These are the things I knew about Cambodia before January 4th, 2011:
1) The Khmer Rouge killed lots of innocent people there in the ’70s.
2) Cambodia is home to the ancient temple and architectural masterpiece Angkor Wat, and to miss seeing it at sunrise is a major tourist faux pas.
3) Angelina Jolie adopted her first kid, Maddox, from Cambodia. (I am only slightly ashamed at this knowledge)
As you can see, I had a lot to learn.
For instance. On a map, the distance between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap seems negligible. At roughly 450km, I figured it would take about 9 hours max, once you factored in mandatory rest stops and traffic.
Try six hours to Phnom Penh, then another six hours to Siem Reap. That long day of travel threatened to interfere with the ‘relaxation’ portion of our trip. So, we decided to break it up and stay a night in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
We stayed at the Sweet Home Guesthouse. It wasn’t exactly home sweet home, but it was centrally located and clean. Plus, their tuk tuk driver picked us up from the bus station. The only problem with that is Phnom Penh has two bus stations, an interesting fact we were unaware of.
We decided to go to the second bus station, which seemed to be the ‘main’ one according to the Lonely Planet map. I don’t know what led us to this conclusion. It was near the water?
The first bus station was in the heart of a massive commotion. I sat in the safety of the enclosed bus, watching. There were buses everywhere swarmed with tuk tuk drivers. Women selling bread rolls, English-language newspapers and CDs flanked every bus, waiting to accost disembarking passengers. It was in the midst of this that I spotted my name scrawled in magic marker on a battered piece of cardboard.
“My name!” I cried. “There’s our pickup guy! This is the stop!”
“Let’s go,” Jared shouted.
We sprang into action, stuffing books and water bottles into our bags and charging down the aisle.
Our driver led us to a black and yellow-striped tuk tuk. He wore a matching helmet. I think we were a moving advertisement, but I’m not sure what for. Bees, maybe.
He offered to take us to the killing fields, after which we could cruise to an old prison, then fire some AK-47s. Or some sort of automatic weapon. You know, the usual vacation activities.
We took him up on the killing fields, but not the prison or shooting. It felt morbid, to even visit the killing fields, but there was also that tug of curiosity.
It was a quiet place, except for some dogs, a few chickens, and the sound of children playing at the school next door. Presumably this school did not exist when Pol Pot decided to turn the place into his, well, killing field. There’s really no better name for it – a big, peaceful field where he inexplicably drove people in by the truckload with the express intent of murdering them. There weren’t even any sort of barracks or holding facilities, because the soldiers were instructed to kill on arrival. It was really sickening.
As you walk through the grounds, you can see glass cases with bits of fabric, splintered bone, abandoned shoes, and teeth. When it rains, they say that stray teeth and other bones still swell up through the damp earth.
In the center of it all is a tower containing the unearthed skulls of the Cambodian people who were killed. The skulls are divided by gender and age, and you can see the gaping holes and hairline fractures where they were beaten. We left in a somber mood, but I wasn’t really able to take it all in and make it real – this all happened so recently. The injured beggars around the front gate, the tuk tuk drivers, the ticket takers – all of these people could feasibly have lost family members to this holocaust.
Despite the gory history, it’s now a tourist attraction, which means people are going to become somewhat desensitized. Like our tuk tuk driver, for example, who couldn’t understand why we didn’t want to go to the prison or fire guns.
“Real guns,” he said. “You can do as much as you want.”
“No, thanks,” we said.
He shrugged his shoulders and drove us back to the guesthouse.