Phnom Penh

I hated Phnom Penh. From the plane ride there (spending ages on the runway, for a sickeningly bumpy trip, and the whole plane ride smelt strongly of burning plastic/ smoke that got stronger the longer we were on the plane) and the moment I stepped off it… the entire city smelt like a garbage tip, inescapably so. The tourism highlights of Phnom Penh are minimal, stores and cafes were not welcoming. There is one point of interest in Phnom Penh, and it offers and explanation for my complaints, it is the artifacts from the Cambodian Genocide. While this made for an incredibly moving visit, it was absolutely not enjoyable in the slightest. Most of my day was spent in tears. That was until we went to a backpackers bar, where we had a good time until about 3am in the morning because our friend was robbed – after he was seen using an iphone – which ended in him taking a machete to the throat. Here is the story….

The exhumed mass graves at the Killing Fields

In 1975, my mum was 13, my grandma was 33 and the Khmer Rouge, led by Marxist dictator Pol Pot, detained and killed over 8 million innocent and defenceless Cambodians. They were men, women and children, in an attempt to make a “master race” (just like Hitler). Almost 6.5million people died from overwork and starvation. These killings mostly happened at an extermination camp (just like the Nazis) called: Choeung Ek, located in Phnom Penh, now known as the Killing Fields. There was also a prison called Tuol Sleng, which was built as a high school, and repurposed as a jail/interrogation/torture camp.

Most people who were died at the Killing Fields were bound and blindfolded, buried in the pits where they were murdered with primitive tools (to save metal used in bullets). Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often this included wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language, being a different ethnicity or educated at all. Many of the soldiers and executors were just teenagers doing what they were told.

The killing tree

Today, you can join a guide or take an audio tour to hear the stories recorded by those who survived the Khmer Rouge. The audio tour also had an account from an executioner on the techniques they used to kill these people. Recorded, on MP3, it demonstrates just how recent this was… and you probably didn’t know about it.

Jono with Chum Mey. He is one of only seven known adult survivors of the Khmer Rouge imprisonment in the S-21 Tuol Sleng camp. His life was only spared because he was a key mechanic that could repair machines the soldiers could not

I could hardly bring myself to take any photos because the entire time I was shocked. We went to Dachau and it was sombre and sobering and emotional but not like Phnom Penh. We were prepared to see Nazi Germany, we knew what had happened, the stories had been told and you learnt in school, or in movies, but Khmer Rouge relics were still incredibly raw. The exhumed mass graves still had bones sticking out of the dirt, or were hasilty paved across for the tourist’s pathway. There was a pile of skulls in the centre that were sorted roughly by age, and how they were murdered. There was a small box of clothes that had been retrieved from the graves, which was unusual because most victims were forced to strip naked before they were killed and buried where they stood, so the clothes found were mostly children, likely buried with their mothers bodies, possibly killed by the mothers sides, possibly held in their arms as they died, and all of them buried even if they weren’t.

It is as if the genocide was still reverberating throughout the city. The energy of Phnom Penh was still hurt, 70% of the population is under 30 y.o. and tourism was trying, I didn’t feel welcome, like I did in Siem Reap. Trying to find somewhere to eat, was difficult, street food and market vendors didn’t want to engage with us, and even getting fast food was difficult and disappointing. We went back to the hotel and planned to rest for the next new day, as it happens we made friends by the pool, who heard of a bar down the street that had pool tables so we went out, planning to experience the Phnom Penh nightlife that Lonely Planet spruiks. Instead it was the worst night of my entire life.

Tuolg Sleng S21

Arriving at the bar, playing pool, listening to music, I can’t really remember what else, I do remember seeing the biggest rat I’ve ever seen. It was bigger than my mum’s little fox terrier. I remember that but I wasn’t shocked. I just thought ‘of course I see the biggest rat of my life here’. We were all drinking, all talking, tourists from Australia, NZ, America, Canada, UK and Europe together, no locals at all. One of our friends started speaking with a girl (who had a friend with her) we left them to their devices and continued the night as usual. Around 11pm the boy was still chatting to the girl, but her friend wanted to go back to the hotel (the same as ours where we had all met by the pool) she was tired, emotionally drained and understandably sick of being in a bar. The friends began arguing because one wanted to leave and the other didn’t. She said ‘go home without me’ but she didn’t want to leave alone, she said ‘we can see the hotel from the bar, you can walk back you’ll be fine’. This was true, I could see the hotel from the bar, but I didn’t think I would be fine walking back alone.

