The Chronicles of JosHan: Phnom Penh

Published On: June 3, 2018Categories: Travel2412 words12.3 min readViews: 6

Foreword: The Chronicles of JosHan (pronounced josh-in, as in “I’m just joshin”, combination of Josh and Han, clever play on words by all accounts. Zero fucks given on your opinion on this word fusion, unless it’s a positive one in which case “thank you, and yes, I am a legend for stealing this from Josh”) will entail an honest and over-sharing account of my and my partner’s recent time spent in Vietnam and Cambodia. Thanks for reading, enjoy x

I think Phnom Penh is one of the more impoverished places I have visited.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate in that a) I have travelled a lot and b) when I’m done travelling, I get to come home to a “first world” country that, in my opinion, is absolutely beautiful.

We flew into the humid city of Phnom Penh at around 4.30 in the afternoon and hopped straight into our pre-booked airport transfer (seriously, pre-book them all). As you can probably guess from the opening line of this story, the journey to our hotel was not quite as magical as the one into Ho Chi Minh City.

Poverty is rife.

There are freshly built skyscrapers surrounded by old and run-down buildings with the paint peeling off and looking like they could topple over at any given moment. The air seems thick and dirty; people walk up and down the sides of the roads carrying large loads of cargo to their destinations. There are giant palaces and political buildings right next door to shitty-looking houses with the gutters filled with rubbish. The injustice and in-balance in wealth is thrown right at your face from the minute you depart the airport grounds.

Don’t get me wrong on this note either. I’m not saying that all people living there are necessarily unhappy, in fact on the contrary. If I could be so bold as to generalise an entire nation of people, I would say that Cambodians are some of the kindest, happiest and most generous people I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with.

But at first glance, it’s hard to take in. It’s chaotic in a way that kind of panics you. People had warned us that it was “dirty” and “not nice”. Not like Ho Chi Minh dirty, more like unsafe and not necessary to visit. I’ll be the first to admit it was the first time I felt unease on our trip. A million thoughts raced through my mind – are we going to be safe here? What do Cambodians think of foreigners? Are they looking at us as targets?

Does that sound naive? Probably, but unless you’ve been exposed to this environment before, I think it’s only natural. They do stare at you and probably for a variety of reasons, one being that these people are poor. Like, really poor.  Those lucky enough to be on the books take home an average income of approximately $128-$150 US a month. But we were told by locals and our hosts during our trip that for most Cambodians, they’re making about $2 US a day. Two bucks a day. #WTF

And I’ve seen poverty before. Parts of rural China, Thailand, even some parts of Europe … Cambodia isn’t right at the bottom, but they’re still struggling. Their war didn’t end that long ago, and they still live in an authoritarian society where corruption is a common occurrence. It sort of slapped me in the face.

It took awhile to get to our hotel.

This was due to the insane amount of traffic and as Cambodians pretty much make up their own rules on the road, it was a particularly stressful drive. Scooters and mopeds flew around our car at crazy speeds, sometimes with four or five people on one vehicle at a time. To us foreigners, it seems like they have no regard for their safety, but somehow it works for them. They weave in and out, beeping a hell of a lot. I should have mentioned from the get-go that the Vietnamese and Cambodian people beep their horns all the God damn time. Turns out it’s not because they’re saying a big “fuck you” like us Aussies – they beep so the cars around them know they are there, and therefore, reduce the risk of collision. After awhile, you tune it out.¯_(ツ)_/¯

When we pulled into the front entrance of the Aquarius Hotel and Urban Resort I’m sort of ashamed to say that I was relieved.

The foyer of hotel

The foyer of our hotel

Relieved we had made it to our destination without being carjacked and relieved that we had booked a brand new, modern hotel and not one of the countless shitty ones we had seen on the way in (there’s going to be a lot of shame from my white privilege coming up BTW).

Our hotel was beautiful. The foyer was similar to a lot of the lounge bars I’d been to in New York. Our room was nice, but nothing amazing (remember, we are accommodation snobs). But the rooftop … oh my Christ. The views from the top of the building are 360 degrees and inspiring to look out at, even if the city below may appear otherwise. Unfinished buildings plague the horizon and we later learned that it was mostly due to the corruption of the people in charge of the building sites.

On a lighter note, there is an infinity pool that curves into an L-shape around the top of the building and a beautiful tree covered in fairy lights, growing out of the middle of the rooftop restaurant. And I love anything shiny and sparkly, so it felt nice being up on that roof. So much so that we spent our first night up there eating canapés and sliders and drinking more beer, whilst looking out over the city. We wondered out loud what the people of Phnom Penh were doing at that very moment. I experienced a rollercoaster of guilt throughout my trip, particularly when sitting at that bar.

The Killing Fields and S-21

The only reason we travelled to the capital was to visit the notorious Killing Fields and S-21 prison and I have a few recommendations for anyone else doing the same:

  • Organise your trips to both places through reception at your hotel. Don’t venture out into the streets to try and find a cheaper deal. The city isn’t particularly safe for tourists and you’ll find that foreigners generally stick to their hotels for that reason.
  • Visit the Killing Fields first, followed by S-21.
  • Do not visit the Killing Fields or S-21 via tuk-tuk. Sweet jesus that would take you hours and you’d probably pass out from the humidity on the way there. Get a nice, air-conditioned car and it goes without saying to load up on the waters.

