24th February 2011
Jen’s back was much worse this morning and we decided to extend our stay by a couple of days in order for her to rest it as it was painful for her just to walk after a little while. Instead we stayed in bed until 11am before the call of the irresistible egg and bacon roll proved too much of a temptation! Eyes were on us again from across the road as we indulged in our near-daily ritual but we just smiled and waved! After popping a couple of painkillers Jen felt a little better so she hit the internet while Stew played pool with Smiley, a fun, cheerful chap from Norwich who would soon be running the place while a very pregnant owner and her husband disappeared to have their baby! After coming a very close second at pool, Stew joined Jen in our room and we elected to visit one final temple before our passes became invalid from tomorrow. A quick look in our trusty tourist map and a guidebook and we settled on Preah Khan, not too far from Ta Prohm. Both these temples were built by the same king, Jayavarman VII and, as he based the main image of Ta Prohm on his mother, so he based the main image of Preah Khan on his father and built it on the site of his victory over the invading Chams in 1191. Grabbing our cameras and heading outside to make someone’s afternoon, a waiting tuk tuk driver sat up and noticed us straight away, offering his services immediately and we told him we wanted to visit Preah Khan. We climbed in his nicely trimmed Cadillac of a tuk tuk, with chrome bars and red velvet cushions, and headed off temple-bound once again. Arriving there and with no street vendors to surround us, we walked up the dirt road and came upon Preah Khan, another beautifully dilapidated temple. This temple, though, was in a much better state of ‘disrepair’ than Ta Prohm and the information board outside stated that the preservation work is being carried out without disturbing the natural balance of the complex with regard to the trees growing within the site. We walked everywhere in this wonderful place, exploring every crevice and crack we could find, marvelling at the colossal trees balanced delicately on roofs and straddling huge walls. Walking out of the rear of the temple onto a huge stone landing gave a wondrous view of the back of the temple, complete with gigantic tree resting its massive roots on the roof and down the walls! We walked around for a couple of hours before retracing our steps back when we came upon a lovely old lady with close-cropped, grey hair selling incense sticks for the Buddha image that is still prayed to today. Without a tooth in her head, she had a wonderfully cheeky smile!
The wonderfully spooky Preah Khan Temple
That cheeky smile!
Jen’s back was complaining by now and so we finished our exploration and walked back down the dirt path to our driver .... who was no longer there! Looking around, we noticed there wasn’t a single tuk tuk in the area so couldn’t even commandeer another one! We were not impressed and didn’t know our way back if we had to walk it – and it would be a very long walk! We decided to give him five minutes before deciding what to do and within a few minutes a car pulled up in front of us and a man wound his window down. It was our driver! Apparently he had agreed to take someone to Angkor Wat to see the sunset and after dropping them off his tuk tuk broke down so he went all the way back to his home to get his car to come and pick us up! We were very thankful of this and gave him a tip when he had dropped us off back home. We went to our room and rested our aching limbs (and Jen’s back) and flicked through the photos we had taken during the day until our bellies told us they needed filling! Deciding we had enough energy to make it to the market area we set off alongside the river’s edge and returned to the restaurant that made the nice sweet and sour chicken. We chose to sit by the street so we could watch the people go by. It was a bit of a mistake as not only did the flies pester us but so did some street sellers as they passed by! One of them was a young lad with one leg and pretty good English who was selling hand-painted silk pictures. He asked us if we would like any and out of politeness we said we would have a look. Flicking through them we found them to be quite plain and not very good. Neither of us really liked any of them and so handed them back to the lad saying no thank you, not for us. He wasn’t overly impressed with that and said thank you for looking and not buying as he snatched them off us and stomped off in a huff! The flies were bothering us quite a bit now, getting in our food, drinks and faces. Our meals turned out to be not that nice too so all in all it was a disappointing end to an uncomfortable (but ultimately rewarding) day. It was topped off by the young lad coming back and scowling at us as he went by! We started our trudge back but were cajoled off the beaten path by the sight of an ice cream parlour which, although stupidly expensive, went down very well! We restarted our stroll home and popped into the Kid’s Plaza to buy some colouring books, crayons and pencils to give to any kids we saw on the street in the next few days. We thought this a much better option for them than cash. When we came out we were more than ready for our bed and the last couple of hundred yards to Rosy’s felt like miles! Once back home and in our room, closing the door on the noise in the bar downstairs (but having to listen to the hollering of the drunken Cambodian next door doing his level best to wake up the entire street!) we climbed between the fresh linen sheets and let today become yesterday!
