Choeung Ek Killing Fields, December 2015. After a couple of hours wandering around the unwaveringly grim Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, the last thing I felt like doing was going out to The Killing Fields, the place where so many Cambodian prisoners were finally put out of their misery in the mid 1970s. But in many ways seeing Choeung Ek felt like a rite of passage, as if my travel mate and I had no right heading off for the beach oases of Sihanoukville and Ko Rong until we’d finished the historical journey we’d started.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, December 2015. It wasn’t all fun and games during my stay in Phnom Penh. Somewhere along the way my travel mate and I knew we had to stop by this former torture centre to learn more about Cambodia’s dark history. The atrocities carried out here by The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s were unspeakable, and while it was surely nobody’s idea of a fun morning, I felt we owed it to the victims to see the place, hear their stories and leave a silent prayer. Located right in the heart of the city, Tuol Sleng was one of at least 150 Khmer Rouge torture centers dotted around the country between 1975-1979.
City Panoramic, December 2015. Arriving in the smoky buzz of Phnom Penh felt like the perfect Asian daydream. Winding our way towards the hotel in our tuk-tuk, there were flashes of fluorescent market stalls, locals munching on sizzling meat sticks and the spectral forms of wobbly high-rises reflecting in the River Mekong. The next morning we awoke to a glorious day of blue-sky perfection, the sun shining so impossibly bright we could barely see.
Battambang Bamboo Train, December 2015. During my wanderings around Cambodia I met plenty of fellow travellers who didn’t even bother stopping in Battambang! I can’t help but feel they really missed out; from the kooky town itself with its excellent café and restaurant scene, to the amazing beauty and history of Phnom Sampeau and the immense fun of a trip on The Bamboo Train! The latter is one of the world’s most unique rail journeys, but you’ll only need to part with five Dollars of your hard earned cash for the bumpy twenty-minute ride from O Dambong out to the tiny settlement of Sra Lav.
Phnom Sampeau, December 2015. The curious little Cambodian town of Battambang offers visitors a handful of unique sights that stand right up there with the country’s must-see attractions. One of these is Phnom Sampeau, a massive limestone outcrop 12 kilometres outside the town centre. It’s a steep forty-minute walk up to its highest roads, or you can pay an entrepreneurial moto-man four dollars to whisk you up. About halfway up the hill a side road leads you under a gate into the site of Battambang’s grisly Killing Caves. It was here that the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned hundred of people to death and tossed their bodies through the skylights of the caves. A series of highly gruesome sculptures depict the atrocities, while down in the main cave itself there’s a glass case memorial of skulls and bones. Not for the fainthearted.
Kampong Phluk, November 2015. The fascinating floating village of Kampong Phluk lies deep in the countryside of Siem Reap province, just a few hours outside the city. A sprawling community of three thousand people, many are fishermen, while those living a little further out farm for a living. Taking a day tour through a city agency, we set off in our minibus, got dumped off in the middle of rural nowhere, then followed our guide on foot to a waiting riverboat. Chugging across the murky brown water, we soon reached the village, an amazing stretch of stilted homes set at about nine meters above water level.
Tuk-tukking, December 2015. One of the many cool things about travelling is the people you meet along the way, often in amusing and unexpected situations. While some of these bonds last for just a day or two, or remain forever connected to just one special moment; it’s great when you form a friendship that goes on to outlast the trip itself. And so it proved with Daryl, who I bumped into on a bus from Siem Reap to Battambang. Crunching our way down a wild stretch of Cambodian road, we quickly got chatting and I learned that this was Daryl’s first bout of Asian exploring. I on the other hand had just called time on an experimental two months of living and teaching in Siem Reap. We were both excited to see what Cambodia had to offer and by the time we rolled up in Battambang had already drawn up plans to visit the limestone outcrop of Phnom Sampeau and ride the famous Bamboo Train. Checking into our respective hostels, we grabbed some lunch, hailed a tuk-tuk and set off!