Giant Ibis is the way to travel in Cambodia; reclined seats, plenty of legroom, decent air-con, safe driver and most importantly plenty of toilet stops! I’m the type of person that as soon as there is no toilet, I need a wee. I have been known to dehydrate myself based on no toilets being nearby, so that last point is a very important one! This lady certainly thought it was a comfy bus!
Our 10 hour journey to Phnom Penh was drama free, upon arrival to the bus station we were surrounded by tuk tuk drivers ‘you need tuk tuk?’, ‘tuk tuk’, ‘tuk tuk’, ‘tuk tuk’… about 10 men up in my face shouting all at once, can you get an idea of how annoying that is?
Our hostel Billabong Hotel was amazing, walking inside I couldn’t help but think we had hit the jackpot! We were in a dorm room of 6 but the bunk beds were spacious, very clean and modern with a big bathroom. The hostel had such a cool vibe, walking outside to the pool there were young travellers all over the place, some were sunbathing, some were sat by the poolside on laptops, others were drinking and the bar was playing Ed Sheeran, they had won me over right there!
Our main purpose of being in Phnom Pen was to visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison where Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army kept and tortured people. Not long after checking in we were booking our tour for the next day but they were fully booked on the early tour and the late tour only went ahead if enough people signed up to it.
Luckily for us, a young Candian solo traveller called Brooke (also wanting to book the same tour) approached us and said, ‘I’ve found one other person who wants to go on the tour (Sarah, a young German girl), what do you say if the 4 of us share a tuk tuk and all go together, it would be cheaper too?’, I looked at Lewis and nodded and he agreed so we all introduced ourselves to one another and arranged a time to meet in the morning. I was super excited as we had made friends with our first set of travellers and you always feel safer in numbers!
That night we ate dinner and went up to the dorm room. Lewis as per usual fell asleep straight away whilst I lay there on Netflix until early hours of the morning (nothing changes even in Asia!). A couple hours after I eventually fell asleep I woke up to turn over and heard the girl on the bottom bunk next to Lewis shuffling about in her bed. I peered over my bunk to look down and she making noises like she was talking to herself. Then I had this horrible thought… what if she sleep walks? Then I very quickly imagined myself in a horror movie and thought, say she kills Lewis in her sleep? I was thinking how luckily I was to be on the top bunk (Lewis knows I feel safer so he always takes the bottom without question 💜) but then I felt this horrible guilt… say she does kill him in his sleep? He would have died because I’m a wimp and selfishly taken top bunk! #Irrational #OCDMuch!
I did eventually fall back asleep but that’s a typical night for me so I wasn’t too tired the next morning, plus I was excited to go and see the prison with our new friendly travellers! We met by the pool for some breakfast, the hostel served THE BEST pancakes which I was gagging for after eating rice and noodles every day since arriving in Asia! Shortly after, the 4 of us took a tuk tuk ride to S21-Prison and the Killing Fields.
Tuol Sleng Prison (aka. S-21)
Background: Once a teaching school filled with young children, the building was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It became a place of torture, famine and death and was the secret centre of a network of nearly 200 prisons where between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge. There are only 12 confirmed survivors to this day.
We approached the prison and left our tuk tuk driver by the entrance. I couldn’t help but wonder if his family were victims of the Kherma Rouge, with 25% of the population killed in Pol Pot’s reign and it only being 50 years ago, it is highly likely the very people surrounding us were victimised in one way or another.
We walked through the entrance to be given audio guides to explain the horrifying story. As soon as I clocked the woman handing out earphones my stomach sank, ‘great, dirty used headphones, I wonder how many people have worn these’, I said to Lewis. I know, I sound terrible don’t I? Here I am stood in front of 14 unnamed graves, the last of the dead found at the prison when the Vietnamese stormed in and took over, and all I could think about were the dirty headphones #FirstWorldProblems.
It was soon put into perspective when I pressed number 1 on my audio guide. My mind was distracted with the countless truths of what I was looking at and stories from the few survivors of their time in the prison.
🔻🔻🔻Spoiler Alert & Graphic Content🔻🔻🔻
(scroll down to where it says END if you don’t want to read this part)
Walking from one room to another I learnt how prisoners were beaten to death chained to their beds and witnessed photos of those found dead in each room. Big dark patches covered the tiles stained from all the bloodshed, and names were carved into the walls of those kept there. It was spine chilling, Sarah, one of the girls with us, had tears rolling down her cheeks and the worst was yet to come!
The first block has now been turned into a classroom for schools to visit and learn about the history of Cambodia, the rooms contain written accounts from survivors, the families they lost and the terrors that still haunt them to this day. I think it’s amazing that this building is once again being used to educate children.
The second block is where they kept prisoners in detention and also where they kept any prisoner that was suicidal. The cells were tiny, no bigger than 100cm x 60cm with chains and they would sometimes put two people in these cells. It was disgusting, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be kept there. Many of the prisoners were family of those that were being captured, the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to leave any trace behind so took wives and children too. Babies were often taken away on entrance to the prison and never seen again.
The last block (which I don’t have photos of and for good reason) was to showcase all the different torture devices used and had walls and walls of photos that were taken of each prisoner on entrance to the prison. Photos of children, women and men, hundreds of them, all staring back at me. I felt ashamed of myself, how did I not know of this terrible tragedy before now? Here I am, travelling the world, taking for granted how much freedom I have, and here are all these people, who no longer than 50 years ago were held captive here experiencing the worst side of humankind. It made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. Who could do such a thing? Who thought it would be a good idea to torture people to this effect?