27th February 2011
For the last two days we rested, letting Jen’s back heal as much as possible and giving Stew more time to rid himself of his cold and sore throat! There would be no more resting today, though, as we were saying goodbye to wonderful Siem Reap, and Rosy’s of course, and boarding a bus to the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh. We had already packed our things the night before and had booked a place to stay so were showered and downstairs waiting for our bus (due at 7:45am) by 7:15am. It was five minutes overdue and when it did show up it wasn’t what we were expecting. Instead of being a proper bus, as we were led to believe, it was a mini bus and was just picking us and other passengers up to take us all to the bus terminal! We stacked our bags in the back and climbed in and were driven around for a little while from hotel to hotel, hostel to hostel collecting people and luggage until there was no room left (in fact a lot of bags had to sit in the front with the driver!) and we set off for goodness knows where! The bus ‘terminal’ turned out to be a lay-by on a small roundabout. We poured out of the mini bus and unloaded the bags onto the pavement. Grabbing our own luggage we loaded them into the hold of the huge coach and climbed on board, managing to bag ourselves a great seat at the very front with loads of leg room (not that we need it!) and plenty of room for our small rucksacks. We even had somewhere to rest our legs. Result! Then Stew suddenly realised something was badly wrong - we had no snacks for the journey!! Quickly he jumped off the bus and ran across the road to a nearby shop and grabbed anything that looked half decent! With the bus now ready to depart, Stew quickly leapt on board and took his seat just in time. We were now perfectly set for the gruelling five hour plus journey and were just getting nicely settled in, when our coach swung into a big bus terminal and came to a whining halt before a loud voice boomed down the aisles, instructing us to change buses! We couldn’t believe it! We’d only been on it for five minutes! Everyone was wondering what was going on as we all trudged down the steps and waited for our bags to be removed from the hold before picking them up and dragging them to another waiting bus which, unsurprisingly to us, wasn’t as nice as the bus we’d just been on! Jen climbed aboard and found our seats while Stew waited in line to put the luggage in the hold. Once he’d passed the bags to the grumpy and miserable drivers he joined Jen upstairs in 4th class... It seemed to take an age before we finally got moving. Our new seat wasn’t a patch on the one we’d managed to procure on the first bus but it was all we were going to get so did our best to get as comfortable as possible but it was quite difficult as we now had very little leg room (even for us!) and what there was had been taken up by our rucksacks (we didn’t want to risk them getting damaged in the hold as they had electrical items in them). iPods out we plugged ourselves out of reality for a while while watching farms, small villages and green countryside flash past. In what seemed like no time at all, the bus was slowing and pulling over to the side of the road. Our immediate thought was that we were going to have to change buses again and were ready to start voicing our displeasure, but it turned out that the rickety old thing had sprung a water leak somewhere and was overheating! The driver and his cohort were filling it up again. This became a regular occurrence on the trip and every half hour or so we would pull over to the roadside. Where they were getting all the water from is anyone’s guess! Around the halfway mark we pulled in again, but this time it was into a roadside restaurant for lunch and a comfort break. It was a really grubby place and the last thing we wanted to do was eat there (in fact it looked so dirty that eating there probably would have been the last thing we’d have done!!). Just using the disgusting toilets was bad enough! Different nations’ ideas of cleanliness are wildly diverse! We were there for about half an hour before we were called onto the bus and back en-route to Phnom Penh, the place most famous for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and home to one of the infamous Killing Fields.
