When in Phnom Penh 


When we got on our boat the next morning to leave Koh Rong, we didn’t really have any idea where we were going. As we started our journey across the turbulent waters towards the mainland, we realized that we probably should have worn our ponchos, bad weather turned to what looked like a small hurricane over the ocean. Even though we had a cover on our boat, we were instantly saturated. We thought the wind and rain might die down after stepping off the boat but instead the weather picked up steam. One of our biggest gripes with Asia has been that whenever you (as a tourist) go to leave public transportation, whether it be trains, plane terminals, boats or buses, you are automatically harassed the second that you step one foot on the ground. The most common forms of harassing came in the form of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. Since our bags had taken a while getting off the boat, we had missed the free shuttle to the bus station. As soon as we plopped our wet feet onto the muddy ground, hordes of tuk-tuk drivers surrounded us asking us to ask where we wanted to go through the hoods of their custom motorbike ponchos. Since we didn’t even know where we were going, we stopped under the safety of an awning to gather our thoughts, and hopefully some wifi. Finally after about 30 minutes in our rain soaked shoes and outfits, the shuttle returned and we hoped on. After much deliberation, we decided to head directly to Phnom Penh and skip the beach party that Jake and Allie were headed to. We said our goodbyes and headed on a five hour bus journey to Phnom Penh. 

The next small hurtle was finding our hostel, Eighty8 Backpackers. It looked like about a 20 minute walk from our bus stop so we fired up map.me and began our journey. As soon as we started to get within about two blocks of our hostel, a disheveled man started mumbling indiscreet words at us. Since we could not understand him, we said no thank you and kept moving. He continued to follow us and made gestures with his hands in the shape of pillow and pointed in the opposite direction. Still not wanting this man to follow us, we continued to say no thank you and walk the other way. Soon we got to a long building where maps.me indicated that we had reached our hostel. The long building was definitely not a hostel considering that a couple minutes later, a man was rolled out of the building with an IV bag on a stretcher. A guard asked us what we were doing there and we told him that we were just trying to find our hostel, he knew exactly where it was and pointed across the street, in the same direction the crazy man was pointing us to. Clearly we were not the first tourists to get lost here. Feeling a bit bad about the crazy man, we thanked him and he continued to follow us to the hostel. When we arrived, he sat near the entrance, we found out later that he was deaf (which further added to our guilt) and didn’t have all of his marbles, most likely from a drug problem, a common issue in the city. However he did know where the hostel was and was tried to do his best to help. This was just one of the many depressing sights we witnessed while in Phnom Penh, a once thriving metropolis where almost three million people were executed under Pol Pots rule during the Cambodian genocide. 

At the bar that night we met two interesting individuals, one, the owner of the hostel who lined up shots the second he met us and two, Victor, an artist from Ohio who lived briefly in Laguna Beach briefly (the town next to ours) and who now lived in Ibiza. That night we all signed up for a shared tuk-tuk to take us around the town to some of Phnom Penh’s most historical and interesting places for the following morning. On the agenda was The Killing Fields and S21. We knew that these locations had significant history to them but we had no idea what a physical impact visiting them would have on us and our overall thoughts of Cambodia. Visiting these sights was a solid reminder that it isn’t just fun and games when you visit a country but also to explore its past, whether it be painful or pleasant. In this case, Cambodia’s past was dreadfully painful. Most people have heard of The Killing Fields from the movie but actually being in the area where it all happened was very different and confronting. The tour of The Killing Fields starts with an audio guide and several placards in the now lush grass. It continued with marked signs with corresponding audio sections on the tour to reveal a gruesome past. Looking at the fields from a distance, the place resembles small grass hills but on closer inspection you see that these are not hills but indeed the signs of mass graves, where over 100 souls were thrown to rest, that have sunken in over time. We later learned that over 300 people a day were killed here. Other significant structures at the memorial was the killing tree where babies were smashed on so Pol Pot’s soldiers did not have to waste bullets, a large memorial where many victim’s skulls are housed and every time it rains, more remains come to the surface. Just walking on the path, you can spot patches of clothing and bone fragments. Perhaps the most humbling and saddening part of the tour was how little of Cambodia’s past we (as Americans) did not know about. We would like to wow everyone with photos here but we felt disrespectful taking photos in such a sad place. Our next stop was almost harder to visit. S21 was a prison and torture center for those accused of being spy’s in the war. Of the 14,000 people to enter the detention center, only seven survived during its existence. This horrific torture center used to be an high school. Natalie had to leave the room after seeing all of the photos of the people who were murdered here. A particularly sad story was an Australian in the wrong place at the very wrong time. He was sailing around the world and docked in Cambodia. He was taken to S21 where he was held until he confessed to being in the CIA with his general, Colonel Sanders working in Sergeant Pepper’s task force and his accomplices were his mom and brothers’ names. He knew that this confession might be the last time to say goodbye to his family. 


