This unique structure is the gateway from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.
Here I got from PP to HCMC:
1- Get a VISA before you go. When traveling overland from Cambodia to Vietnam, you have to get your visa beforehand. Luckily, I was staying at a fantastic hostel in PP (name it here) and I handed over my Passport and $65 to the front desk. They sent it to Kampot and it was back the next day with my Visa.
2- Book a 6-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
3- Spend an hour going through customs. (I waited much too long to get my passport back. As I watched the groups behind me get their passports, I began to suspect that the higher-cost tour companies get expedited. When they finally handed my passport back, it seemed to have a RED cover and upon closer inspection, they had given me TWO PASSPORTS folded together. I nearly walked out with the passport of some unfortunate Vietnamese woman.)
4- Arriving in HCMC and try to meet up with your friend. Troy had instructions to meet me at the bus but the drop off location isn’t always the clearly listed on the website. I had given Troy the address of the ticket office- but got dropped-off at the bus terminal. I eventually found the ticket office and contacted Troy with the Wi-Fi there.
5- Eat Phó! Troy had been staying in HCMC already and we took a cab back to the hotel, then headed out to find some Phó. Success!
This is me, in front of the royal palace as Kate & I walked to our hostel, ‘Me Mates Villa‘. (Weird name, great hostel! They organized my Vietnam visa for $65!) I ended up in PP for 4 days longer than expected but there was so much to do! Here are some things I thought were fun. Also, markets and foot massages.
4- Eat/shop/get a pedicure or use the Wi-fi at Sister’s Cafe where women learn hospitality skills to become independent. The service at Sister’s isn’t amazing because each of these woman is in training. They are learning! The food is nice, the store is adorable and the women and kind. Give them your money.
5- Have Lucky the elephant paint your t-shirt at Phnom Tamao Zoo. We paid $150 each for a behind-the-scenes tour with Wildlifealliance.com and it was totally worth it to spend time with such amazing animals and their dedicated caregivers. Please carefully research any tourist sites that feature animals as an attraction. Do not take elephant rides or selfies with tigers. Lucky the elephant has recently fallen ill and needs $40K in treatment. Donations can be made at their website.From their website: ‘Lucky was rescued from traders at the tender age of 6 months, and has been at the Center for almost 15 years. Her gentle nature has made her our Elephant Ambassador, and she has since touched the hearts of thousands and helped inspire the next generation of Cambodians to protect this Endangered species. When the injured elephant Chhouk arrived as a baby, she even took him under her wing and provided the orphaned elephant with motherly comfort. Lucky is an incredible animal that continues to inspire us all.’
All these outdoor activities may leave you dehydrated & exhausted. Plan a mid-afternoon smoothie stop then head back to your (hopefully air conditioned) hostel for a nap.
The people and sights of Phnom Penh demanded that we linger longer than Kate & I had originally planned. Since we weren’t going to make it to Koh Rong or even Kampot, we decided to do something special… meet an elephant celebrity! We did our research and found a responsible place where the animals were treated well and NO ONE RIDES THE ELEPHANTS. Just an hour drive south of PP is the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center and the permanent residence of Lucky the elephant. The center began as the national zoo and there were many war-torn years when the animals survived solely because the locals fed the animals in their cages. In 2001, the Wildlife Alliance partnered with the zoo and brought in more animals confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade. This darling Gibbon was raised with humans but kept on a chain that damaged one of her feet.
She came right to the fence when she heard her favorite keeper’s voice and she would throw you a concerned look over her shoulder if you stopped massaging her back. The Cambodian heat was intense (per usual) so we were ready for a lunch break and a rest in a hammock. There were many local families with picnic lunches and small children who were entertained when Kate stuck her foot in the rice and I had a hammock malfunction.
Tourists can be silly. Children can be adorable.
Some things are the same all around the world.
In my next post, Lucky the elephant paints me a T-shirt!
Since my previous posts have been about the terrible history of the Khmer Rouge, I thought I’d share an upbeat song with the lyrics, ‘Just a little bit of history repeating.”
In this version, Shirley Bassey (who sang the 1964 theme song to James Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’) is backed by The Propellerheads. Enjoy!