Another three or four water-filling stops later and our six hour trek ended in another bus station where hordes of tuk tuk drivers waited like circling seagulls over a newly spotted shoal of mackerel! The second the doors had opened and the first passengers had disembarked it was like open season and the drivers mingled with the passengers, each trying to land themselves the big prize – a hotel recommendation and the ride there. Thankfully we had already done our homework and booked a room at the Aqua Boutique Guest House so only needed a ride. Stew retrieved our bags from the pile being dumped onto the dusty ground and immediately had a driver latch onto him. Giving him the address of the guest house, we walked over to his waiting, tiny vehicle, balanced our backpacks precariously on the plate by our feet (holding on to their handles for dear life!) while at the same time clutching both rucksacks on our laps and sitting half facing each other so that we could fit in the chair, and we were soon trundling down the road and into the town. Ten or fifteen minutes later we were manoeuvring our bags off the little chariot and were being questioned by our driver about what we were doing and where we were going tomorrow. That was way too far in the future for our addled brains so we told him we really didn’t know and probably wouldn’t need anyone the next day. He wasn’t overly impressed by this and started the sob stories regarding not much work or job opportunities and he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t need the money etc. The truth was we really didn’t know what we were going to do the next few days and said if we saw him we’d use him. He stalked off muttering under his breath while we walked into our new home for the next few days. The restaurant where breakfast would be served was downstairs and we walked through it to go up to the first floor and into the reception area. First impressions were quite good and we were told we’d been given the ‘big’ room as it was the only one left. When we climbed the polished wooden stairs and opened the door, we were quite disappointed – there was nothing big about it – it was slightly bigger than the usual size of a hotel double bedroom but nothing outstanding. It was only when we walked out the door again and turned left that we realised it was indeed a big room – complete with a kitchenette, lounge and a balcony! The lounge had a three seater sofa in it – and a huge electronic massage chair! It was very nicely decorated in wood panels and wooden flooring, the walls painted a bright white. Now we really were quite impressed! It wasn’t a terrific view from the balcony but we didn’t care that much! We were tired, hungry and thirsty and the first thing we did was play with the massage chair! It was great and made us even more tired so we had a short snooze on our bed before hunger overcame the pair of us. Looking in the cupboards and drawers to see what sort of utensils we had, we came across a leaflet ad for a local Pizza delivery and that was it! Jen went down to reception, and our receptionist kindly phoned the pizza parlour for us. Our huge, hot Pizza was delivered within half an hour! Delicious it was too! By now it was getting late and to give us an insight into what went on in Phnom Penh and across Cambodia in the seventies with the Khmer Rouge we sat in bed and watched the movie The Killing Fields. It is a brilliantly acted but ultimately disturbing account of what life must have been like for the poor, innocent people that were massacred by the despicable Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge animals, and at the end we were both shaking our heads in utter disbelief! How on earth could those atrocities have gone on for so long, unchecked, and how could the rest of the world have looked the other way for so long?! We were astonished. And, by now, very tired too and with those awful images and thoughts in our heads we closed our eyes to another day.
28th February 2011
Up after a decent night’s sleep and downstairs eating our breakfast of, you guessed it, eggs at 9:30am. After watching the killing fields last night we elected to go and see them for ourselves so, once sated and fully equipped for the day, we walked outside into yet another glorious sun-soaked day, found a waiting tuk tuk driver and bartered a price with him for the whole day as we had planned to see Choeung Ek (the killing fields), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and finally, time permitting, the Royal Palace. We settled on 15USD for the day, until 6pm, and set off towards the infamous Choeung Ek. A little internet research we’d done earlier had revealed that this is quite a depressing place but one that is important for future generations to learn from so that the same thing can never happen again. Sadly, though, it has happened (and is still happening) in different parts of the world. We drove through the city and were surprised at just how busy it was but the traffic thinned out along with the buildings the further away from the city centre we travelled. After around half an hour our driver pulled onto a dirt track that led to the genocide museum. Once our taxi had come to a halt and a later meeting time had been agreed with our driver we walked to the ticket booth, purchased our tickets and, not really knowing what to expect, headed for the huge building at the end of the path with more than a little trepidation. It was a shocking sight. A huge white stupa had been erected and peering out from behind glass cases were row upon row of human skulls. These skulls and other human remains had been carefully laid out upon 17 platforms stacked vertically on top of one another with the lower platform containing some of the victims’ bloodstained clothing and the subsequent levels above holding the human remains. We stood in utter disbelief at the sight, both of us finding it harrowing and upsetting.
The Buddhist stupa built as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge
Victims remains lay on 17 levels in the stupa
A few of the many skulls displayed
After reading some factual information we walked silently to the sites of the mass graves themselves. At various locations there were information boards present explaining exactly what happened at that specific site and some of the buildings that were used to hold the poor, terrified ‘prisoners’ prior to their execution, and the weapons used to execute them, were razed soon after the area was liberated by the Vietnamese. We walked around several pits that had been roped off. One pit in particular took a long time to leave our thoughts. It contained the remains of 100 women and children. The women were mostly naked and the babies’ skulls were found crushed where they had been slammed against a nearby tree before being tossed into the pit. Some of the victims weren’t even dead when they were buried. We read that strong chemicals were thrown in the pits to kill anyone still alive, dissolving the bodies in the process to hide the smell of death.
