Cambodia Round 2: Phnom Penh

After 4 days in Siem Reap I was ready to move on. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh awaited me. The ‘Pearl of Asia’. All that stood between me and that city was a 6 hour minivan ride through the countryside. I sat in the middle seat, between 2 individuals who smelled of old spaghettios and urine, in a van with no AC. Things were not great. I did not have a fun time. Eventually I arrived in the big city of dreams.

Phnom Penh was different than any city I’ve been to. It’s a city that seems to be at the crossroads between the past and the present. The shanty towns and shacks along the river are less than a km from the financial centers and government buildings. The streets are littered with trash and covered in dust, but it has its charms. The loud markets are vibrant and bustling with merchants selling everything under the sun. The people are friendly and smiling. The city seems to have a rapid pulse. This is a miracle in itself when you think about what happened in Cambodia 40 years. I would spend most of my time in Phnom Penh learning more about the atrocities that took place during those years of despair and sorrow. It was a time for personal reflection. A time to appreciate the resiliency of the Cambodians and strength within people in general.

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The two points of interest in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields and the Genocide museum. I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, and decided to take on these attractions on my own. I knew it was going to be a heavy day and I preferred to be solo.  I knew what I was in for. I had studied the Cambodian genocide at University while obtaining my unbelievably useless degree in International Relations. It was surreal to actually be walking the streets where one in every four citizens were killed between the years 1975-1979. It seems as though this part of history is left out of the high school history books back home. Perhaps its just another piece of SE Asian history we’re not too proud to have been a part of. Americans seem apt to want to forget our unsavory actions.

During the Vietnam war, the United States began to secretly bomb eastern Cambodia. Northern Vietnamese forces were using routes through Laos and Cambodia to supply Southern Vietnamese resistance with troops and weapons. Between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped over 2.3 million tons of bombs in ‘neutral’ Cambodia, killing thousands and displacing millions more. To put that in perspective, the United States SECRETLY dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did during all of WWII. Most of these bombing sorties targeted ‘unknown’ targets (aka; indiscriminate carpet bombing) During this time, communist party of Cambodia gained power under its leader Pol Pot. Known as the Khmer Rouge, the party would capitalize on the desperation of the rural people and take control of Cambodia in 1975. Immediately his party undertook a project of mass social engineering. The cities were emptied and millions were marched into the countryside. The vision of the Khmer Rouge was to create a perfect communist state, completely free of class identity. The people would only be peasants and workers; ‘The old people.’ In a single step, the government would do away with the ‘bourgeois’ who they saw as oppressors; ‘The new people.’ All citizens were forced to become farmers and laborers. The goal was to create a completely self-sufficient state, and the regime imposed impossible quotas. The entire population was worked to the bone. For 4 years the Cambodian people would face mass executions, starvation, widespread disease, and continuous hardship. All opposition to the regime was eliminated. Anyone seen as one of the ‘new people’ (estimated to be around 2.5million) faced the most severe oppression. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and bankers were all executed. If you wore glasses, knew foreign languages, or even quoted poetry you could be executed. In total, more than 2 million lives were lost under the Khmer Rouge in just 4 years, roughly 25% of the total population at the time.

The Killing fields were sites where mass executions took place under Pol Pot’s regime. The most famous was Choeung Ek, just outside of the capitol. Thousands were killed here. No guns were used as the ammunition was considered to be too precious. My trip to the site took about 2 and a half hours. I listened to the audio guide and heard the tragic stories of that horrific place. The light rain that fell seemed fitting for such a harrowing site. You could see the pits where the bodies were thrown. When it rains, bone fragments still bubble to the surface of these mass graves. In the middle of the field lies a Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the surrounding field. It sits as a stark reminder of the violence and terror during those years. The beauty of the stupa helps to honor the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.


From the killing fields I traveled to Tuol Sleng detention center in the city. This is the official genocide museum of Phnom Penh. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a detention center was set up at a local high school in the city. It became known as Security Prison 21 (S21). Within its walls, the truest horrors of the Cambodia genocide took place. Over 20,000 entered the dreary concrete prison. There they would languish for weeks or months. The torture they endured was indescribable. They were forced to ‘confess’ to crimes that did not exist and implicate their accomplices. Many confessions were given just to end the torture. While touring the prison and listening to the stories, I was truly moved. It’s nearly unfathomable to think that humans could do such things to other humans. S21 was one of many such detention centers set up around the country. Of the 20,000 who were imprisoned there between 1975 – 1979 only 7 are known to have survived.

