Cambodia Part Two: Beautiful and incomprehensible

Temples of Angkor Wat | Big Days Out

So far Cambodia has not been our friend and it continued as we made our way to the cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Francesca has endured her obligatory trip to the medical centre, which involved a blood test and she also went a step further and received a small electric shock in our hostel. Besides her health, these two cities led us to both the beautiful and incomprehensible.

Following the rats of Sihanoukville, we took the train to the capital city, Phnom Penh. Our seven hour journey was longer than the bus route but enabled us to relax, safe in the knowledge no crazy overtaking maneuvers would be possible.

Train to Phnom Penh | Big Days Out
Single carriage train to Phnom Penh running again after 14 years

Although we did have to watch out for the low flying finger nails of a Cambodian man, as he merrily clipped away as he took in the views.

View from train to Phnom Penh | Big Days Out

On our first full day in the capital, we remembered how famous we were in Cambodia with countless stares in our, but particularly Francesca’s, direction. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the Cambodian males, she has not yet left me! Also, we thought our names had been changed to Tuk Tuk, as we were asked if we wanted one every three seconds.

Turning our attentions to the sights, we had a gaze at the Royal Palace but with the memories of the magnificent Grand Palace in Bangkok still afresh we could not bring ourselves to pay the entry fee to discover the inevitable disappointment.

Along the riverside, we were dismayed to find thousands of small wild birds being kept in cages. No one seemed to care as we watched them continue to catch more. Later, after a quick search on a well-known search engine, we discovered that you must pay to release a bird as part of some ludicrous Buddhist ritual!

The following day and we were on the move again this time to the city of Siem Reap. As our bus left, we were immediately greeted with a DVD of Cambodian Karaoke that would be played on a continuous loop for three hours. Funny at first but quickly became tiresome. Ear plugs in! Towards the end of the journey, a young guy behind us annoyingly decided to play his music out loud and sing along to the likes of Lady Gaga. He must have been inspired by the DVD.

We headed to the fantastically named Pub Street for dinner but did not sample the scorpions, spiders or snakes that were available on route! Despite visiting Pub Street for three nights we only had one beer each the whole time. Aren’t we good!

Partly, this was due to the 4.15am wakeup call the next day. Why were we up so early? We’d heard from another traveler in Thailand that you must do sunrise at Angkor Wat. For anyone that doesn’t know Angkor Wat is a temple complex and name of the main temple, which is the largest religious monument in the world that was at the heart of the Khmer Empire many moons ago! (Thanks Wikipedia)

Anyway, from 5.30am until 7.10am we waited patiently as the sky changed from black to dark blue to orange to sky blue. Eventually, after we’d restrained from hitting a girl in front us who was continually putting her selfie stick up and down to take the same bloody photo every three seconds, the sun rose above the five towers of Angkor Wat.

It was worth the wait…

Angkor Wat Sunrise | Big Days Out

Afterwards, we began exploring numerous temples including Angkor Wat as the temperature rose to almost unbearable levels. No wind and sweating like crazy! Unfortunately, they’ve yet to fit escalators into these temples so the continuous up and down of steps exacerbated the issue. Also…

WHY DO ALL FAR EASTERN TOURISTS HAVE TO SHOUT WHEN THEY’RE TWO YARDS AWAY FROM EACH OTHER?

After we’d calmed down we headed to the temple that was used in the filming of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film. Neither of us has seen the film so we couldn’t give a monkeys, which remind me we finally saw some monkeys!

We rested our tired legs for a few hours and on the way to Pub Street, we witnessed our first traffic collision. Based on the chaotic roads of South East Asia, our first words to one another were: “How have we not seen one until now? Perhaps, more shocking was that everyone just carried on driving around the poor woman as she got to her feet! Also, it was interesting to note that the only people watching a mere 60 seconds later were western tourists. In fact, the guy who caused the collision had already scarpered. I think we might be on one of those alien planets NASA has just discovered!

It may have been from the shock of the crash but we suddenly found ourselves requiring retail therapy. Unashamedly, we walked away from the night market with a Liverpool shirt and a pair of New Balance trainers for a mere £23, which leaves you with the challenge of calculating the authenticity of these products…

After our splurge, the next day we made our way back to Phnom Penh for three more nights. As we departed, we witnessed more nail clipping. Seriously, we’ve seen this 7 times now! More louds tourists on the bus (I’m calm now) was followed by an uneventful journey until the bus came to a halt in Phnom Penh and we again got to play the fun game of guessing what some gentlemen had consumed earlier in the day. Francesca’s opening gambit was noodles, which I confirmed! If he’d been trying to hold it in it was very much a case of close but no cigar!

Unfortunately, we were one of two rows trapped behind him unable to exit the bus for 2-3 minutes, getting smellier by the second! We wrote off the rest of the day.

Our penultimate day in Phnom Penh was emotional and likely to be the hardest day on all our travels as we visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Genocide Museum (S21 Prison). Both of which are perhaps the most well-known from the terrifying Khmer Rouge regime, which took place between 1975-1979. On the way, I felt nervous, unsure what to expect.

As we took our well-presented audio tour from a survivor around the Killing Fields, it was incredibly peaceful and we struggled to comprehend what took place here only 40 years ago. Standing around areas where mass graves were and still are was very difficult, particularly those of children.

After visiting the stupa, which contains the skulls of many hundreds of the victims we were truly overwhelmed and left to ride silently in the tuk tuk back into the city unable to put into words what we had just seen.

Back in Phnom Penh before getting a bus to Vietnam in a few days… A very difficult, emotional day today and out of respect I didn't take any photos but I wanted to say something about what I have seen today after a silent, thoughtful journey back to the hostel and a day I will personally never forget. The pain and suffering the prisoners of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and S21 Prison have gone through is just unimaginable really. Today we have listened to gruelling survivor stories, learnt about the forms of torture used here and seen the terrified faces in portraits of each prisoner, whether that a baby, child, teenager or adult. It's so important that people understand what happened here and that we keep our eyes very much open in this world. If you get the chance, do go, because you'll learn so much about Cambodian history and it's so worth a visit. Today we will remember just how lucky we are to be free and think about those who aren't.

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Back in the city, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum, which was known as the S21 Prison where thousands of people were executed or tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields. Walking around this prison, formerly a school that sits eerily silent in the middle of a noisy city, we learnt of the horrors that took place during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

As we walked around the buildings, we saw the evidence of what happened there with blood stains still visible and hundreds of photos of the victims with fear and almost resignation etched across their faces. It is something that neither of us will ever forget.

As you’ll know from reading our updates, our time in Cambodia has been very eventful and challenging but for the beauty of the Angkor Wat temples and sunrise we’re glad that we came. Visiting the Killing Fields and S21 Prison, was an emotional but important day in which we learnt of the truly dreadful acts the Khmer Rouge carried out on their fellow human beings. It is almost impossible to believe how recently these horrific events took place and how it was hidden from the rest of the world.

Visiting allowed us to learn about a horrific story from our world, that has never received the same attention as other similar atrocities, and truly understand the nation of Cambodia.

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