Cambodia: Phnom Pen

Once upon a time (it seems ages ago they left our beloved Belgian frietencountry) Julie & Hidde decided to make the great leap forward towards Asia. Today, hallelujah, after 4 months we keep a little reunion in Cambodia. Both Julie & Hidde look sharp: tanned skin, a bit skinnier and super relaxed. We must admit, the motorbike fog that is covering the Asian cities is having great effects on them.

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First stop: Phnom Penh in more or less 36 hours at 36 degrees. The motorized Tuk Tuk’s are everywhere, making it impossible to discover the city by foot. We don’t lose time and hop on a Tuk Tuk all 4 of us (keeping an eye on our bag since bag snatching is common in Phnom Penh) heading towards Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. It’s located about a 30 minutes drive outside the city. It turns out Phnom Penh is less developed as we thought and still showing the scarves of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot’s goal was to reorganize the country into an agrarian community with no private properties, whereas in reality the country transformed into a slave-labour camp under his 4-year-long rule. Unschooled farmers got recruited in his army, whereas intellectuals, betrayers, religious people and dissidents (and their entire families including kids and babies) had to die. Kort door de bocht samengevat.

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Arrival at the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek, where we witness the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It’s hard to image what unfolded here in the late 70ies. How is it possible that such mass murdering (1 out of 4 Cambodians were killed between ‘75 and ’79) could still happen after the Hitler worldwide trauma? And how is it possible that Pol Pot, clearly a lunatic, and his gang got away with this crime? (Pol Pot lived happily ever after, marrying a 2nd women, and dying a natural cause in ’98 in his own house). Choeng Ek was only 1 of the several extermination camps (where around 15.000 people got killed by torture and battering – bullets were too expensive). A memorial on the Killing Fields site is displaying more than 8000 skulls of victims who got murdered there. We can still witness the bones in the mass graves. Every year new bones appear on the surface.

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After the Killing fields we wash the emotions away in what is a mythical bar: the Foreign Correspondents Club. Great rooftop view on the mighty Mekong river. It was from this place that foreign journalists were reporting the wars (not a single journalist could discover this mass scale murdering though through a brilliant mise-en scène by Pol Pot)

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Tuol Sleng Museum. A school transformed into the largest prison and centre of torture (100 people got killed there every day), S-21, under the Khmer Rouge regime. They kept records of their barbarism and we can see the pictures of every victim, their faces staring at us as ghosts from the past. We learned that only 7 people survived this nightmare, amongst them a painter and a mechanic – they survived because of their skills. When leaving the museum we discover that both survivors are sitting there, selling their book with their story.

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After this visit we tuk tuk our way towards the Russian market: a vibrant and covered market in the south of the city where you can do good deals by digging into piles of clothes, bra’s, shoes, fruit, fish… finding that one and only gem that costs 3 dollar.

After that we decide to swim the fog away in our hotel, the Plantation Center. Awesome pool!

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Our Royal Palace visit finally became, after admiring the Khmer roofs and bling bling halls and buddha’s, a hunt for the best picture of the Buddha monks. We still have to conclude on the winning picture!

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We then decided to resist the rallying cry of Tuk Tuks and walked our way to Phnom Penh’s central market. The life as it really is in Cambodia: vibrant dirtroads, stinky, a lot of trash on the ground, with piles of meat and fish (dead or alive, or better: first alive and then dead), motorbikes passing through the too narrow pass ways). We resisted for 10 minutes. We had our fair deal of shopping, haha!

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At dusk Julie and me jumped in and joined the fun of a quirky aerobic session by the river, common in Asia. We pay 1 dollar to join the locals who all brought their plastic chair to take a rest from time to time, and imitate the lazy aerobic teacher on even quirkier Asian house music. Fun fun fun!

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We ended our Phnom Penh adventure in the Friends restaurant – good cause dining- where they give marginalized Cambodian youth a horeca training for future employment. “The best food within our last 4 months” dixit Hidde. And we all agreed. Especially the Belgian chocolate-cheese cake with salty caramel and vanilla ice was top-notch.

Now let’s board on our Elite bus towards Siem Reap, a 6 hour drive and we feel a bit ripped off when the elite bus arrives. And as expected, a no Wifi bus, not what we paid for. However, whilst waiting the bus we were entertained by a family of monkey’s hanging in the electricity wires and that was priceless.

Post letter with love, Ellen & Lucas xx

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