toilet. Inside some of the classrooms, individual brick cells no bigger than a closet, were built to hold multiple prisoners in one room.
Hundreds of prisoner photos were on display along with paintings from Bou Meng, one of the last known survivors of S21. His paintings depicted the torture he witnessed during his time there. We were lucky enough to see him while visiting the museum that day. There are many gruesome details that I don’t care to share but S21 is now a place where Cambodia’s history can be shared with the rest of the world. It was a very emotional day but I ﬁnd some comfort in knowing that I went there to pay my respects to those who perished.
The three of us being together 24/7 requires some alone time. After a long day of visiting the genocide museums Jim and I went on a much needed date night. We decided on attending a traditional Cambodian Dance performance at the Cambodian Living Arts Center. We bought our tickets at $20 a pop and found our seats inside the very modest sized venue. Before each dance a description was displayed on a screen. Some included the ﬁshing dance, praying mantis dance and peacock dance.
All representing the different ethnic minorities of Cambodia. In the background was a live instrumental band and two elders singing. The performance was ﬁlled with beautiful women wearing traditional but elaborate Cambodian head dresses and costumes. Their elegance and beauty were displayed by their very precise hand movements throughout each dance, resembling someone dancing in slow motion.
After the hour long performance we needed dinner. We stumbled across a restaurant call David’s Restaurant Homemade noodles. We were greeted by a very charismatic professional 11 year old wearing
his school uniform of navy shorts and a white button down. He informed us that the restaurant was full but they had a second location just a 30 second walk down the street called David’s II Restaurant. He escorted us there using his body as a shield to protect me while crossing the road, telling me to be careful. Having crossed numerous busy streets in 5 countries I was comfortable doing so but I let him feel heroic in that moment. Once at the restaurant this 11 year old seated us, offered menu suggestions, took our order and even poured Jim’s beers! Wait, did we just support child labor was my thought!
Throughout dinner we struck up conversation with the young gentleman hoping to gain some insight about him. His name is David as in the David the restaurant is named after. His dad is the owner and cooked our delicious food for us that night. David likes being at the restaurant to practice his English. His hope is to be a businessman and lawyer someday. As the night continued David’s father joined in the conversation. Amazingly he owns two restaurants, works hard to send David to private school and started a non-proﬁt English school for kids living in the country.
He showed me pictures of the students beautiful smiling faces and in one of the classroom pictures I noticed the ﬂoor was dirt. Made of the most basic materials the schoolroom shack is not much but will offer a bright future. As we ﬁnished dinner and paid our $16 bill I handed David a $20 told him to keep the change. I walked away from the restaurant feeling inspired to do more throughout my travels. Every country, culture and person has a past, present and future. Cambodia’s past is ﬁlled with devastation, it’s present ﬁlled with people like David’s father and its future is ﬁlled with kids like David.