“Jholumoy” Sothama raised the toast and we joined him. Jholumoy means ‘cheers’ in the Khmer language. “In Spanish we say Salude”, said Almu. The Polish word was too hard that I can’t remember it at the moment but we all laughed trying to repeat it after Alex and his fiancée.
“What do u say in India, Akhil?” Rothang asked.
“Uhmmmmm…we just say cheers. Easy!” I excused! (But, seriously? Don’t we have a translation for this stupid little word?)
It was the second day of my trip to Phnom penh, when I received Rathong’s message via couch surfing, offering to host me at Siem Reap. My budget and my gut feeling pushed me to accept the offer and stay with the “Angkor family home” which turned out to be a great move. If you are a budget backpacker and traveling to Angkor wat, this is the place for you. Great vibes, genuine hearts and a chance to make friends with nomads from around the globe. But before talking about Siem Reap, let’s go back to Phnom Penh – where my trip started.
Phnom Penh – The Mountain girl
Cambodian legend says that an Indian Brahmin/prince named “Kambuja” landed here centuries ago, and on a mountain top he saw a beautiful princess (named “Mera” from Naga dynasty), fell in love with her, and married her later.
The Kambu – Mera combination became Khmer and their country became Kambujadesa (then Kampuchea and now Cambodia).
Besides, “Phnom” in Khmer language means “Mountain” and “Penh” is apparently the “Penn” in Tamil! Yes, they say Kambuja met Mera here at Phnom Penh 😉
Legends and stories apart, the Indian influence in Cambodia is very evident even to a normal tourist. Be it religion, art, culture, language and even the geography.
The Cambodian Tuk Tuk
I landed at the Phnom Penh airport in the evening after a 2 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. The on-arrival visa process was as simple as buying a movie ticket.
Handover the passport, fill the visa application form, pay 35USD at the counter and you will have the visa stamped on your passport in 10 minutes.
Outside the airport, Tuk tuk drivers and the telco kiosks will be waiting for you. I bought a sim card and loaded it up with a handy one week plan – all for 5 USD.
By the way, both US dollars and Cambodian Riels are accepted in the country, with large transactions usually made in dollars and smaller ones in Riels ( 4000 riel = 1 USD ).
I walked past the tuk tuk’ers who asked for 10USD for a drop to the city and as expected, outside the gate I was able to find a ride for 7 USD.
My plan for the day was to visit Wat-Phnom temple and the Royal palace. Outside the hostel, motos and tug tuks were in plenty.
This time, I thought of trying a moto (simply sharing a motorbike ride ) PS: Bag snatching is something to be aware of while you are on the road! I was often advised to keep the bag in between the driver and me for safety.
The moto dropped me (1USD) at the Mekong riverside.There are many restaurants in the riverside area where you can find 2$, 3$ breakfasts and lunch.
I had a french toast with coffee and started strolling through the city. My destination was the Wat Phnom temple, about 2 km from the Mekong riverside.
The oldest Buddhist shrine in Phnom Penh, and a famous landmark. (Entry fee : 5 USD)Temple was crowded with people. The offerings were mostly in the form of joss sticks, candles, and lotus flowers.
Some interesting activities like fortune telling and freeing the birds out of the cage were also going on.
I spent a couple of hours there, walking around and taking photos.
In one remote corner of the temple, I found my best click for the day with hot bright sun right behind the temple, and tamarind trees giving a nice balancing composition 🙂
My next stop was the Royal palace of Phnom Penh, along with my new Cambodian friend Phuong, whom I met on a beer break after Wat Phnom.
The Kings of Cambodia have occupied the palace since it was built in the 1860s. Pavilions, Stupas, a temple of emerald Buddha, Kailasa garden are some of the Interesting sights inside the palace complex. Walls of the palace buildings are mostly covered with murals depicting stories from the “Reamker” – the Khmer version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana.
The second day at Phnom Penh
On day two at Phnom Penh, I visited two places S21/Tuol Sleng prison & The killing fields.
It was a deeply depressing experience being at these places. I was exposed to the deadly, bizarre and violent side of humans.
It was shocking to relive how ideals/philosophy can fuck one’s mind and turn him into a heartless animal. After visiting the three blocks out of the four blocks in the prison, I stopped. I had seen enough.
The black and white portraits of the dead victims- the children, mothers and the sick, the various instruments and methods of torture, the stinking and dark narrow cells, and the harrowing stories. All I can say is these tales of history must not be forgotten and never be repeated. Both the places offer audio guides, which were really good and informative.
Khmer rouge, The armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea
The Khmer Rouge was the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. They installed their own government in 1975, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan.
Pol Pot, inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of communist China, then attempted to build his own agrarian utopia in Cambodia.
Ordinary citizens were forcefully moved out of the cities to live and work in the countryside as peasants in order to create the ideal communist society.
Khmer Rouge called the peasants “old people” and considered them as the ideal communists for the new Cambodian state. Those who lived in the cities were seen as “new people” and were considered “the root of all capitalist evil” by the Khmer Rouge.
New people were the quintessence of capitalism and therefore the opponent of communism. No matter what their profession was – teacher, tailor, civil servant or monk – it was irrelevant.
“What is rotten must be removed,” read a popular Khmer Rouge slogan at the time, and remove they did, often by execution but sometimes simply by working people to death in the fields.
Over the following years, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, professionals, members of minorities and ordinary citizens who were deemed not to conform were also killed in a systematic campaign to eliminate those deemed to be “impure”.
In the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes
In 1975, this High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); this was also an expression of their hatred towards education.
S21 soon became the largest center of detention and torture in the country. More than 17,000 people tortured here and were later taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek for execution.
The Khmer Rouge leaders were fussy in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of harrowing B&W photographs. I was particularly moved by his stare!
The prisoners in S21, after all the tortures, would finally confess the charges imposed on them (mostly espionage). Once they sign the acceptance of their charges they were sent to the killing fields for execution.
There are a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried. Chuong Ek is one of the biggest and notorious ones among them.
If you want to know more about this bizarre killings, I would recommend this interesting documentary film named Enemies of the people”
After such a tiring day, It was imperative to cool down 😀 This guy did the job and reminded me of the wonder that’s awaiting me in the coming days- yeah, ANGKOR!
Reaching back at the hostel, with the help of reception staff I booked a seat on the next day morning bus to Siem reap. Ticket will cost you 13USD.