Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia!

All good things must come to an end and sadly this includes my time in, what became my favourite country so far, Vietnam.

Vietnam is an incredible place and I will now make it my mission to get more people to visit.

After arriving in Saigon I had spent time exploring the city as well as trips to the surrounding Mekong Delta including a floating market, staying the night in a local Vietnamese family’s house and visiting a home grown chocolate factory with Innoviet. This was a great way to end my time in Vietnam and see a final part of this beautiful country.

Paddle boat on a small stream in the Mekong Delta

Trying to limit the amount of flying I was doing (over 16,000 miles this trip so far) I decided to get a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

There were lots of options available from local buses to luxury limousines and after reading many reviews (and fears about being able to fit in the seats!) I eventually settled with Giant Ibis. They cost a little bit more but the reviews promised a trouble free border crossing and enough leg room for Westerners.

Bright and early I set out to the bus station and, after watching carefully to make sure my bag went into the hold, I found my seat and stretched out enjoying the leg room which exceeded British Airways short haul business class! I even got a free snack.

The bus ride itself was relatively uneventful aside from being lucky enough to meet a fellow traveller who had ended up in the seat next to me.

Having experienced the pain of a 10 hour shift in a police car when conversation keeps stalling I know how time can drag if conversation is difficult. Fortunately my travel buddy and I seemed to click and the ride passed by quickly. I didn’t even get to listen to any podcasts.

The border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia was much easier than expected. The extra cost to use Giant Ibis paying off as they shepherded everyone through the immigration procedures.

After passing through Vietnamese exit controls and arriving No Man’s Land before passing into Cambodia it was odd to find a service station with shops and food. Turns out the food in No Man’s Land is both cheap and tasty!

Entering Cambodia I realised that the roads in Vietnam were actually in a great condition. The road after the border was one of the worst I have experienced and I was so glad I picked a bus with decent suspension.

Thankfully it seemed to be only the first few miles with this issue. As the road improved and things settled down I looked out the window as the flat plains of Cambodia stretched into the distance. Only a few hours drive now to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Independence Monument, Phnom Penh at night

My new travel companion kindly invited me to join them and their group the next day visiting the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. The names of these places don’t hide anything about what you’re going to see and the emotional toll it will take on you.

I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on the subject but for a quick briefing of Cambodian history:

In 1975 Pol Pot came to power with his party the Khmer Rouge.

The army began clearing cities and locking up political prisoners. Those not imprisoned were subject to famines, lack of medicines and severe repression.

Between 1975 and 1979 millions of Cambodians were killed by the ruling party, out of population of only 8 million. It didn’t matter if they were men, women, children or babies. I highly recommend reading more on the history if you have the time and I genuinely don’t know how this wasn’t taught in school.

It may be worth noting the following paragraphs contain some horrific details you may wish to skip

Rules of the prison

We started at the Genocide Museum, also known as S21 or Tuol Sleng. Originally a high school it was taken over and converted into a prison for political prisoners.

Here prisoners would be tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes were alleged against them. Once the confession had been achieved they would then be sentenced to death.

If a prisoner died before their confession and sentence could be achieved, either through suicide or just effects of torture, then the guard responsible was likely to end up alongside the other prisoners.

The guards were often children who were unable to read or write recruited from rural villages and some of the photos showed children who looked around 10 or 12 years old.

It is estimated that between 12 and 20 thousand people were imprisoned here. There are only 12 known survivors.

Monument in the prison to the victims

The museum audio guide was really well done and takes you around the grounds where you can see photos and displays of the prisoners and how the prison looked and operated. It was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.

Once a prisoner was sentenced to death they would be held until it was time to transfer them to an execution site.

There were various Killing Fields set up around the country and one of the largest was Choeung Ek, only 17km outside the city. Prisoners would be transferred in the middle of the night and initially killed within a day of their arrival.

Towards the end of the regime too many prisoners were arriving to keep up so they would be housed in communal rooms until their time.

Large speakers hung from trees would broadcast political propaganda songs to mask the sound of the killings from nearby residents.

To save money on bullets prisoners would be killed by whatever means available, including beating with farm tools and their bare hands.

Female prisoners with babies and children would have them taken from them. There was a particular tree, which is now adorned with various mementos and tributes, where babies and young children would be swung into the trunk until they were dead, or nearly dead, before being thrown into a pit. After seeing this the mother would then be killed.

The audio guide explained that in particularly rainy periods as the mud and ground shifts new bones and clothing fragments are exposed.

It was a surreal feeling walking around this place of unimaginable horror which today has been transformed into a calm and peaceful field with trees, birds and butterflies and a quiet lake. Buried beneath are the remains of approximately a million victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The lake and trees in the Killing Fields

I am very glad I visited these places and ashamed that I did not know enough about this recent atrocity beforehand.

