Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’m getting so behind on journaling and… on Instagram posts. After Thailand I’ve had shorter stints in each place I’ve visited. Therefore, I’m losing time to write. I cram so much in, or I try, and my body asks for rest. Even still, it’s hard to find time for culling, edits and writing while traveling to keep up with life. I’m currently sitting on a sleeper train headed to Da Nang to catch a bus to Hoi An. Easier put, I am in Vietnam- on my way to my second stop here.

Technical Difficulties

It is the afternoon of May 16th; although I need to write about May 10th and 11th. I also just realized the itenerary I’ve created and have been constantly updating in real time has mysteriously disappeared from my phone files. I guess I wasted a rainy day in a cafe for nothing. I hope I can recall all the suggestions I’ve learned for Vietnam. I had a pretty meticulous plan. Actually, I’m going to try and do that now… I’ll have to come back to this in a bit.
This technical difficulty is kind of infuriating considering I’ve taken so much time to plan. At the same time it’s such a small inconvenience in comparison to other people I’ve run into. I have heard some ‘horror’ travel stories… I’m grateful I sent a screenshot of a pretty recent update to my friend Sara (from Siem Reap). She is on her way to Vietnam next. I think I have it mostly back to the plan. Duration between places might be slightly off.

S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

May 10, Day 29: The day of silent somber.
I started my day off perfectly. I had a great sleep with ample AC and total darkness on a king bed. I found the best smoothie, yet, for breakfast at the cutest and also eco- friendly cafe. I started my day at Eleven One. I had their special: the vegetarian lunchset- eggplant dip with vegetables steamed baby potatoes and mushrooms topped with rice paddy herbs- $3.75. The lunch set includes a drink and dessert as well. There are also meat specials but I wanted something light BECAUSE I had 2 smoothies as well. The food was great as was the ambiance; I had the patio to myself. Then I tried the banana cashew smoothie- this hit the spot. I try not to use the word ‘amazing’ too often because I do think it should be reserved for an actual special feeling and this was deserving. The banana cashew smoothie from Eleven One is AMAZING. I had 2. I would’ve had 3 but that’s a bit gluttonous considering my meal also included a dessert. So I settled with only 2.

After lunch I made my way to Tuol Sleng, or station 21 (security prison). This was not a stop on my original itenerary. In fact, I cannot remember exactly when I added it. Even then, I didn’t know what it would entail. I read something about it on Google, it was a very vague review as to what it was. I also read in a Google review that the audio guide was well worth the extra $3 fee. It cost me $8 USD total for the entry with audio and I stayed for over 2.5 hours. Everything you learn here is devastating. Even those who survived lived through the hardest times. Pictures are not allowed and they ask people to refrain from smiling and to remain silent. It was an easy request.

It would be hard for me to smile for hours to follow.

There was a little girl smiling in the courtyard. The innocence surrounded her. She’s looking at a butterfly between flowers, in the trees. She’s too young to understand, her mother tries to smile back and you can tell it’s hard for her, too. 3 years, 8 months 21 days ago UNESCO registered information here to always be remembered and to never be repeated. A UNESCO site. Surprisingly it was not too crowded but there were the occasional ignorant people touching artifacts and smiling for pictures in the areas labeled ‘no photography’.

I’m not sure this was a no photos anywhere place but they were very clear on certain spaces and objects. I only took photos in the rare rooms or of buildings without signs prohibiting them. Meaning there are not many photos in my collection to share. Regardless, it’s a place I’ll never forget. The images in my brain along with the stories pouring into my ears will be engrained in my memory. I listened to every track, I visited every floor and every room in every building. If I ever return I will schedule a private appointment to see the records they still have. I don’t know that I’ll return. However, it is a place I learned a lot from. The archives still exist upstairs in building B. You may still see these and the private exhibits by appointment only. Originally they were open to the public and thousands of people poured in to look for their relatives.

I had never learned of this war. They refer to it as the “secret war“. On April 17, 1975 the Vietnam/’American’ war caused bombing in Cambodia.. considered a secret war to America. Actually, it’s the secret war of Khmer (cam-ear); Khmer is the official name of Cambodia when it was under the communist party in the 1970s.

larger cell- 3ft wide

This was a genocide killing 1.7+ million innocent people. This site, the place I was standing, was an interrogation place. People were to be tortured, not killed. They would not be killed until ordered to be so, and then they’d be taken to the killing fields, this was a place for torment. If they were tortured too much here, they would bring medics in to keep those on the verge of death, alive. There were individual rooms and also mass detention rooms. There was no way of suicide. There were also smaller cells. The wooden cells in building C are about 2.5 ft wide and multiple people would have ankle locks binding them together with not much space to move in these small cells.
The Khmer rouge tried to destroy all Cambodian structures. Ancient temples were destroyed and either used as detention centers or dumps for dead people- not buried. They killed monks and broke statues of buddhas. They destroyed a catholic cathedral. Everything was compromised, nothing stood a chance to signify a higher power to them.

