Lakeside in Phnom Penh

There’s more to do in Siem Reap. But, we were on a mission to get to the beach sooner than later, so on Christmas day we made an early go of it and took off for Phnom Penh. You can go by bus for about $8 or by boat for $25. Rumors of floating forests and floating villages enticed us to take the boat trip. It was well worth it. The rumors were every bit of true and that meant the entire trip was just stunning. You could sit up on the bow of the boat, which was cruising at a speed of 50 mph… at least. Probably their wooden boats were stunning. Russell and I managed to make friends with a crew of other travelers too. A Spanish guy, two Australians, and a Greek guy. When we arrived 6 hours later in Phnom Penh, Russell and I kind of corralled our group and took charge because we knew of a specific guesthouse on Lakeside. That was a big task because everywhere you go in Cambodia (well, SE Asia for that matter) taxi drivers and moto drivers throng you demanding that you use their transportation to get wherever it is you wa more. The views of the Tonlé Sop lake and the river and the people who lived in stilted shacks or simply just lived onnt to go. Except, they often try to tell you where to go so they can get a commission. They can really be a pain in the you know what. Always trying to rip you off. Always insisting to take them even when you’ve said no a thousand times over. Anyways, a guy that was on the bus with us from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap had been in the country 4 times prior and he had some good places scoped out. So we were following Dave’s advice. In fact, we were meeting him at the joint he recommended. He had opted to take the bus to Phnom Penh.

We arrived at the lakeside guesthouse and we were greeted by Dave and a lush lake view from a huge wooden and shaded deck area with hammocks and a pool table and a big screen tv for watching movies. It was Happy #11. Stay there if you ever make it to Phnom Penh. It was just chill and perfect. When we got there Dave informed us of plans for a Christmas dinner with some other foreigners who had more or less planted themselves in Phnom Penh. Sweet! Dinner turned out to be delicious! About 15 of us travelers together, at an all you-can-eat feast of chicken, beef, pork, veggies, prawns and beer. We paid just $6 each. The best part was you cooked your food on these small table grills. They provided the duck fat, the food, the spices and the seasonings. You just threw it all on the small grill and cooked it how you wanted it. It was fun battling for your piece. You would throw a nice slab on, spice it up really well, get it frying in that juicy duck fat… and then snatch! Someone would come in with their chopsticks and whisk away that culinary masterpiece. What a crazy, random and unforgettable Christmas dinner!

Russell, the Aussies (the Aussies decided to join up with us and we were officially a fousome now) and I just took the next day to just chill out. We had made plans with Dave and another guy Martin and a bunch of others to go go-carting in the afternoon, so we just lazed around until then. We watched the Killing Fields, which was perfect because it was all about the mass genocide in Cambodia that occurred just 30 years ago. Great movie that enabled us to get a handle on the recent horrible history of this country. Not to mention we were in the heart of where much of the torturing went on. The Khmer Rouge was a rebel group that gained power and then attacked anyone of middle and upper class forcing them to leave their homes in the city and suddenly become the countries poorest and most oppressed. Anyone politically affiliated with the government that had been toppled would be a target, most of them were tortured and killed. Their families too. I could go on and on about this horrible history… but instead, I’ll just tell you to read “First They Killed My Father.” It’s short. But, it’s incredibly moving and paints the picture of what went on in this country all too clearly. Seriously, if you want to know exactly what I’m witnessing here, I’m witnessing a country that is slowly emerging from its horrible and all too recent past. But it is emerging with smiles and little devil children that make you buy their trinkets. Anyways, read the book.

After the movie we took off for the go-carts. Tons of fun. We all got nice, big bruises on our hips from screeching around turns at full speed. Man it was fun! I want to get into it more… get better at racing!!!

After the go-carting, Russell and the Aussies wanted to take advantage of the fact that you can shoot AK-47s and toss a few grenades at a military base outside of Phnom Penh… that is, if you drop about a $150. I’m not going to lie, I was really, really enticed to bust out the guns too, but I just couldn’t. This country is run mostly by drug lords still and this cash just to get some quick bang would be going straight to the drug lords’ pockets. Russell even offered to pay for me… another “Christmas present,” but I couldn’t. It would still be money being spent for me that would ultimately end up in the pockets of people I don’t want to be supporting. It was so hard for me to fight the temptation though. I mean, I do want to be THE female version of Jason Bourne!!! Of course, I caved a little. If the boys were going regardless, then I was going to get some pics. I ended up posing in a few pics with the boys as well. Man, it would have been cool to let one of those grenades rip!! Morals!! Oh well, I saw it all up close and personal…

That night was just typical backpacker style. Drinks and laughs and finally sleep!

The next day it was time to face more of the grim realities of Cambodia’s recent history. Russell, the Aussies Jack and Colin, and I headed to S-21. S-21 is the main prison the Khumer Rouge used to torture its victims. The prison was actually a school, where rooms were turned into holding cells and torture chambers and hallways were crammed with wooden and brick partitions, which were all smaller than a broom closet… more holding cells. The most affecting thing about going to S-21 is the fact that you get to walk through pretty much all of it. You’re walking through the rooms where people were starved and tortured and executed. You’re walking on the tiles where people bled to death. In fact, you’re walking on their blood. There are blood splatters everywhere, still dark red and black stains on the tiles… and you’re walking on them. It’s jolting… and revolting.

Next it was off to the Killing Fields. This is where the Khumer Rouge took victims by the tens and hundreds to slaughter them. They didn’t want to waist ammo so the militants bashed them in the heads to kill them. You walk among the pits of former mass graves. You tread on bits of clothing peaking through the dirt; the remnants of these people who were slaughtered here. One mass grave was all infants and young children. Another was all women with no heads. You got your fair share of heads though. Or skulls rather. The Buddhist monks built a temple for the slaughtered victims of the Khumer Rouge. Inside the temple is a glass case of shelves where bones and skulls are just haphazardly piled upon each other. The glass casing is open in many areas and if you were disrespectful enough you could easily reach in and fondle the skulls and bones of these massacred people. Apparently, and I’m not positive if this is why but, the Buddhists believe the spirits need to be free to move on or something, so they can’t fully seal up the skulls and bones. They have to leave openings for the spirits to get out. It was all so… disturbing… and enraging.

That afternoon we left for less affecting and troubling scenery. We took off for Sihanoukville… aka the beach.

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