Another boat ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This time around, we traveled on a bigger and faster boat. Our fellow travelers were all tourists – no locals on this one. There was room for 150 people but could not have been more than 15 of us on the boat. Like many things in Asia, there is little concern for safety features or guidelines. We were free to wander around the boat – on the top, on the sides, etc. – while motoring at 43 km/hr through the Tonle Sap Lake and River.
The boat ride was quicker than expected and within 5 hours, we were in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and a growing city of approximately 1.5M people. The city is not as filled with Westerners as Siem Reap, but there are still many, and pockets of the city are filled with restaurants and bars catering to them. Unfortunately, similar to Bangkok, the city appears to attract a lot of western men looking for cheap beer and cheap entertainment. You cannot help but think about the thousands of women that are exploited here because of their economic situation.
It has been scorching hot here, and instead of biking, we visited the Royal Place where the King lives (The king is a ceremonial head of state with little political power – similar to many royalty around the world.) and the National Museum.
Our primary destinations for the day were the infamous S-21 prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields. Both locations are where horrific, genocidal acts during the late 70’s civil war and the reine of the Khmer Rouge took place. Admittedly, our understanding and perspective on this civil war and the atrocities was limited when we arrived in Cambodia. Of course, we knew of the events and the shifts of power; however, we were less aware of the American impact – the bombings that some say strengthened the Khmer Rouge (KR) or the backing of Pol Pot to help fight the Vietnamese. It was clearly complex times. We have certainly gained new perspective – especially on the impact of the genocide that killed approximately 25% of the population at the time. Indeed, one of our local guides was born to parents forced to marry in a labor camp just months before the fall of the KR.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial is where 100+ mass graves and 8K+ human remains were found – just one of 20K+ mass graves throughout the country where over 1.5M people were killed (3M total including deaths from hunger and work camps). Today, locals visit and leave their blessing bracelets on the bamboo fences surrounding the graves.
S-21 Prison is where thousands were tortured and killed. Once a high school, it was turned into a prison in 1975 with the uprising. It is now a museum in the middle of the city.
It will be good to get back on the bike tomorrow.