After several intense months at work, I was desperately in need of a getaway to recharge. Cambodia was a place I had been vaguely thinking of visiting for the past few years so I figured I might as well go now. My trip spanned 19 to 24 November 2016 and I divided my time between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. As I only had two-and-a-half days in Phnom Penh, my itinerary was rather predictable and covered the usual stops of a typical first-timer’s visit. First up was the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, or S21 as it is known to locals. The former high school was where prisoners of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime were held. I wandered in and out of rooms gazing at the exhibits while the audio guide told heartbreaking tales of prisoners who had died there. The descriptions of their torture were so vivid that it was hard to take in at times. As I was leaving, a tour group near the entrance was listening to Chum Mey, a survivor, recount his experience of being imprisoned.
The next day, I visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, located about 17km from the city. The most infamous of the multiple sites which make up the Killing Fields, this served as a mass grave site and final resting place for victims of the Khmer Rouge, many of whom were transported here from S21. Walking around the serene, leafy grounds, you would never have guessed the terrible things that had happened here 40 years ago. The Killing Tree where guards killed babies by bashing their heads against its trunk was one of the most chilling things I saw, along with bits of bone and teeth embedded in the earth. A stupa in the middle houses over 5,000 skulls arranged according to the type of trauma their owners suffered. It made for a grotesque yet mesmerising sight up close.
Siem Reap could not be more different from the sombre capital – the main tourist drag Pub Street was crawling with visitors and exuded a vibrant party atmosphere. Like everyone else, I came to see the legendary Angkor Wat and it was indeed magnificent. However, watching the sun rise over the temple complex was decidedly not as magical as the reviews made it out to be. It was a gloomy morning and the clouds were grey while the temple was shrouded in shadow. On hindsight, joining the half-day tour organised by my hostel wasn’t a good idea as we were allocated a mere 45 minutes for each of the five temples we visited. It didn’t help that I got lost while trying to find the tour bus as I had exited through a different exit at one of the temples. This resulted in everyone waiting for nearly 30 minutes and cut short the visiting time at the other temples.
Cambodia is still struggling to rebuild itself and it shows in the infrastructure – poorly paved roads riddled with pot holes that make walking extremely difficult and hence require the use of tuk tuks to get around, run-down houses (that are sometimes situated next to imposing government buildings) and mounds of dirt by the roadsides. It was very dusty and hot and I wondered more than a few times why I didn’t go somewhere cooler instead. While the food was decent, it was not very memorable, lacking the variety of Vietnamese food and the bold flavours of Thai cuisine. I enjoyed the $1 fruit shakes from the night market though; they were fresh and delicious and the perfect antidote to the humid nights. I also took advantage of the many fish massage parlours around my hostel and got a fish massage for the first time.
With only a few days, I was too tired and time-starved to venture beyond the city. I’m aware that I’ve only seen a small part of Cambodia and I hope that when I return, I’ll be able to see a different side, away from the cheap souvenirs and war-torn narrative.