After a good night’s sleep and a good brekky, we headed downstairs and got straight into an air-conditioned car, ready for our adventure. Our driver took us out into what seemed like the middle of nowhere, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I distinctly remember thinking “what if our driver takes us out to a random spot, takes our money and leaves us out here?” Josh was obviously thinking the same thing too, but didn’t want to alarm me at the time. I found out when we got home that he had photographed his number plates and I.D in case we were left to fend for ourselves in the wilderness.

We didn’t have to fend for anything. We were dropped off at our destination safely and arranged to meet our driver back at the entrance in a couple of hours. We had taken advice from the hotel and had gotten to the site relatively early – to beat the crowds and the ever-present humidity. We were some of the first people there for sure, but it was still hot AF. I bitched and moaned for my standard 30 seconds before we hired our audioguides and kicked off on walking around the grounds.

The Killing Fields

The Cambodian Killing Fields are a number of sites in where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. During that period, a third of Cambodia’s population was exterminated.

mass grave killing fields

Mass grave at the Killing Fields site

The main site, which we went to, is a haunting place to visit. The grounds are well looked after by its staff and the horror that took place there is not in-your-face like that of the War Museum. It’s quite a large area of trees, mounds and a body of water in the middle. If you didn’t know the history, you probably wouldn’t have any idea of what had taken place there.

While I won’t give you every detail of what you can see and learn, I will mention a few things (and please note some of it is quite disturbing). The audioguide gives you a wonderfully detailed description and understanding of what happened at that place. It explains where victims were imprisoned, where mass graves were discovered, how at night time, a loud motor and music would blast loudly in an attempt to drown out the screams of those being murdered, and wouldn’t raise suspicion in neighbouring villages.

There is a commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of the victims at this particular site. The skulls are also labelled with how experts believe they were killed. Bullets were too expensive at the time, so victims were killed by blunt force trauma. At the risk of sounding like an uneducated bogan – it is bloody brutal. Ugh, it legitimately makes me feel sick re-living some of the audio I listened to that day and the imagery that formed in my head. Hearing horrific stories from survivors, hearing stories about the “Killing Tree” which newborn babies were thrown against in front of their mothers. Realising the staff working at the grounds are there to collect pieces of bone that keep washing up on the shoreline. Everyday, new discoveries are made. It’s truly unfathomable, but it’s something I would recommend to everybody who visits. Take some time out of your trip to get a taste of Cambodians recent history  – it’s incredibly humbling and you won’t regret it.

We took a couple of hours to walk around the grounds and once we’d come to the end (and when the heat got too much to bear), we made our way out the front to wait for our driver. School times for Cambodian children are split into morning and afternoon sessions and we watched kids walking in droves to and from school. We handed out toy koalas to some of the children, many who seemed perplexed at strangers giving them furry toys and a few that cracked a small smile. It felt nice to feel a little bit of fuzziness after such a draining morning.

Little did I know that S-21 was a whole other ballgame.

I didn’t know much about it – either that, or I’d completely forgotten learning about it in high school (Ms. Govan would be so ashamed). It was a similar experience to that at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh, but worse I think, because you’re actually standing in blood-stained rooms where prisoners were tortured. Room after room after room shows you who, where and how they were tortured for information they didn’t even have.

S-21 was actually a school before it was turned into one of 150 exterminations camps during the Khmer Rouge regime. More than 20,000 men, women and children were interrogated, tortured and killed at this site.

S-21 prison

One of the buildings at S-21 site

I found myself staring into the eyes of people I’d never met, feeling their sadness screaming back at me from their photos on the walls. There was one man’s face that stuck with me. Like a peanut, I can’t remember his name. I think I wrote it down somewhere but I can’t find it for the life of me. He had such a beautiful face and I stared at him for a lot longer than I did anything else. He was wrongfully imprisoned, just like most of the people in S-21, tortured daily and killed. It was such a sickening day for me.

prisoner s-21

The man in the middle was the one who captured my attention.

After several hours at S-21, we decided to call it quits. We had gone into nearly every room, but had both had enough by the last one. You sort of become numb to the horrors in front of you. Not only that, but selfishly, I was dying from the midday heat and needed to escape.

We decided to spend the afternoon on the roof of our hotel, drinking beers, eating treats and swimming in the pool – to fully appreciate how fucking lucky we are. Which we did a lot of on the trip. Our hotel was extremely accommodating. They have buzzers around the pool which you press rather than leaving to go to the bar for more food and drinks (lazy AF, but awesome) and we were able to pay an extra $20 to keep our room until we flew out later that night (which allowed me to nap). Nothing is ever a problem in that country.

In summary

I had some hesitations about writing this post, I think because I had read other blogs and reviews that were completely scathing and unforgiving, and came across as completely obnoxious. I would never want to completely dismiss or offend an entire city and population of people, especially when we were only visiting for one night. The people we interacted with in Phnom Penh were friendly, accommodating and were nothing but helpful towards Josh and myself. The city may not be sunshine and rainbows, but I still recommend you go visit to get a sense of what their country has been through, and is still recovering from.

My top tips:

  • For accommodation, I highly recommend the Aquarius Hotel and Urban Resort – incredibly helpful and friendly staff, good food and service and a sick rooftop pool.
  • Pay a little bit extra and get the air-conditioned vehicle to transport you wherever you are going.
  • Start your day early – you’ll be sweating your vagina out come 10am.

As always, thanks for reading.

Hannah x

P.S. I would love it if you signed up to get my blogs to your inbox here. 

about author

Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense

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