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.

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