Two of the mass graves found at Choeung Ek
The terrible Killing tree
One of the signs in place of what used to be at that spot
Feeling very sad and sombre by this point, we decided to go for a walk around the perimeter of the area where we found two children playing who stopped to say hello to us. We handed them some pencils we’d bought a few days previously and seeing their smiling faces made us feel a fraction better. Steeling ourselves for more sorrow we walked to the museum that told the full story of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime and the atrocities that they committed. Some of the exhibits included torture tools and execution weapons which included everyday items such as shovels and knives which were employed when it was decreed bullets were too expensive! In the next room was a display that focused on the trial of the man who ran the S21 prison, (where the prisoners were held and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek) Kaing Guek Eav (better known simply as Duch) who gave the orders for the killings. He was sentenced to 35 years in jail for ordering the extermination of 21,000 people during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) and the authorities were trying to instigate proceedings against a number of others. Our final visit was to a small cinema that told the story of how this terrible place was discovered. After the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979 by the Vietnamese and what Choeung Ek actually was used for came to light, the entire site was carefully excavated and what they found were the remains of more than 8000 human beings of all ages and genders. To this day human remains and victims clothing are still surfacing (we saw rags, bones and teeth in the ground), especially after heavy rainfall. As a sign of respect, these are being left where they lay. It is estimated that between 17,000 and 21,000 people were executed at Choeung Ek alone and there were something like 20,000 killing fields across the whole of Cambodia. The number of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge is estimated at an astonishing 2.5 million, which was a quarter of the entire population at the time! We had seen all we wanted to see and so, with dampened spirits we trudged to the exit and bought a bottle of water from the nearby shop before meeting up with our taxi driver and as if we hadn’t had enough horror and sorrow for one day headed off towards the Security Prison 21 (S21) prison, Tuol Sleng about 15km away. Just off a busy street Tuol Sleng used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat high school until it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a place of torture and imprisonment. We walked along the ground floor of the first building we came to and were instantly horrified at what we saw. These were the rooms in which the Vietnamese liberators found the last twelve prisoners of S21. In a last act of defiance, the Khmer Rouge soldiers stationed here had brutally murdered all 12 prisoners when they realised the Vietnamese army were almost upon them. Each room was fairly large and dingy with barred windows, the chequered floors covered with dirty mustard and white tiles with the grubby, stained walls the same shade of dirty yellow. In the centre of each room was an iron framed bed with no mattress. Each prisoner was shackled to their bed by their arms and legs and some of the shackles are still attached to the iron frames. Torture instruments lay on the floor or fixed to the walls. We could only imagine what went on here. These rooms where the last twelve were discovered each had a single, large, black and white photograph hanging from a wall showing how the prisoners were found. The pictures were extremely gruesome. We trudged up the stairs to the 2nd floor and found some much larger rooms that were used to house many prisoners, all crammed in with no space to move and who were all shackled to long iron bars fixed to the ground until their time for torture came. We stood on the balcony that looked over the grounds and from here we could quite easily see the graves of the final 12 prisoners. There were 11 men and one woman. In remembrance they are all buried in the grounds in identical, unmarked, white tombs just a few paces from the cells in which they were discovered. Unable to take in what we were seeing and reading, we walked to the second building, passing by a huge timber frame where the poor prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs and they were then hoisted by their tied hands until they ‘confessed’.
The awful Tuol Sleng S21 prison
In the second building there were large poster boards with black and white photographs and names of all the men, women and children that the Khmer Rouge deemed were enemies and were rounded up and imprisoned here before being tortured and shipped off by the truckload to the Killing Fields where their lives came to a violent end. Apparently the persons in charge of Tuol Sleng kept accurate records of prisoners going in and out and from these the authorities were able to find out how many people were tortured here and sent on to Choeung Ek. Some of the photos carried information on the prisoners’ backgrounds, some of which were either famous or luminaries of some kind or other. Mathematicians, musicians, professors, actors and the like – all were deemed, overnight, enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Even some of their own supporters and Khmer Rouge high officials ended up here when they were deemed to be no longer of any use to the ultra communist party. Each prisoner wore a number along with the same terrified expression. We stood and looked into the eyes of these poor people – row after row after row. When we came to the picture of a small baby boy, his innocent little face staring out at us, it was all we could take and our tears flowed. We had both seen as much of this as we could bear, even though there was still more to see. We quietly went outside to get some fresh air and sat on a bench for a while before making our way out of this awful place to meet our waiting tuk tuk driver.
