Our first night in Phnom Penh, April and I took a walk out of the backpacker’s ghetto (where the guesthouses all charge three bucks a night and make up the difference with the 24-hour bar out back), past the mosque (how I love chanting Muslims in the morning), into the alleys and industrial districts in the Northwest of the city, so April could get photos of picturesque squaller for her portfolio. We found squaller aplenty. The kids had bald patches in their hair, everyone had skin conditions, a beautiful woman posing for April started leaping around, and a roach ran out from her sarong. There was green, slimy, standing water around many of the houses and people were just going about their business through it, wading up to their waists.
I stayed in PP two days. The first, we went to markets and angered all the vendors by stretching out their wee, little clothes and then not buying them. The next day, we went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The Killing Fields are a good way outside of town, and the roads there were so muddy the tuk-tuks kept getting stuck and passengers were asked to get out and walk to release them. There were also a lot of traffic jams, and April and I were thus trapped when our tuk-tuk was stopped next to a tour bus full of Asian people who leaned over and snapped away at us with their giant lenses. I felt like an Olsen twin.
The Killing Fields is only one of many such sights throughout Cambodia. This one has been set up into a memorial, with a number of uncovered mass graves around a central glass tower, which houses thousands of skulls of victims. Our guide matter-of-factly pointed out the fractures and explained how each was killed: ‘Hatchet, whap! Bamboo stick, shfft! Gun, bang!’ He also pointed out all the many bones still scattered around, half-buried in the ground: ‘This? You know? Collarbone. This here? Legbone.’
From the Killing Fields, we proceeded to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which is in an old high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and interrogation facility. The museum is extremely grim, with all the cells preserved as found and blood still spattered on the high ceilings and walls. Most disturbing, however, are the rooms of row after row of photographs of the 17,000 inmates, who were all photographed upon their intake. Seven of them survived. They are men, women (some holding infants), teenagers, little kids. The expressions they wear are as varied as fingerprints: some look terrified, some resigned, some furious. A few are rolling their eyes. Nearly all the teenage boys wear the same carefully crafted smirk, most adults are trying for a poker face, the kids just look totally confused. Skulls may be gruesome, but skulls all look the same. Living faces are far more devastating.
After that, I was ready to lie on the beach awhile, so I went to Sihanoukville on the Southern coast and checked into a $2 room in the backpacker’s district. I should have sprung for an $8 bungalow on the beach. If you’re ever in Sihanoukville, folks, don’t go to Weather Station Hill, no matter what the Lonely Planet says. It is a horribly depressing red light district. Two small streets of nasty, socially stunted, middle-aged white men sitting in bars and throngs of beautiful, giggling, teenage Cambodian girls pathetically fawning all over every Westerner in sight, even me. Not my idea of a beach vacation: I felt guilty and depressed.
The next day, however, I took a moto to a much nicer beach and spent an entire day lounging in a little bamboo pavilion and eating fresh pineapple, mango, and grilled prawns bought from ladies who come around with platters on their heads. I stayed there, drinking with friends, until all the motos had gone home, so I ended up crashing in my friends’ room in my salty bathing suit. Next morning, I returned to PP and got the bus to Saigon the following day.
Genocide, prostitution and poverty, oh my! My next blog will be lighter, I promise. I’m in Vietnam now, and yes, they do all wear those hats.
(I failed to take a single photo in Phnom Penh.)