“Never Again!” was a claim after the facts of the Nazis in Germany came to light and yet 30 years later not only did the world stand by as a dictator committed genocide against his people, the UK actively helped them.

If you skipped the details above it is now safe to start reading again

The next day was a slightly happier note as I explored Phnom Penh itself. I visited the Royal Palace and various temples around the city, doing my best to avoid the various tuktuk drivers trying to get me to use their services. And the odd one trying to sell me some weed, or worse.

Unfortunately Phnom Penh itself didn’t do a good job of advertising Cambodia to me. The people seemed less friendly than Vietnam and the prices were higher that their neighbour. It was clearly a busy backpacker area with many western restaurants and pubs. To me it felt like it was missing a local identity and just there to abstract money from tourists.

Walking around the city you can’t help but notice the dichotomy between the rich and poor who live there. Mothers and their children in filthy clothes begging on the streets as brand new Porsches and Rolls Royces drive past with blacked out windows and “VIP” plates in the windscreen.

The Royal Palace with every surface coated in gold leaf and solid silver floors juts up against the ramshackle houses of the residents.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

I was therefore happy to be leaving the next day on another long bus ride with Giant Ibis to Siem Reap – home to the largest religious monument in the world; Angkor Wat.

After the craziness of Saigon, and the tourist exploitation feel of Phnom Penh, it was a pleasure to be in Siem Reap. The downtown area is small and easily walkable with an assortment of temples, restaurants and bars mixed together along a river. Best of all the locals who worked there, aside from the obligatory tuktuk touts, seemed happy and welcoming again.

It may have helped that I was able to meet up with the group from Phnom Penh again, it is always a bonus to know people when you arrive and something I hadn’t experienced since Hoi An a few weeks earlier.

After visiting a local bar and trying Snake On A Stick (exactly what it sounds like) for the first time (tastes like crispy bacon) I began to regret my decision to book a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat the next day.

Pub Street in Siem Reap at night

4am rolled around and I am sure the only thing which got me to wake up was the fear of being that person in the hostel dorm who sleeps through their alarm.

The only other person on the tour being another traveller I had met the day before we began our semi-private adventure through the temples.

Whilst I had been travelling over the last few months I had been struck by the lack of people I saw also travelling. Although I was in the low season, officially the rainy season, I still expected to see more backpackers than I had.

Well if this was the low season I’d hate to see Angkor Wat in the high season! Even though it was just after 5am there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people stood in the grounds of the main temple waiting for the sun to rise over this world wonder. All fighting for the perfect spot in front of the moat to get that cool sunrise reflection photo. Hey, I can’t blame them I was doing the same!

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The temples themselves are awe inspiring. The level of detail in the carvings to every surface of exposed rock are crazy. The fact this was all done around 1100 AD through sheer human power makes it all the more incredible.

Walking around you can only just begin to appreciate what it would have looked like when first created.

I learnt that Angkor Wat is only one temple of hundreds in the area, and just because it is the largest does not mean the others are small!

Another temple near Angkor Wat

The tour took us to 4 of the temples nearby and each was unbelievable in scale. You could easily fit a new housing estate in the area each took up.

Fighting the impending hangover and lack of sleep due to my poor decision making it did not feel real to be walking through these temples which have stood for hundreds of years and which have been transformed over time through alternating Buddhist and Hindu factions and even into a Tomb Raider film.

Tree growing on a temple

Some people can spend days visiting the countless temples in the area but I was beginning to experience Temple Fatigue and felt one morning was enough. Especially with a one day pass costing $37 alone!

Whilst in Siem Reap I also took part in a Cambodian Cooking Class where I learnt to make the national dish of Fisk Amok (delicious!) and more spring rolls (which were very similar to those I was taught in Vietnam…) before achieving a fantastic flambe flame as I made passion fruit and coconut flambe bananas.

I then took part in a cycle tour advertised at watching the sunset over a lotus field. I was a bit bemused when we arrived at the field to find a massive electricity pylon blocking the view and thought they might have been able to find a better position for a sunset photo.

Sunset with electricity pylon in the foreground, Cambodia

My questioning this decision was soon over taken by my questioning of the logistics of a sunset cycle ride when we had no lights on the bike. As should have been expected, when the sun was set it was now very dark and we began riding back on the Cambodian roads which are just as scary as those in Vietnam, and that is in the day when you can see!

Somehow we all made it back to the hostel in one piece, how I avoided the pot holes in the dark I’ll never know.

The nature of travelling though is that things do not stay the same and you’re always leaving the comfort zone. Before long it was time to say goodbye to the new friends I had made as we all went our separate ways to new adventures.

I had been very lucky to meet a great group of people here and it makes a big difference some times to know you have someone you can text and arrange to meet for a drink or dinner. Still got to keep looking forward!

Saying “Goodbye” to Cambodia I set off for the airport again, the reviews of trying to cross the next border by bus making the decision for me.

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