*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it describes a place where atrocities were committed. None of it should have happened but history continues to be repeated.
After an emotional morning at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, our trip through Cambodian history continued to The Killing Fields. I was a bit apprehensive but with Kate by my side, I took a deep breath and walked through the gates. At the end of a flower-lined path is a tall, Buddhist Stupa- a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. This regal structure holds the skull of 5,000 Cambodians- a small fraction of the 1 million people who were killed on this site.
I expected this site to have the same heaviness as Tuol Sleng but I felt a difference here. The site is thoughtfully ‘curated’. The Killing Fields were not left alone to testify to history- the memorial tower surrounded by bright flowers and shady trees lets you know; what happened in this place will not be forgotten. No one lost here will be forgotten.
The most exceptional piece of the experience is the audio tour where people tell their own stories about Choeung Ek in their own voices. This doesn’t make the experience less sad but I was grateful not to be left with my own thoughts.
I left a friendship bracelet on the bamboo fence pictured below.
After a few hours, it was time to head the 11 miles back to our Phnom Penh hostel.
The road work and traffic slowed our pace but Kate & I weren’t in the mood for cheery traveler banter. We shared a ride with a couple who had purchased a touching book called, “First They Killed My Father.” (You can purchase it on Amazon.)
This book offers a look into the privileged life of a government official’s family in 1975 – when the Khmer Rouge evacuate Cambodia’s capital city. I read out loud for an hour- everyone was mesmerized by the story and I didn’t stop reading until our Tuk-Tuk pulled up outside the hostel. Read a bit for yourself:
There is so much more to say about this day, but I will leave you with this happy glimpse into 1975.
*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it discusses a terrible event that should never have happened but continues to be repeated.
Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh. Tanks rolled through the Cambodia’s capital city and the population was forced to march back to the countryside to grow crops like the Chinese Communists peasant society. Below is a map of the evacuation.
Over the next four years, nearly 2 million people were exterminated as Pol Pot ‘purified’ the population. There are enough similarities to Nazi Germany that I can’t quite fathom this tragedy was still happening in 1979 not 1939. I visited Cambodia less than four decades later and the country is still recovering.
One of the more noticeable results of the genocide is the absence of older Cambodians. In 2014, the population was estimated at 16 million but only 9% of the population was over the age of 55! Today, the median age of the Cambodian population is 24.1 years-old. In the States, it’s 36.8 years-old. One of the elders I met had a spectacular story of surviving Pol Pet’s regime.
This adorable man is Bou Meng and I met him on a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Security Prison-21 (often called ‘S-21’). In 1975, S-21 was a Phnom Penh high school.
Tuol Sleng is a popular tourist destination for both local and foreign visitors interested in learning about Cambodia’s recent history and that history weighed heavy on me as I walked the corridors of this school.
Most of the rooms of the school have been left empty except for leg chains or a steel bed frame but brick cells have been built into the classrooms of one of the buildings.
Other rooms were filled with photographs like these, which documented each prisoner in a very systematic way. These photographs and detailed logs immediately brought to mind the comprehensive record-keeping done by the Nazis.
The bendable, metal clips that these girls use to pull back their bangs are just like the ones I had growing up. I have to keep reminding myself that these grainy black and white photos were taken less than 40 years ago. Below is the ‘chair’ used for procuring uniform photographs.
When the prison was liberated in 1979, a photograph was taken of the 12 people found alive that day. Bou Meng and Chum Mey were two of the survivors who have written books about their experiences. Chum Mey is also in a documentary on Tuol Sleng. (The tour guide is pointing to Bou Meng in the photo from that day.)
Both men were spared because of a certain skill they possessed that could help Pol Pot. Chum Mey was a highly skilled at repairing machines for the armed forces. Bou Meng was an artist, which normally would have marked him for immediate execution along with the scholars; but his artistic talents were used to produce Pol Pot’s likeness. Drawing propaganda posters of a tyrant kept him alive.
It is remarkable that he voluntarily comes back to the place where he was imprisoned. He comes to tell tourists about Cambodia’s history and I got a bit misty-eyed when Bou handed me his book. A big fat tear rolled down my face as he leaned over to hug me.