Overall, it was a powerful day. I can’t imagine the people of Cambodia ever anticipated the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocide is a grim reminder that worlds can change overnight. It was a reminder that humans are capable of incredible barbarity. It was a reminder that there is still evil in the world that needs to be kept at bay. However, while reflecting on my day while riding back to my hostel, I looked at the people in the streets. The markets were busy. Children were playing and laughing in the streets. Cars were whizzing by and men in suits were sipping beers at a local cafe. Cambodia had prevailed. After only four decades the capital city was vibrant once more. Scarred for sure. But the country was healing. What I learned in Phnom Penn was that even when there is incredible evil in the world, the resiliency of the human spirit will always overcome. Even when the whole world seems to burn because the hatred of a few, the love of the many will always rise and rebuild.

Cambodia Round 1: Siem Reap

With Thailand in the rear view, I was off to Cambodia! I touched down in Siem Reap on a sizzling Wednesday afternoon and was immediately confused. The visa process was easy enough at the airport and I was cleared to enter the country, but when I went to take out cash from the ATM i was greeted by Andrew Jackson’s face on fresh US 20$ bills. When I checked the exchange counter, the woman explained to me that in the cities the US Dollar is the desired form of currency and the Cambodian Riel is given in the form of change. Basically 4000 riel is 1 dollar, so when something was $4.50 and you gave a $5, you’d get 2000 riel in change. While it was nice to see a familiar currency, the riel change actually ended up being more of a nuisance than anything.

I’m not sure how much I can write on Siem Reap. I spent 4 days there and the city itself is a little underwhelming. It’s the most undeveloped city I’d been too so far. Many of the roads were unpaved, and those that were had not been attended to in some time. Even so, it had its charms. Down town there was the famous Pub Street filled with shops, restaurants, and bars always bustling with activity. You can lose yourself in the night market down there, and I mean that literally. I could not find an exit to the labyrinth of store fronts and food stalls for 20min.

Obviously there is one MAJOR attraction in Siem Reap; Angkor Wat. This UNESCO world heritage site is the largest religious monument in the world. Created in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire to honor the god Vishnu, the temple eventually became a holy Buddhist site. It’s massive size, attention to detail, and beauty make it one of the ancient wonders of the world. There are also monkey’s climbing and playing around every corner, making for an especially fun visit.

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Angkor Wat is not the only temple in the archaeological park of Angkor. You could probably spend 7 whole days exploring the temples but I only had 1 day. My tuk-tuk driver took me around for 5hours and I was able to see 2 other major temples. Bayon is known for the 216 giant smiling faces that are etched into the stone. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century and many believe the faces to be his own.

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The final temple I visited was Ta Prohm. This temple is also on the UNESCO list and is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor region. The ancient ruins are unlike any other in the area, as the trees and forest has weaved itself throughout the ancient stone. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed at Ta Prohm when Angelina was really in her prime.

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You could honestly spend days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. There are so many secret corridors and ally ways to find. The carvings on the walls look the same as they may have 800 years ago. I feel lucky I was able to spend even a single day exploring such an important piece of ancient architectural history.

As a side note, Siem Reap is a GREAT place to party and I certainly took part in that. The mad monkey hostel is legendary. It’s rooftop beach bar is filled in with about 4 inches of sand and things get rowdy. Spent every night out on pub street having a blast with new friends from all over the world. While the scenery, temples, and culture are all essential, I’ve found the best part of the backpacking experience to be the people. The people you meet from around the world make this trip so special. I’ve learned so much about people from Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia. I’ve made friends and learned about their homes and their lives. It makes you realize that no matter where we come from, and how different our cultures are, we’re essentially the same. Especially as travelers, we have similar goals and dreams and ideas. We all see the world as something to be explored and experienced. We all look to learn about other people and other ways of life. We drink together, laugh together, travel together. No matter the religion, the nationality, the race

Back to Bangkok

So I’m back in the big city. This time however, I’m rolling solo. To be honest I was rather nervous to start my onward journey, relying on only myself. It was sad to see Chelsea go. She was a great travel companion and it would have been hard to adjust to SE Asia without her there to struggle with. But with two weeks under my belt already, I felt ready to take on the rest of my trip as a solo backpacker.

