Sunday, January 13, 2013

Day 12: Why You Should Visit Cambodia (besides Angkor Wat)

This time last year I was getting ready to go to Southeast Asia on vacation from Korea, so I thought I would talk a little about that. Specifically, one of my favorite countries I've ever been to, Cambodia.

If you know anything about Cambodia, (which a lot of people don't!) it's probably Angkor Wat. Now, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and the nearby town of Siem Reap are AMAZING and gorgeous and I would highly recommend you visit that area.

It's the most popular place for tourists to visit there, but it's not the only place worth visiting in Cambodia. In particular, I would recommend spending a couple days in Phnom Penh, the capital.

You can take a bus between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for about $6 US, and it takes 5 hours. It's not the most comfortable bus ride, since a lot of it is on unpaved or shoddily paved roads, but for 6 bucks, it's fine.

In Phnom Penh, I would highly recommend two sites in particular. They are Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21), and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which are right outside the city.

First, a little background for those that don't know. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian government. They forced people to leave cities, split up families, and murdered anyone who dissented or was "different" or "smart" (like doctors, teachers, etc). Sometimes it seems like they just killed people for fun. A large portion of the Cambodian population was killed. If you ever meet anyone over the age of 40 while in Cambodia, they are someone who survived the mass murder. It's a chilling thought.

I visited both sites in one day, but if you are easily disturbed you may want to take a day for each one. I visited the sites with two guys, one from Canada and one from New Zealand, who were also English teachers in Korea that I met randomly in my hostel. We split the price of a tuk-tuk to the sites, which was about $15 for the whole day.

First we visited Tuol Sleng. It's in the center of the city and wasn't far from our hostel. The building is a former school building that became a torture prison during the regime, and is now a museum.

Here, in the background is the old school building. In the foreground is a type of gallows where they hung people upside down and dunked them in the big pots full of water (waterboarding?). You can kind of see the bars on the windows of the building. Other buildings had barbed wire and fencing along the corridors. Inside the rooms, some were bare, some had makeshift cells barely big enough to hold one person made of wood or brick, and some had videos playing, pictures of the former captives (most of whom died in captivity there), and cabinets of bones of the dead.

It was a pretty emotional visit to the museum but really informative. I'd heard about it before coming to Cambodia, but never though how intense it would be to visit the site. 

After Tuol Sleng, we took the around 15 minute tuk-tuk ride out to the Killing Fields. 

My view from the tuk-tuk

When you first enter the site, you will see the big memorial stupa/tower. It's pretty and done in a Cambodian architectural style, and something you will think about posing in front of... until you realize that the several-story-tall tower is filled with bones. They are the bones of the people who were found on the grounds on this Killing Field. It is important to note, also, that this is not the only Killing Field in Cambodia. It is the most famous, being right outside the capital, but there are many sites very similar all over the country. They just aren't touristed like this one. 

You get an audioguide with your entry fee, about $2, which tells you about the history, and also the various areas around the Field, which include mass graves and "murder spots", like one particularly gruesome tree which was used to kill children by beating them against it. 

It paints a terrible picture in your mind of the atrocities committed, and it's not for the faint at heart (I admit I cried afterward), but I definitely think it's something everyone visiting Cambodia should make a point to see. If you wonder, as you wander through the temples at Angkor Wat, why there are so many landmine victims begging you for a dollar, or why there don't seem to be any old people in the entire country, take the time to visit this oft-neglected area and learn some history in the process. After all, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

A few notes:
One, there are like to be quite a few beggars around, anywhere you go in Cambodia, from small dirty children with no shoes to people missing enough parts of their body that you wonder how they're even alive. While it's incredibly tempting to give them all a dollar (that's nearly a whole day's working wage there), don't.  If you want to help, donate money to charities supporting landmine victims or children's homes or schools. Many of the people begging, particularly children, are coerced into doing so by someone else. It's especially detrimental for the children since they see begging as a better way to make a living than going to school and getting an education. 

Two, for comfort, don't wear flip flops while touring these sites. The Killing fields' terrain is uneven and in some parts the grass can be high. Better to wear comfortable closed-toed shoes if possible. 

Three, splitting a tuk-tuk with other people is the most economical option for getting around. If you're going solo, a moto-taxi (basically, just hopping the back of a motorcycle) is likely to be cheaper for you, or renting a bicycle. But, not only is this a little bit unsafe (relatively speaking; tuk-tuks aren't the safest mode of transport either), tuk-tuks are also used to waiting around for their customers to get back and will congregate and hang out with their fellow drivers to pass the time. If you can find someone in your hostel to split one with, it's a good idea. While you should haggle the original price he gives you (they always ask for more than the regular price at first), being generous and tipping the driver is nice if he has given you good advice or been particularly friendly. You can also arrange for him to pick you up the next day if you want to visit another site. They are always happy for pre-arranged customers. 

That's it for today! Sorry the blog was late, I just couldn't think of anything to write about until really late! 

See you soon,
xx Kaylin

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it would be quite an intense place to visit. We're planning to go to Cambodia on our next trip so I'll check it out while we're there