Pol Pot’s who! ‘What a sicko’ I thought to myself as I was staring at a large photo of his face. He looked so normal, how could someone who looked so normal be capable of organising and actioning such psychopathic behaviour. Also, why were his little possey so keen to follow him! Did he just walk up to them one day and say ‘hey, so I’ve had this idea… as we all hate education, what do you say to mass torture and genocide of women, babies, children and men?’… I mean… did they actually think it was a good idea? I was left with all these unanswered questions in my head and I wasn’t the only one.
Prisoners were forced to write down their sins, most had no idea what their sins were, or even why they were imprisoned, so eventually they wrote pages of lies so they could stop being tortured. It’s sick and so sad! After writing their sins, they would be signed off by the leader of the camp and the prisoners were eventually taken 30 minutes South to the Killing Fields for execution and mass burial.
The Killing Fields
The tuk tuk ride to the Killing Fields was filled with conversation, the only thing we didn’t really talk about was the prison. I think we had all wanted a break before more gruesome stories at the Fields. When we approached the entrance to the Killing Fields, I felt this overwhelming feeling, I couldn’t help but think there was worse to come. Could I really handle this? Is this going to give me nightmares tonight? Will my OCD kick in here and start a new irrational thought cyclone in my head? But then I thought of all the people who had to actually go through this, and even worse, the survivors that still had to re-live it every night in their nightmares, it gave me some kind of strength. This is a huge part of history I can’t miss out on. So I walked through to the ticket booth.
Once again there was the headphone lady handing out old worn torn earphones, except this time I didn’t even think about the ear germs. My mind was so distracted wondering how worse the gruesome accounts could actually get.
🔻🔻🔻Spoiler Alert & Graphic Content🔻🔻🔻
(scroll down to where it says END if you don’t want to read this part)
One of the first things I could see as I walked down the long pathway was a tower, I knew from research that this tower contained skulls, what I didn’t know was each skull had a marking to tell you which weapon was used to kill them.
We see so many skulls in pop culture today, they are part of everyday fashion in the western world and I sort of feel like I’ve become immune to skulls, real or fake, I don’t feel shocked to see them. But stood here staring at the wounds in the skulls, seeing the size of some of the jagged holes, made me think about the poor people and how scared they must have been when they saw the weapon coming towards them. I all of a sudden felt a chill down my spine and left the tower for my next stop.
It wasn’t long before I came across the first mass grave, surrounded by bracelets around the edge, it was a beautiful memorial. A dreadful thought that 450 bodies lay beneath the very place I was stood though.
When the Khmer Rouge took people here to be executed, they blindfolded them and only transported prisoners at night. This was to keep it under wraps as outside of Cambodia, no one really knew this was going on. This is how they got away with it for so long.
Once prisoners were at the site, they too were executed at night, in the dark. The Khmer Rouge would play music really loudly over speakers so neighbouring villages wouldn’t hear the screams of the frightened prisoners. Horrific! When they played the music though my headset, I felt sick, and frightened. It was eerie to say the least.
Just down the path from this speaker is another mass grave next to a big tree. This particular tree below is called the killing tree, now draped in bracelets as a sign of respect it was once used to bash women and children to death before being thrown into the mass grave next to it.
Every so often the grounds men of the site have to go around picking up pieces of clothing and bones that come to the surface from the rain. This item of clothing once belonged to someone who had a family; children, sisters, brothers, parents… where are they all now? Do they know their family members clothing is lying here all tangled in tree roots?
This is such a sad part in Cambodian history and so recent too. I would 100% recommend visiting these two sites if you ever go to Cambodia. The 7 hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is totally worth it. If you don’t think you can handle some of the content, you can skip audio tracks at any time.
16 years ago there is no way I would have been able to step inside these two memorials. My OCD ‘wouldn’t have let me’, he is like a bully in my head (yes I think of my OCD as a he, not sure why). He would have been telling me that visiting this site would put a bad omen on me, that a dead spirit might take over my body or even worse make me kill people… or some stupid thing like that. OCD makes me think bad things are going to happen whenever I feel uncomfortable and I used to believe it… it’s a bitch of an illness to have, makes me sound cuckoo!
When I was 13 years old, already in CBT therapy, my mum thought it would be a good idea to take me and a couple of friends to the London Dungeons…. it was a very bad idea… not even half way through, my mum had to take me out of the emergency exit crying. This was mortifying as at 13 years old, on your birthday, all you want to do is be as tough as your friends… no one wants to be the wimp! In all fairness to my mum, I don’t think she expected it to be as scary as it was, I mean, kids way younger than me were in there and loving it. My bully OCD was well on form that day!
I’ve come a long way from that constantly frightened teenager. Luckily I don’t suffer from it in the same way I used to… I mean heck, I have just visited two of the most gruesome sites in the world and I’m fine. I slept like a baby and no nightmares *touching wood*. It’s such a great feeling no longer being bound by the bully that used to control me. I am travelling the world visiting amazing sites when only 15 years ago I couldn’t even get on a bus! For anyone reading this struggling with anxiety or OCD, there is a way out, it’s a long way out but you’ll get there if you just push yourself and be brave.
Whilst sat in the lobby the following morning waiting for our bus to Sihanoukville, Sarah appears from nowhere running towards us saying she needs help. I was really worried at first, thinking something bad had happened to her… but to our amusement, she had only gone and eaten a ‘happy pizza’ at 10am! Now a ‘happy pizza’ contains mushrooms, not the kind you buy from a supermarket if you get what I mean. She was hysterical and I kind of wished we had tried a happy pizza too! Although I’m not sure my brain needs anything else to add to my imagination!
Our bus arrived and we had to leave poor Sarah to find her own enlightened path. We were off to the coast for a well-earned relaxing break from travelling!