SE Asia VI — Transit, Phnom Penh

“Roomy” is a word that I wouldn’t use to describe a Lao bus. Another one is “restful”. I suppose I can give them “effective”, though, because technically I did start out in Vang Vieng and end up in Phnom Penh, which was where I’d intended to go.

I left Vang Vieng in a van. The drive from there to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, was nearly as beautiful as the drive from Luang Prabang. Laos is a sparsely populated country, and accordingly its capital city is pretty modest. I latched onto some people from the minivan—a Catalan couple and two hot French girls—and we saw the sights in Vientiane. It didn’t take long, because there are only two of them and neither one is all that impressive. There’s the Wat Si Saket, which is basically the same as every temple I saw in Chiang Mai, except that it’s enclosed by a square of roofed shelter that houses tens of thousands of Buddha images. It’s famous because of all the little Buddhas and because it’s the oldest wat in Vientiane. And there’s the Pha That Luang,1 which the Lao think highly enough of that its picture is on almost all their money. It’s a sort of big temple-monument thing:

It takes about two minutes to walk around it, and you can’t go in. It’s pretty, although black stains from the rain are starting to run down the gold leaf.

All that seen, we found the bus station, and got a bus to Pakse, a city in the south and the closest I could get to Phnom Penh. It left about 5 minutes after we got there, at 4:30. There was a stack of plastic chairs in the aisle, which I had to step over to stake out a real seat in the back. It left and started visiting various local destinations so local people could come in and sit on all the plastic chairs in the aisle. The ride was scheduled to take about 10½ hours. I couldn’t stretch in any direction. But when night came I curled up in a sort of upright fetal position and tried to sleep. There were interruptions. The bus might stop near some nondescript buildings for a while, for example, just kind of sitting there. It did that at three in the morning and the drivers sat outside on plastic chairs for about half an hour, smoking. Then a motorbike arrived carrying two new drivers and we were rolling again. Or the bus might stop and let on more people, some of whom might pile their baggage on top of the bus, or pile bags of what appeared to be cement in the aisle. They really don’t waste a bit of space here, apparently. It’s encouraging for the future of efficiency, but also extremely uncomfortable in the moment.

We arrived at 6:30, only 3½ hours behind schedule. The French girls and the Catalan couple had gotten off to spend a couple days at a nice place called the Four Thousand Islands, but I was able to find a group of other foreigners heading further south. We’d been dropped off at the bus station, so we went to inquire about getting a bus to the border. Turned out the next leg of the trip, around three hours, wouldn’t be by bus but by tuk-tuk. This was a serious tuk-tuk, one run by locals for locals. They filled it up with people. There was barely room to turn your head.

And as it headed farther south more people kept getting on, though occasionally one would get off too. At one point a mob of kids and old people came to the truck to sell us corn on the cob and chicken heart kebabs.

Before we got to the border town, Vön Kham, a minivan in front of the tuk-tuk stopped and asked the tuk-tuk driver if he had any foreigners on the truck. So I was shuffled onto this shuttle to the border. That seemed dodgy at the least, but it worked out. I and some Italians and other Europeans arrived at the checkpoint and a local guided us through. We got nickeled and dimed by a series of rickety guard posts but finally received visas, and then I boarded yet another vehicle, a big bus full of foreigners. It took us to Phnom Penh. This was another long trip. The sun went down on my second solid day of travel.

We eventually got there, and I latched on to some people I’d been talking to on the bus, a Belgian girl (Zoë) and a Massachusetts guy (Paul) and his fiancée, a Swiss girl named Samantha. All the cheap guesthouses in town were full, but we found a slightly fancier one for $11 per room. (They use American dollars in Cambodia. But they give you change in their own currency, the riel.)

