As mentioned yesterday, the hotel room in Phnom Penh was really pretty basic – and the air conditioning decided to suddenly work over efficiently at 2am, leading to me waking up freezing cold in the middle of the night! Still, I slept… On and off… During the night and we met at 7:30 for breakfast in the hotel.
Breakfast here is served in a seating area outside of the Fire Protection shop which oddly is located deep in the hotels courtyard. I guess it works for them, and hey – at least we know there’s plenty of fire extinguishers available if we need them!
For breakfast here, there’s very little self service – one of the hotel staff brought a small piece of laminated paper with 5 options on it, and then disappeared to bring you whatever you ordered. Today I didn’t feel like negotiating so I ordered the Scrambled Eggs and Bacon and just left the bacon, which was really fatty anyway!
At 8 we met our tour guide for Phnom Penh – an expert local guide who knew all about the local events. Our time in Phnom Penh is centred around the Pol Pot massacres. The first stop was the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek – now advertised as a Genocidal Center.
If you’re not familiar with the Pol Pot stories – in the space of 4 years he came to power and almost 2 million Cambodian citizens were killed – either through killing fields or by starvation, sickness or torture and murder in prison. The whole story is pretty horrifying and feels incredible recent and relevant. The exact details of all of the history are still fairly unknown since much of the worst atrocities were carried out in remote locations, blindfolded and those committing the atrocities were also finally killed before the Vietnamese invaded and brought down the Pol Pot regime.
At the site that we visited, over 12,000 people were murdered – most of them without the use of guns since bullets were expensive. Our guide talked us through some of the methods of murder, the tortures imposed upon some of the women and children and the mass graves where people would see their final breath. I found this such a terrible and upsetting place to be, but was keen to understand all of the events and what had gone on.
I’ve put all the photos at the bottom of this article – some of them are quite upsetting. Please feel free to stop reading after the text, if you don’t want to see them.
Feeling subdued after the visit to the killing fields, our next stop was the prison known as S21 – originally called a ‘Re-education centre” – the official name now is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This building started life as a high-school, before being repurposed by the Pol Pot regime into a prison. During the time of the regime there was little use for a school, since all children (well, all citizens) were expected to work in the land and educated people were eradicated. It was estimated that after the fall of the regime, only 15% of the people in Cambodia had received any sort of education – all those who had previously been educated were the targets of the regime and were eliminated.
Inside the museum, we walked between the four buildings where prisoners were kept. Conditions decreased as we progressed, from the building A known as the ‘VIP’ building (each prisoner had their own fairly sizeable room), through to cells of less than a meter in the later buildings. The stories of the conditions in the prison come primarily from the accounts of 5 survivors who were found alive hiding in a kitchen after the fall of the regime. Their tales are far too graphic to write here, but can easily be found with a Google search if you’re interested.
None of us made it all the way around the museum, with most of us ducking out before the third building. It was simply too much to hear and see the awful events that had gone on just a few years ago in this place.
After the museum, we all agreed that we needed a change in pace and Dek suggested a ‘blind massage’ – a local organisation runs massages staffed by blind people, called Seeing Hands. Most of the group made our way by a $2 tuktuk to the massage place, and booked ourselves in for a $7 massage. The massage was quite an experience – we were given cotton pyjamas to change into and then lay on a table in a room with around 6 other people, and our masseur came and joined us. There was no talking, just a really deep massage which was actually really good but lying in a dark room did have me thinking a lot more about the sites of the morning – perhaps reflection time wasn’t what was needed.
On the way back from the massage, our tuktuk driver insisted he knew where our hotel was and then proceeded to drive us the wrong way up our street. We spotted some house numbers which looked wrong, and turned him around, which led to more confusion as on the way back, the numbers seemed to be going in the wrong direction still… After 2 or 3 tries, we figured out where we are, but reading online afterwards it appears that in Phnom Penh, the street numbers are often not sequential and in fact there can easily be two or more places with the exact same number on the same street. People navigate there with cross-street numbers, so if you’re travelling there – try to learn the cross street of your hotel, not just the number!
Once we got back to the hotel, I treated myself to a western style Pizza for a late lunch before relaxing in the hotel. My laundry arrived back fully washed and folded, and I happily gave the hotel staff $4 for the laundry. It was a disappointment to find that the laundry place had written with pen on all of the labels of my clothes to identify my room number – not a nice discovery! Still, it’s done now and for $4 I didn’t expect a great service!
This evening I booked myself a separate activity to the rest of the group. Dek had arranged for everyone to go to a restaurant where they could try local creepy crawlies for dinner – which didn’t sound like my kind of thing. So instead, I booked Dine in the Dark.
If you’ve never heard of Dine in the Dark before – it’s a restaurant experience where you learn to experience life as a blind person would. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I headed there and ordered the vegetarian menu – there’s no choice about what you get, and half of the fun is discovering the food you’re presented with. It’s not a cheap option in Cambodia – $18 for the meal plus drinks – but you’re paying for the experience and supporting local blind people, so I was happy to pay it.
After ordering, I was asked to submit anything I had on my person which had a light – camera, phone and watch went into a locked box and I was given the key for the box. After this I was introduced to my waiter for the evening, Fredro. He introduced himself and asked me to place my hand on his shoulder and follow him.
He guided me to a staircase and upstairs, where the light level quickly fell off before we turned through a black velvet curtain into darkness, then through 2 more curtains before reaching complete black.
It was really surreal having absolutely no idea what was surrounding me. Fredro announced that we had reached my table, and I felt around to find my chair and establish how much space was there between the chair and the table – enough to sit without having to pull it out. I sat and Fredro then introduced me to the items on the table – including a napkin, knife, fork, spoon and water glass. I had to feel around to find each of these items but obviously finding them is important to eating dinner.
Shortly after sitting down, Fredro brought me a beer which I had ordered and we chatted a little bit – and then the food started to arrive. I won’t spoil the surprise by describing what I ate, but it was an amazing experience having to feel to find my plate, figure out what was on there and then how to eat it without knowing everything’s location. It was such a thought provoking experience, being unable to identify things by look meant everything was about touch.
After my 3 courses were finished, I realised one of the really big problems when it comes to blindness. I wanted to get the attention of a waiter, to let them know that I’d finished but it’s impossible to make eye contact in a blind world, and the waiters were talking amongst themselves which meant that speaking out would interrupt their conversation – something as a Brit I’m always loathed to do. In the end, that was my only option – and I let Fredro know that I was ready to leave, but not before I sat agonising for 15 minutes to try and communicate in a world of darkness.
After the meal, the staff presented a photograph of all the food which I’d eaten and it was really interesting to see the presentation of the dishes, which was completely irrelevant in my vision-less world. They also gave an opportunity to take a photo with my waiter, which you can see below.
I left the restaurant with my head thinking a lot about the events of the day – and the experiences I’d already had on the trip overall. Tonight I packed for the final move of the tour – tomorrow we travel to Siem Reap where we’ll end the tour. Can’t believe how quickly it’s gone!
The pictures from todays visits are on the next page, click Read More if you want to see them.