There are many different types of buses you can take from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (and vice versa). I decided to take a mini bus to Phnom Penh because it shaved off two hours of travel time. It’s hard to say if I’ve ever made a worse decision in my life. The air-con wasn’t working and I was strategically placed for a slow death with the sun beaming down on me for the entire 6 hour ride. To top it off, the seats were so close together and the road was SO bumpy I think my ass was actually in the air more than it was on my seat. It’s possible I crushed a couple vertebrae and I wouldn’t wish this travel route upon anyone who has emotions or dislikes hating their life. After sharing my experience with fellow travellers, we came to the conclusion that the sleeper buses are the best option for this route. They are big enough that you don't feel the impact of the bumpy roads, are $2 cheaper than the mini bus, take 2 hours longer but have electrical outlets AND wifi. How could you pass that up? I finally arrived in Phnom Penh in one piece, which I actually wasn’t 100% sure I would. Of course you get bombarded by TukTuk drivers the millisecond you get off the bus so I told them to “back up and let me get my bag before you harass me”. And that’s probably why they hate tourists. When one of them asked for a ridiculous price to my accommodation ($5), I laughed, said $2, and before waiting for his response, climbed into the TukTuk. Persistence is key. Knowing how much it should cost you to get from the bus station to your accommodation is also helpful. This information is usually readily available on your hostel's website or under location information on websites like hostelbookers.com. After grabbing a bite at the hostel and settling into my hostel (Mad Monkey - highly recommended for a great atmosphere and true 'hostel' vibes!), I was in bed by 9pm. Latest.
I had set aside my entire first day to see the killing fields and S21 (merely the only reason I had come to Phnom Penh in the first place). As far as I knew, I was going alone since I hadn’t met anyone (maybe going to sleep as early as possible doesn’t help). The reception then pointed out two people, Gwen and Jevanni, who were going to the Killing Fields as well, so I asked if I could join in on their TukTuk. Just like that, we were off to experience some real depressing shit. Many people have compared the Killing Fields to the Holocaust, except although the incident in Cambodia is more recent (30-40 years ago), it is not well known globally. If you’re reading this thinking “what are the Killing Fields in Cambodia? Where’s Cambodia?” Once again, my point is proven. The Killing Fields are, in its most basic form, home to a mass genocide led by the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia beginning In the mid 1970s. With the intention of turning Cambodia into a slave-driven communist country, they targeted anyone who was educated, light skinned and had soft, unworked hands and their families (so there would be no one seeking revenge) and mass slaughtered them all. Who was left? Manipulatable, uneducated citizens who were brought to the countryside and expected to complete 13 hours of slave labour a day. All those who failed to comply with the inhumane conditions in which they lived, speak another language didn't work hard enough were taken to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh and murdered. They weren't suffocated in gas chambers but instead, their skulls smashed into rocks and their children beaten against trees like some kind of piñata. To this day, whenever it rains, skeletal remains continue to surface. This space has been turned into a historical memorial site, similar to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, where individuals are able to visit and become educated about this disgusting mass genocide.
We paid a few bucks more to get an audio tour guide which gave great historical context as we walked through the fields. After a rather depressing few hours there, I figured I’d finish the day off by visiting S21, which is where the victims were imprisoned and tortured before being taken to the killing fields. You can hire a TukTuk driver for the day to take you to each site and wait for you outside. All in all, a solid and depressing day in Phnom Penh, but a definite must-see. While it’s not the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, put into perspective how much goes on in the world that Western nations turn a blind eye to. Think about the daily “struggles” of a Westerner: frizzy hair, flat tires, warm beer, and a B- on that paper I worked so hard at 12 hours before it was due. Come ON. The meme “first world problems” is completely relevant, and although we acknowledge it and recognize how ridiculous we sound when complaining about the small things, we continue to do so anyways. Imagine being blindfolded, abducted and not knowing where you’re being taken to, being completely tortured to the point you wish you were dead, and then watching your family being murdered in front of your own eyes while you scream at the top of your lungs, though no one can hear you because the music is blasting so loud to cover up any trace of suffrage. And now that you’ve been tortured, you’re next. THAT is a problem. Gaining a bit of weight because you’re fortunate enough to be able to buy ample supplies of food is not a problem. You’re lucky you have enough food in your fridge to even be glutinous in the first place. Yes, our day to day lives differ vastly from those living in Cambodia. Our quality of life is better and we have many more opportunities than they do to make it that way. Traveling the world and interacting with individuals less fortunate than ourselves keeps us humble. It reminds us to be grateful. It helps us stop looking for happiness in consumption and forces us to search within ourselves to find the missing pieces.
In order to lighten the mood after an eye opening yet depressing day, Jevanni and I checked out the night market and his friend Ben from Vietnam tagged along (what else would I do with my spare time but visit a market?). The market is filled with street food, cheap clothing, dance and music performances and overall, a great time. This is the kind of dining experience I seek out while traveling Asia. Authentic, fresh, and cheap! We spent the evening drinking 50 cent beers at our rooftop hostel bar was the perfect way to uplift a somber day.
Aside from S21 and the Killing Fields, I found Phnom Penh to be just another big city. It is a definite must-see on the Cambodia tour, but no need to linger once you've seen the historical side of the city.