Jono offered to walk her back, and would leave me in the bar with the rest of the group. He stood up while the girl gathered her bag. A security guard approached him and said “I’ll get you a tuk-tuk sir” but Jono said no mate, don’t worry about it, we can see the hotel it’s right there. The security guard began to show a great deal of concern for how dangerous it would be to walk to the hotel, and insisted that they take a tuk-tuk. Now I will interrupt for those who haven’t read it before, Jono is a big bloke, at 2m tall and 130ish-kg he is usually the tallest and the biggest person in the room. He was a security guard for four years and has never been intimidated in a situation, he has been in fights and brawls and generally his only fear is commitment (and kicking his toes). His response to the guard was, don’t worry about the tuk-tuk because I’ve got no cash, and then the guard said “Sir I will pay for your tuk-tuk so please do not walk back to your hotel, it is very dangerous”. So he accepted the tuk-tuk (and paid for it). On his return he said that driving back to the hotel, there were gangs of kids who chased the tuktuk yelling and more people waiting in the alley ways, playing cards and drinking, he said he understood why he needed to take the tuk-tuk.

Just after 1am, a group of us decided to go back to our hotel, and swim in the pool. Our friend and the girl (that had her friend who left) were still in deep conversation. We all took tuk-tuk’s back to the hotel, went upstairs and got into our swimmers, there was about ten of us back in the pool. The two that were talking all night together had not joined us. We assumed they would not. The hotel didn’t mind that we were swimming, we had asked nicely and they said sure if you are quiet. I suppose we were, we kept drinking from the hotel bar. Just before 3am we all hear a blood curdling scream. We all laughed and said “what the fuck was that”. A few moments later the hotel reception runs into to pool, screaming “OR PRED”, we were drunk, we didn’t know what that meant. I was closest to the pool and he grabs my hand to pull me up and says it again “yor pred!” “fast now” “your prend” and drags me out of the hotel, we all began to panic. I couldn’t even grab my towel. I was still dripping wet. When I stood in the hotel lobby I looked to the front door, in the middle of the black and white tiles, our friend from the bar and his friend (who he was in deep conversation with) had apparently smashed a bottle of red wine. On my second take I realised he was holding his hands to his throat, and so was she, it wasn’t wine at their feet. All over them, soaked through his white shirt down to his light blue shorts. It was blood.

Someone from the pool screamed. I walked to him and sat him on a chair. He was so pale. He moved his hands to let us see and the moment he lifted them more blood flowed, it was actually pulsating, but not like what you see on surgeries on TV – it was pumping fast. My heart was beating fast. I pulled his t-shirt over his head and twisted the material around my hands and squeezed them tight around either side of his neck to try and help the blood clot. We said don’t move but he couldn’t say anything. He was completely going into shock. I could feel the warm blood in my hands but where my forearms were on his shoulders, they were cold, I was cold because I was still soaked from being in the pool but he was colder than me. The hotel receptionist said “take him to hospital” and the people we were with said “yes, yes, call an ambulance” the receptionist said “ok yes”. Where his shirt was in my hands had soaked through, Jono replaced it with someone’s beach towel and squeezed harder than I could. The blood wasn’t pumping out anymore but our friends eyes were beginning to drop shut. You could tell he wasn’t breathing as fast. I asked him three or four times what his PIN in his safe was, is that where his passport was? He said yes and could say a number every few seconds. One of the other boys we were with ran to get it for him. We asked the receptionist if the ambulance was far away. He said no – he didn’t know what that was? Why the hell we would expect an ambulance to come I don’t know. Jono walked our friend out of the hotel to the tuk-tuk but they were both too big to fit together. We switched and I held our friends neck to get to the hospital. We got there quickly and they took him in. Jono went with him. I waited with the girl that he was talking too. On the street, in the dark, at 3am in the morning in Phnom Penh. Oh and I was still in dripping swimmers but I had a bloody beach towel, literally.

The story was the two were chatting all night, missed the memo about the walk back to the hotel being dodgy, caught a tuk-tuk to the front door of the hotel but didn’t go inside, decided to go for a romantic moonlit walk by the river. There our friend pulled his iphone out to show her a photo, while they were looking at it they got surrounded by about 15 children. One of the kids, who had a machete, demanded the phone, our friend said no. He got his throat sliced for it. He was still in surgery.

In the hospital Jono said it was not hygenic and they refused to get the doctor to stabilize our friend until his treatment was paid for. Jono said that when he asked how much it would be they just guessed a number, saying 500,000 reil (which is about $200AUD that Jono withdraw immediately) he took out extra money and asked for the surgery room to be cleaned while they waited for the doctor to attend. There was dried blood, bandages and more on the sheets, the receptionist took the money and did it, changing the sheets and leaving the cleaning supplies, which Jono then used himself to do it again. The doctor and surgeon then entered and Jono split the money between them to look after our friend. They ended up being quite the celebrities and was well looked after in the short time they were there. For a total of $400, even got pain relief which they were told is very rare to provided. In the end our friend woke up and could breathe and speak, he was very sore all over, barley able to move, and said he felt incredibly sick and tired and weak. But when he went to sit up in his hospital bed, he said to Jono “mate I think I’ve pissed my pants”, fair enough Jono said, but on closer inspection our friend was actually sliced across his hamstring too. The doctors missed it. They closed that one up for free. It was something like 40 stitches in his neck and another 60 in his leg. We were on the plane out of Phnom Penh by 11am.

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