The secret war- a genocide

Why wasn’t I taught of this one? How is it less important than the Holocaust? Perhaps because this was harder to ‘explain’, there was less information. Maybe it was more random, without ‘reason’. Maybe because the Americans had direct roles in the killings? Maybe other countries are made aware of this war. I’m not sure.
After posting to my Instagram some of my older followers informed me they were aware. They lived during it. I learned there is a movie from 1984 about the killing fields. I decided not to visit those fields; if I’d have had more time, perhaps I would’ve. I didn’t want my entire Phnom Penh visit to be so dreary. I’m very happy I did this tour though. I’m a lucky one, one with a choice in the matter of coming to this place.


Bophana, #3
famously documented the whole torturous 5 months experience before her death

Not only did this place make me grateful and appreciative of my life and the evolution of humanity. It also makes me worry for humanity. I learned of two backpackers that were taken in for questioning, torturing and later… for killing. Their names: Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst, that sure hits home. I strongly depend on kindness from strangers. I truly think most people have good intentions and want to help. Then I learn of the worst people.
It’s so hard to fathom the cruelty of such humans. I understand some of the people I am labeling as ‘cruel’ were following orders because they’d otherwise be in the opposite position. This too is a hard concept to grasp. In fact, I was enlightened to this concept from one of the few survivors. His name is Chum Mey. He said he couldn’t deny, with 100% truth, that he wouldn’t have tortured and killed men too under such orders.
I was happy to see him smile. He questions how he got to live. He used his skills from his career field to save him on many accounts, to make his entrapment better than the others, but it was the escape- I think that’s what he meant. I purchased his book. This gives me access to show people more pictures of station 21. It also is a very detailed account of someone who lived through it. A book I can’t get myself to read just yet. Maybe someday when I’m back in the states away from this current reality.
S21, Tuol Sleng, was 1 of 176 securities throughout this small country. With the additional 300 killing sites, therefore 300 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge and Secret War. As I finished my audio guide in the second to last building, I think its building C, it began to rain. By the time I concluded my entire tour the skies matched my mood. They were dark and hanging low. I went back to my hotel.

Although S21 is a sad place,
I think it is important for everyone to visit.

I walked through the Russian market barely looking or making eye contact with anyone. This isn’t my typical vibe and I don’t want to be this way to the locals. I figured I should just catch a bike home. I went back and rested a bit. I would hold my tears back and pack the book away with belongings to be sent home. I had scheduled a theatre show for the night; glad I did! I needed to get my spirits back up. I also had a few hours between my nap and showtime to really absorb what I’d learned. This was not a time I could write. May 20th is the day of remembrance.

Still in solemn mood I walked to the National museum. I decided to walk on the rivers edge. It perfectly balanced my mood. There was lightning in the distance as the sun set and no rain. It was really pretty. I appreciated it, and began noticing the happy people around me. Locals who’ve known about the history and lived nearby were playing games and singing. They have left the hurt in the past. They have chosen to move on, many of these people who were alive when it happened.
Obviously I couldn’t let an evil person/group and what happened corrupt my view of Cambodia. Up until my visit to Phnom Penh, my trip has been full of cheer. Good thing I didn’t go to the killing fields. From what I learned from other tourists, I can tell you the tears would be flowing endlessly. It would take me much longer to recover from the news they learned there. I’m debating if I’ll look for that movie or just rely on what other visitors have shared with me.

Cambodian Living Arts show, Phnom Penh- national museum

I arrived to the show promptly. I was seated in the front row. I had paid more, I think $25 for my seat. I enjoyed the show and am happy to support the cause. In all honesty though, there are 15 rows, every seat is a good seat. This show was to see traditional Cambodian dance and learn of the folktales through a theatre-esque performance. I really liked it and genuinely felt happier. The costumes were very colorful and the dance was incredible. It involves a lot of coordination and also flexibility. All the way to the fingertips. I would be horrible. My fingers don’t bend backward whatsoever.

Day 30: 5/11/19
I woke up on the 11th and was slow to get ready. I needed to figure out plans for Vietnam. [Ya know… the same ones my phone deleted only a few days later?!] So, I was laying in bed planning when I decided I would rather find a cafe and have coffee or a smoothie while I planned. I found one nearby to my hotel and went there. Feel Good Cafe is known for their coffee, which was undeniably the best I’d had in Cambodia. Their food was delicious, too. I had the Mediterranean eggs- a fried egg on a tomato based sauce with chorizo and olives. It was great! The food in Phnom Penh was overall very satisfying. I also had banana bread because I stayed here for a few hours while I planned.
I stayed because I had a lot to plan but it also started to rain. It was a downpour to say the least. I was happily full and dry. Once I had my plans all squared away and the rain let up, I trekked back to my hotel; It must’ve been close to 15:30 at this point. I had a reservation for dinner at 19:30. I didn’t really do too much in between- packed and then pedicure. I found a local salon, my pedicure was only $2 and I loved the color options. It was a 1 woman show, and that 1 woman didn’t know any English. Luckily, the client having her hair done was able to translate for me; she spoke just enough english! I stayed awhile for my nails to dry. It’s nice to be surrounded by locals instead of tourists. Most cambodians I’d met were super happy, so genuinely happy.