It’s been 12 days since I returned to Bangkok on my own and it has been fantastic. Often meeting new people is tough and striking up conversations with total strangers can be intimidating. Luckily the hostels here make that so much easier. Everyone staying there is a traveler, so you already have that in common. Plus most travelers like to drink, so you also have that in common. When you put a bunch of young people together who all happen to be on adventures of a lifetime and add in a few beers, they tend to become friends quickly. I met a great group of friends while going on the walking tour that the hostel provided. Not only that, but I gained a better understanding of the city. We took the water taxi’s, the metro, tuk-tuks, and walked all across the city. We saw temples and strolled through China town. We viewed the Bangkok skyline atop Wat Sakat, the Golden Mount (one of the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion. Bangkok has a unique skyline that’s filled with old abandoned skyscrapers. These were projects that were abandoned when the market crashed in 97. So you have a newer skyline with the modern city and old creepy towers. It’s also absolutely massive! Overlooking it, you might think it’s never ending.

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After settling in with a group friends we took to the Kho San road for a night of partying. I won’t go into detail, but that street is absolutely insane. There are things there that would NEVER fly in the States. It’s like the modern day version of the wild west. I don’t think there are any rules.

After 3 days in Bangkok, I’d met tons of people from all over the world and teamed up with a few travelers from the UK who were ready to head North. My friend Martin from Birmingham, England decided to join me for a day at Ayutthaya before we joined the group in Chiang Mai. Ayutthaya was the original capital of the Kingdom of Siam from 1351 – 1767 until it was burned to the ground during the 2nd Burmese war. Martin and I rented bicycles and toured the old ruins scattered about the city. It was about 90 degrees and we biked almost 15miles so by the end we were ready for a cold beer and a shower.

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Unfortunately, we had to settle for only the beer because we had to catch the overnight train up to Chiang Mai…

Arriving in Bangkok

Honestly, I should have looked up the weather in the South Pacific before I took off. I’ll take the blame for that one. My bad. Was not aware Typhoon Merantis was going to be smashing into Taiwan during the only 4 hour stretch in my lifetime I needed to be in that f’n country. Good news, it hit the South of the island. Bad news, its 185mph winds caused turbulence so bad I was convinced I was going to wind up like John Denver. In the end, still not dead. So that’s a plus.

After 24 straight hours of travel, we finally arrived in Bangkok. The big apple. The city by the bay. And as tired as we might have been, there is no greater shock to the system than that city. It’s different. It’s loud. It has a certain aroma. The traffic moves in a form of organized anarchy. Cars, mopeds, and tuk-tuks pass one another at will, driving on whichever side of the road they seemingly pleased. The sidewalks are filled with stalls selling clothing, bags, and jewelry intertwined with food stands hawking pad thai, chicken or fish on a stick, and more eccentric delicacies (bugs and scorpions deep fried with soy). It’s like a weekend market in NYC or Boston, except it’s everywhere, every day, all the time. It’s easy to get lost in. And we did. Pretty much immediately. As in 5min after we left the hostel we had no idea what we were doing.

We must have looked lost too because right off the bat we were sucked into a tuk tuk scam. Sure he took us to the standing Buddha and a few other temples with a smile and a nod, but then we got dropped at the Thai Cultural Center. Except it wasn’t the Thai Culture Center it was the Tie Culture Center, selling bootleg custom fit suits for half the price. Basically had to fight our way out of the store. It was 2 against 15 pushy salesmen trying to pitch me a suit in 87 degrees and 90% humidity.

We followed that up with a lovely river cruise on the greyish-brown waters of Bangkok. You see quite a wide range of lifestyles along that river, from tin shacks to luxury condos. Eye opening to say the least. Except for the fact that I was so tired I fell asleep in the boat. So we grabbed a beer and some pad-thai on the khao san road and we called it a night.

(our boat looked like this one but 3x smaller)

(dinner on Khao San)

After 10 hours of sleep we took off for our second day in Bangkok, refreshed and already much wiser. Day 2 consisted of 9.77 miles of walking. It was a lot. Especially in the 95 degree heat. We also had to be in pants as we visited Wat Pho (reclining Buddha) and the Royal Palace. Thank god I brought my sweet zip-off pants from EMS and dope Teva sandals. Swagger like you read about 100 100. It was actually an awesome day that ended at the train station as we awaited our overnight train up North.

 (wat pho)

Bangkok was an abrupt welcoming to SE Asia. But it was everything I wanted it to be. And I’ll be back to explore more in 2 weeks. I think you could spend years in that city and still not understand a thing about it. Anyways, off to Chaing Mai. I’ll be turning 24 on a 2nd class sleeper car. Just how I drew it up.

(palace decor)


(budha on budha)

(palace Wat)