Traveling into Cambodia, Gillian and I had heard many stories of westerners being ripped off at the border. People had previously been told that the visa fee had increased or they had to pay extra charges to leave the country or various other kinds of false information involving charges. We did so much research on what best to do including just avoiding the country all together. However, after much deliberation we decided that we would regret it if we didn’t go.
To get to Cambodia from Vietnam, we decided to use a company called ‘Giant Ibis’ which cost a reasonable $19 per person. This included a drink, snack and wifi on the bus. The bus also had a guide who was to join us at the border and get us through hassle free- thankfully, it turned out just like that. We arrived at the border and were hustled into a warehouse to have our passports stamped and then back on the bus to another building to get fingerprints taken and that was us. In all we couldn’t have been anymore than about an hour or so which is good for the Vietnam – Cambodia border. I would highly recommend ‘Giant Ibis’ for border crossings due to their professionalism which can’t be said for many of the bus companies operation across Asia. It was on the bus that we also met Steven and Jess from America. We befriended the American couple and before we knew it we were planning our next day together. Steven and Jess had carried out a mountain of research for Phnom penh and they very kindly invited us along to join them for the following day.
The next morning we were picked up by Steve and Jess at half seven, along with our tuc tuc driver Sony who we had a set price of twenty five dollars with to take us about to all the places we wanted to go to that day. Make sure in southeast asia that you never pay the first price offered by a tuc tuc driver as they’ll start high and expect you to bring it down.
The first place on our days itinerary was called the killing fields. For anyone heading to Phnom Penh, I can’t recommend the killing fields at Choeung Ek enough. The killing fields are the site of mass graves that were once the location of brutal murders during the Cambodian genocide. Arriving first thing in the morning will give you the best bet at enjoying it if thats the right word. As it gets later on in the day the tour busses tend to flock in and as temperatures rise into the early afternoon its best to get it done earlier on. As you walk into the grounds, you are first greeted by what looks like a commemorative monument. It is a monument, but a monument like no other. The monument is actually called a ‘stupa’ and contains eighteen floors of human bones, thirteen of these are human skulls with holes in the cranium where the victims were brutally murdered. In addition to this, they have the skulls arranged by age and gender. The ages start at two. As you walk round the complex you gain a more and more grim understanding of the importance of the area you stand in and the brutality of what happened their through a detailed audio tour. As you follow the tour, you see the area is filled with shallow mass graves. Whenever their is a heavy rain, the bones and teeth of victims begin to show on the surface of all of the graves.
Probably the most gruesome and shivering part of the tour would be when you come across an old tree next to one of the mass graves. When you reach this point it is detailed in the tour that it’s actually called the killing tree. Part of the Cambodian genocide was that anyone who was educated was killed as they weren’t part of the agrarian society that was desired at that time by the Khmer Rouge political party. In order for the deaths of adults to never be avenged, babies were murded to wipe out a whole family and this was done at the killing tree. Soldiers would hold the babies by the ankles and smash their heads against the tree and toss their limp bodies in the next grave.
Next stop of the day was the s21 jail. The s21 jail is where the victims of the Cambodian genocide were detained before being taken to the killing fields. If your a student at the time, try and make sure you bring your student card as this gets you free entry. The jail has been preserved since its use in the genocide and still has stained blood on the jail cell floors. As well as this, there are pictures of the victims and even forced confessions from the detainees about being spies for other countries. The prisoners were tortured to write these confessions and would be killed quickly after.
After a pretty gruesome mornings history lesson we decided to head out for lunch and then decided to head to the royal palace after. The royal palace is a must see in Phnom Penh due to the shear scale of the complex. Entry to the palace cost $6.50 per person and you can also get a 35 minute guided tour for an extra $10 which I would highly recommend. The extra information from the guide made the tour so much more interesting and added a bit of much needed humour to our day.
The palace consists of a number of buildings including the thrown hall, the Kings living quarters and the royal stables that use to be home to two elephants. Wandering around the grounds we were astounded by the sheer size and flamboyancy of it all. The tour guide was very persistent to remind us of how much gold was in and around the area and even boasted that the crown jews are worth $20 million. He also continually told is how many carrots of gold each royal item had in it.
As the sun set on our busy day in Phnom Penh we decided to try a street vendor that was serving BBQ pork over sticky rice with a fried egg on top. This was all that was being served but the place was obviously a hit with the locals as it was full! We all sat down and enjoyed a pork stock soup to start and then the main. The food was absolutely beautiful, full of flavour and unbelievably cheap. All 5 of us sat down for dinner (including Sony, our tuc-tuc driver) and the whole meal came to $9 (beer included), that’s roughly £6.50!! It wast quite a five star restaurant, but if your out here traveling on a budget it’s ideal. Afterwards, we decided to head out for drink or two, it had been a busy day so we figured we deserved it. We hopped in the tuc-tuc and Sony drove us down to the rivers edge at the mouth to the Tonle Sap river. This is an excellent spot to go to because of the huge choice of bars, restaurants and street vendors. We found a bar called sky bar and went straight upto the rooftop balcony to look out across the city. Drinks are extremely cheap in Cambodia. In the rooftop bar, we managed to get beers for $1 and cocktails for $2. The atmosphere was great but the bar wasn’t too busy, good for us because the service was pretty quick. After our busy day, we all decided to head back to our hotels and get packed for our bus upto Siem Reap the following day.