The next day we vowed to do something a bit more up lifting. That morning we spent the day exploring the royal place, home to a Buddha adorned with thousands of tiny diamonds and emeralds (we know this because we followed a group tour because we were too cheap to grab our own tour guide), Thai like architecture and hoards of local tourists. We felt like we were in the Cambodian Disneyland, but instead of waiting in line for rides, we waited in line for bathrooms and shoeless lines to enter temples, throne rooms and worship areas. After the day of exploring, we met back up with our friend Victor and headed to a night market packed with food stalls and retail stores. All of the food stalls sold different variations of the same item, food sticks with the only difference being what you put on your sticks. The choices were seafood sticks with fish balls, shrimps and pieces of crab, meat (mystery or otherwise), chicken and a large array of unidentified veggies. The sticks themselves were super tasty but what came next was the icing on the cake. The second most popular food stall in the night market was coconut ice cream and we could see why. Served in a baby half coconut, the concoction was heavenly. When finished with the ice cream, you could scoop out the silky coconut flesh to munch on. As we stood there pleasantly devouring our coco-goodness, we heard people yelling and signing behind us, naturally we explored to find out what was going on. What we stumbled on next was just short of terrific and terrible but we couldn’t stop watching. On a giant stage, amateur karaoke singers were participating against one another in front of a huge crowd of people. It was a fabulous sight to see, and hear. 


On our way back to the hostel, we passed by an area that looked like a red light district followed by a street full of massage parlors, semi-skeptical, we ducked into one of them to check out the prices. Surprisingly the massages were pretty cheap, giving their location, it definitely makes a lot of sense to why the prices were so low. We made a group decision then and there to come back and get massages. 


As far as we could tell, weed was illegal in Cambodia but we kept smelling it in our hostel. Every night a group of people who looked like they could maybe be from Jamaica would smoke joints in the common area of the hostel so we thought that maybe it wasn’t so illegal. Behind the bar, we saw a sign that read, Jamaican cigarettes, it turns out that the hostel openly sold joints. We don’t smoke anything at home but thought, “when in Phnom Penh”. We shared a Jamaican cigarette among all three of us and felt nothing too crazy. Roughly ten minutes later we were all in a fit of uncontrollable giggles. We called a tuk-tuk to take us to the massage parlor. We somehow managed to not loose it when entering the massage center. Once we were settled in our communal room, on of the ladies came in and handed us each a bath sized towel. Natalie had to choose whether she wanted to cover her crotch or her boobs. Keep in mind, we had only just met Victor. Of course this sent us all into an even bigger fit of giggles and by the time the ladies walked in we all had tears in our eyes. To add to the hilarity of the situation, when the third lady walked into the massage room, she entered by saying “welcome ladies and gentlemen,” as if a performance was about to take place. If it was a performance, it would not have been award winning – massages were definitely not these lady’s main professions or passion and judging by their clicking gold bracelets rubbing against our backs, it was no surprise to guess what was most likely their primary source of income. Nat’s massage lady just stretched her back for 30 minutes and when it was time to turn over, Victor had fallen asleep and was snoring. Cue the giggle fest again. The next morning after a great sleep we ate breakfast with Victor and found out that him and Ross were in the same fraternity. The world really is a small place. 


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