I got up the next day and had breakfast with Zoë and Paul and Samantha and we decided to see the sights together so we could combine costs on tuk-tuk fares. I wasn’t really interested in palaces and temples, since by this point I was getting pretty fatigued on fancy architecture with symbolism that I couldn’t begin to interpret. Luckily they were willing to go along with what I wanted to do for the day, which was to see the museums dedicated to the sad part of Cambodia’s history.

This is something my history classes never made it to, because they all stopped around World War II. So I needed some background, and I suspect other people might too. In 1975 a group called the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia from the previous eccentric but mostly harmless ruling party. The Khmer Rouge were interested in creating the most purely communist state in the world. In their vision, every person in the country would be a simple peasant, wholesomely farming their land. Which is a nice pastoral sentiment if you don’t think about it too hard, but there were cities in Cambodia at this point, and those didn’t fit into the scheme. Thus the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities of people completely. That didn’t work either, though, because the city people didn’t know anything about farming, and they wanted to go back to their homes in the cities. Some of the city people were smart enough to realize that the farming thing wouldn’t work. These smart people were killed. They didn’t bother with finding out whether the smart people had actually agitated or said that the Khmer Rouge scheme was foolish; they just killed everyone who might be smart, like people who spoke another language, or people with glasses. Also, people who’d worked for the overthrown government had to go.

At this point they had a populace of more pliable people, and these people worked hard. But in order to enforce their reign, the Khmer Rouge had to buy guns from China, and to do that they had to sell all the rice that the pliable people grew. Thus the populace started starving. Some people might accept this as a sign that their experiment was a failure, but the Khmer Rouge just worked the peasants harder and harder. This is when the real dying happened: over the course of a few hungry years, about a third of the people in the country died. Many of them died by starvation, most of them being city people, who were second-class citizens with lower rations in the grand plan. And many of them were actually killed, for various reasons like not working hard enough. Only hard workers were allowed the precious food that was left after China bought its share. In the end, in 1979, the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and gradually freed all the people. But the country is still recovering.

There are two museums dedicated to giving an idea of this time: the Chœung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. At first it seemed like there’d be nothing wrong with taking in both of these sights in one day, but of course death gets to you. The Killing Fields are outside of town a ways, right next to some regular people’s farms. The four of us went there in a tuk-tuk. It turned out that the thing there is an audio tour. My first thought was that that sounded pretty cheesy and classless for such a somber place, but it’s actually really well done. We split up to walk at our own paces, so I walked alone to each station on the walking path. At each one I could press a number and listen to a survivor from those years telling me what happened there. It’s not a vast place, only forty acres with a pretty big pond in it. It so happens that I have a pretty good sense of how big forty acres is because that’s the size of Warder Park, the place where I did all my most extensive outdoor wandering during childhood. Warder has a pond too. That lent a certain vividness to the tour. After all, before the Khmer Rouge came to power, this place wouldn’t have been too different for Cambodians from what Warder Park was for me. Just a place in a neighborhood.

All the buildings had been torn down after the Khmer Rouge fell. It wasn’t that people were infuriated about the killing that happened there, because they didn’t know about it yet—they just really needed building materials. So they had signs where each building had been. A truck stop where trucks loaded with prisoners stopped and unloaded. A shed where tools were kept—originally garden tools, but they were pressed into service as killing weapons because bullets were too expensive. Another shed where chemicals were kept—DDT mainly, which they spread on victims to cover the stench and kill any who were still alive. A mass grave where about 450 bodies were found: it was the size of my last dorm room. The pond, which you can walk around and listen to stories from survivors. There was one survivor who was so enraged that he became a UN representative of some sort and denounced the Khmer Rouge. In another piece of audio it was explained that despite that, Khmer Rouge party members have still had an active part in the nation’s government ever since those days, even up to the present. The stories kept going—one woman had to watch her baby die of starvation because she was forced to work all day in the fields and wasn’t given enough food to breastfeed well enough. That kind of memory never goes away, and she pointed that out.