Thailand’s been holding the title of:
“The land of smiles”
my vote goes to Cambodia!

They’re so happy to have tourists, they’re also still building back up from the war- I highly recomend visiting places recovering from natural disasters, as a way to give back to community!! Although the ‘Secret War’ is not a natural disaster, it’s a disaster nonetheless.

Dine in the Dark, Phnom Penh

Dinner was fun. I ate at Dine in the Dark. ‘Interesting’ would be an understatement. This put a new spin on an everyday task. I had 4 food types to choose from and a Michelin chef to then prepare a 3-course meal from my selection. After entering the restaurant and making my choice I was lead to my seat. I chose ‘Khmer food’ but I otherwise had no idea what I was eating. I put my hand on Freido’s shoulder and he led me up the stairs and through, I think, 4 curtains. I could not see anything. I would rely on my other senses to guide me through my meal. All the servers are blind. I was also asked to keep any light emitting devices (phone, watch… etc) in a locked box. I have never been in a darker room.

Dining in the dark

My eyes never adjusted to find any objects. I assume my pupils were smaller than a pin point. For some reason I couldn’t smell either, I assume allergies are to blame. My ears were acting as sonar, though. I was able to identify the amount of people in the room by footsteps. I’d ask Freido for confirmation. All of the people in the room with me were blind since birth. Except Freido, he became legally blind at 2 but does not recall ever being able to see. I was the only patron here at this time. I was able to roughly identify my appetizer. I knew I had spring rolls- 2 different varieties, and a sausage style soup with a shrimp hanging off the cup. This was easy to eat, I used only my hands. My napkin was covered in sauces. Then the main entree came out. There were fried onions, also easy to eat with my fingers. Then I touched something… wet… leafy… ok this is a side salad- haha. I used my fork; while I was going back and forth between the salad and fried vegetables I misplaced my fork. I was feeling all over the table for it. I tried to keep the fork on my left and the spoon on my right. They didn’t bother giving me a knife. Finally I found my fork… it was resting on my spoon. Next, I went for the main dish. I felt it first with my hands then poked it. It’s hard to know how much food is on the end of your fork. Not wanting to make a mess I decided I’d have to take the full bite off the fork- regardless of how much was on the end.
I was just going to have to stuff my face to avoid making a mess.
I ended up stuffing my face with a boiled egg. Whoa!! I wish my nose was working. This egg didn’t taste like a normal boiled egg. The taste was off and the texture was a bit rubbery. I didn’t like it. The next bite would be smaller. I felt the end of my fork this time… it didn’t feel like an egg. I bit into it. Whoa! salt overload- Yikes! The surprise element to taste without smell was overwhelming. That’s enough of these flavors- I couldn’t finish this meal without my sight. I asked Freido to clear this plate.
Then dessert came. “It is in a cup between your hands” they tell me. I bring my hands closer together and find the cold cup. “Do I just drink it?” I asked. I hear 3 of them say ‘no!’ in unison. Then they laugh. A female says “you can but it would be very hard”. I use my spoon and bite into a delicious fresh mango covered in yogurt. Definitely happy with dessert, much better than the entree.

The actual meal, exposed

At the end of my meal Freido leads me back to the main floor. The lady there asks if I want to know what I had. Umm… Of course! She also shows me (pre-taken) pictures of each dish on her phone.
App: duck fried roll, chorizo soup, pork spring roll
Main entree: smoked fish with yellowfried rice and a hard-boiled duck egg.
Sides: fried vegetables and salad.
Dessert: mango in yogurt
I think I could’ve managed the entree with sight. I could’ve proportionally matched the fried rice to fish ratio. Instead, I never had the fried rice and the meal was not balanced. I bit into two extreme food profiles, big bites of musty egg to salty fish.
I already want to do it again! I want to bring friends.
I left the restuarant happy to be able to see again. I think the world looked a little more clear that night as I walked home. I definitely was looking at everything a bit closer. This experience made me thankful for my sight. I wonder if this is why the Cambodians are so happy- they’re just so damn thankful to no longer be in the Khmer era. Happy to just live, freely.

the barefeet of a performer on stage, snake looking bands around their ankles

I walked through a local market instead of the tourist one on my way back to my hotel.

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