The timber frame used to torture victims
Some of the many thousands of victims
The tombs of the last 12 prisoners
The last stop of our long day was the Royal Palace and we were in dire need of some cheering up! Unfortunately, time was more than a little against us as it was after 4pm when we pulled up outside and the Palace grounds closed at 5pm! After paying our entrance fee we walked briskly to the gate and, walking into the Palace grounds proper, we were greeted with a sight for sad eyes! After the tour we had just endured, this place looked like a little piece of heaven! A small group of orange and red-robed monks were also touring the buildings, adding even more colour to the already sumptuous surroundings. The grounds and gardens were huge and the buildings were beautifully ornate, with their perfect pure whites, yellows, golds and oranges glinting brilliantly in the bright evening sunlight. We rushed from building to building, from room to room snapping away at the magnificent carvings, statues and the colourful Ramaketi frescoes on a wall that adorned a long corridor to one side of the gardens. The large white King Norodom’s stupa stood in the gardens and as we neared it we could see that it had been intricately carved with thousands of small Buddha images, flowers, elephants, dancers, animals and guardians and the entire edifice looked as though it was solid marble topped off with a golden spire. The detail was astonishing! From here we walked to a striking statue of King Norodom sitting astride a truly magnificent white marble stallion and the whole thing was housed in a stunning pavilion construction in white and gold with a lavishly opulent roof. Flowers of reds, pinks and purples splashed even more colour across the gardens while HRH Kantha Bopha’s stupa, constructed from what looked like white marble with elaborately carved flowers and Buddha images, not unlike the King Norodom’s stupa, stood tall a short walk away. The carvings covered the entire edifice from the very top of its domed roof to the very bottom of the balustrades shouldering a staircase of twenty or so marble steps. There were four staircases in all, each at right angles and each leading to a landing area, just below the roof, in a small, open square in which sat a brilliant, yellow gold container shaped like a huge lotus flower. We really wished we’d had more time to explore here but the ground staff were waiting to close up for the night so, after bagging the very last purchase from a stallholder who had already packed up (we badly needed some water!) we made our way to the back gate, stumbling across an impressive model of Angkor Wat in the process, and so took a few pictures before heading out to find our driver.
The beautiful Royal Palace
The last of the day’s sun was soaking away and the streets were becoming busier as we headed toward our guest house. We both said that we’d like to come here again so agreed to return tomorrow and take a much more leisurely stroll around instead of the Usain Bolt version we’d had to make do with today! As a pleasant surprise we found that it was well within walking distance from our current home away from home and we were soon in our comfy, big room with kettle on and fighting over who got the first go on the huge massage chair in the corner! After letting the ‘enthusiastic’ chair weave it’s magic on our aching muscles (leaving a few bruises in the process!) and reviving ourselves with coffee we weighed up our options for dinner and elected to make the long walk to and along the riverfront area where all the bars and restaurants were located. After our heavy day, physically and emotionally, we fancied a drink and so stepped out into the balmy night air and set off down the road. People park their cars mainly on the pavements here and so, consequently, the roles are reversed - cars end up on sidewalks and people walk in the roads! That can get somewhat dangerous as some of the time you don’t hear the vehicles coming and their drivers don’t see you stepping out! After around half an hour we’d made it to the riverfront and it was obviously the place to be – it was heaving with an eclectic mix of revellers, tourists, locals, street vendors, tuk tuk and taxi drivers and many young children selling bracelets and the like. Couples lined the wall overlooking the mighty Mekong River as boats of all sizes cruised upon its brown waters. Searching for a decent looking waterhole we noticed a nice looking, popular bar on a street corner and headed straight for it, sitting down at a small table outside in two comfortable armchairs and ordering our much-needed drinks once a waitress had finished playing with her son, cracking eggs into a bowl, and sauntered over to our table. The drinks were delivered in no time and it was like drinking pure nectar that first drink! We sat and chatted about our day and were interrupted every now and then by a small child wanting us to buy a pendant or a book or a bracelet or something else. The kids’ ages ranged from maybe 6 to 12 years old. We looked at the food menu in the bar but couldn’t see anything on there that took our fancy and so paid for our drinks and went in search of good food. It came in the shape of an Indian Curry house a little way up the road. It smelt divine as we walked past it so we quickly turned around and went in. It was a long, narrow place, dimly lit but clean with a number of diners already seated and enjoying their meals. Ordering more alcohol, we chose our dishes and our very un-Indian waitress jotted them down and sped off towards the kitchen while we sat and looked around the place. It wasn’t very long before the kids started coming in with the books, necklaces etc and once again we smiled and declined until a little girl with huge, brown eyes and the most adorable, sad little face came up to us carrying her little tray of handmade bracelets and asked us to buy one from her. Stew couldn’t resist, asking her what the prices were and listening to that tiny voice that sounded like she’d been breathing helium for a week explain the financial details. We bought two bracelets from her and she accepted our money with thanks but no smile and turned on the spot and walked to another table before walking outside and into the darkness. That little face and that tiny voice stayed with us for a long while. Our meal was delicious and we left there well fed and watered, wearing our beaded bracelets and decided it was too big an ask for our weary legs and bodies to carry us all the way back so hopped into the back of a waiting tuk tuk, bargained a price, and let him carry us home to our comfortable bed where we closed our doors and eyes on a difficult, but ultimately rewarding day.