Away from the pond, back on the path, the heavy-duty dark stuff began: a glass box with victims’ clothes found on site. A glass box with victims’ bones, collected from the ground I was walking on. Some of them, found more recently by visitors, had been left on top of the box. And lastly a tree from which had hung the loudspeakers broadcasting the revolutionary songs that, combined with a diesel generator, were the last things the victims ever heard. In the center of the fields was the memorial stupa, a tower, filled ten levels high with glass cases of hundreds of skulls, all of them sorted into categories like “juvenile Khmer females, age 10–17”—and on top of those levels, seven more levels of other bones.

I regrouped with Zoë and Paul and Samantha, and we took our tuk-tuk back to the city. More precisely, we drove straight to Tuol Sleng, the prison where people were taken before getting killed at Chœung Ek. But before facing that, we had lunch. That was a good break to take.

Tuol Sleng started life as a high school, though grimmer than any other high school building I’ve seen, all concrete and white paint and glassless windows. On the third floor of building “D”, I watched a one-hour film showing victims’ families and survivors and a few guards who talked about how they’d killed. There was a man who painted scenes of torture from his time in detention, and he asked a guard if any of them were exaggerated. They weren’t. I saw those same paintings later, and there were the sort of images that you would normally expect to be the product of the imagination of a particularly deranged person. Pulling off fingernails, drowning people upside-down in vats, any way you could think of to cause pain. And there were mugshots of the victims, and there were more bones, and it was a lot to handle. I felt weak by the end, and just sat down. It’s hard to face all that after a while.

Done with death, the four of us went off to get bus tickets. I would be heading to Siem Reap tomorrow, after just one day in Phnom Penh, because I was starting to run short on time. Then we wandered around looking for Chinese New Year. Today was the day of it. But it wasn’t all that easy to find. There was a squad of people going around town drumming and dancing in dragon costumes, but that was really all we saw, and we only caught the tail ends of these performances. Even the Central Market, where I’d expected to see all the culture of the city concentrated, had nothing—just clothes sellers.

So we went to the mall. Here the mall is vertical. It’s also aimed at extremely rich Cambodians, full of stores selling upscale Western clothing at Western prices. And yet it was teeming. I couldn’t quite figure it out. We ended up at the food court and I navigated through the masses of people in order to buy food, far too much of it in fact. Then Paul and Samantha went back to the hotel early because Samantha was sick, so I wandered around with Zoë awhile. We walked down the river on a promenade with flags from all over the world on tall poles. We just missed some guys playing Chinese New Year songs on marimba, and we talked a lot about languages. She told me about Belgium, and admitted that it’s not much special, except that they did invent Godiva and Toblerone chocolate.

I slept on her floor to save money—not, as you might have supposed, out of any particular interest in her, because I never described her physically to you, so you didn’t realize this whole time that she’s a bit large (and I must never link her to this blog without deleting this sentence first)—and that was it for Phnom Penh. I left in the morning to have what could only be a much happier time in Siem Reap.

  1. I hope you’re not pronouncing that “Fa Thhhat Luang”. H’s don’t do that in transcriptions of Lao. It’s pronounced “Pa Tat Luang”. 

File under: adventure · Places: Laos, Cambodia

Note: comments are temporarily disabled because Google’s spam-blocking software cannot withstand spammers’ resolve.



I remember vividly the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Pictures of the killing fields were in our local newspapers and magazines like Time and Newsweek. It was an incredible sad and horrifying.period in our history, but not unprecedented. Time however, heals some of those wounds if there is an effort to make things better, which apparently is happening. A great blog. A vivid picture of your travels . G.Pa




That is similar to going to Auschwitz or Dachau. After awhile you can't stand it any more, and have to look at something more upbeat. The experience will be with you for the rest of your life. Glad to hear your description, which was plenty vivid. Grandma

Reply Reply Reply

Hit Enter twice for a new paragraph. You can use asterisks to make *italics* and **bold**, and you can make links like so: [link says this](and goes to this address). Other fancy formatting possible via Markdown. (More)