Happy People Despite a Sad History

The night bus was surprisingly comfortable.  We chose the budget option which meant we almost had a bed, but the backs only recline 70% in order to fit more people on the bus.  We didn’t get on until almost 1 am, even though our ticket said 11:45pm.  Once on, we packed ourselves in (sorry no pics, it was fairly chaotic and then dark) and drifted off to sleep.  If you want to imagine it, it is like 20 bunk beds lined up along the sides of the bus with back rests that extend down on top of the next passengers leg area.  It does the job and you fall asleep in one city and wake up in another, so it is pretty cool.  Apparently we stopped twice for bathroom breaks, but I didn’t wake up either time.  Ear plugs are crucial.  John is a light sleeper, so he didn’t sleep quite as well as I did.  We arrived in Phnom Penh at 7am and were once again greeted with tons of tuk-tuk drivers trying to give us a ride.  We didn’t have a guesthouse booked yet, so we just needed some time to wander and get our bearings. We told the drivers to let us be for a bit to get ourselves in order because we just woke up and they surprisingly backed off a little.  The Cambodians are so friendly, they do what they can to make a living, but they are not nearly as intense as the tuk-tuk and taxi drivers in Thailand.  We found a little cafe/guesthouse and ate some food while we did a little research on rooms.  We found a place for us and a separate hostel for Alex and headed off to check in.  Our guesthouse was able to arrange a Vietnam visa for us, so we dropped our passports off first thing in the morning so we could get them back the following day.

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No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without a trip to the genocide museum and the killing fields.  The country has such a sad history but the people are so nice.  The restaurant owners, the tuk-tuk drivers, the kids playing at their schools, and pretty much anyone you come in contact with will start a friendly conversation with you.  The cities are full of smiling people.  It is hard to fathom the death and destruction that occurred in this very city just 40-50 years ago.  We hired a tuk-tuk driver for $12 for the day and headed out to the genocide museum where we toured S-21, an old high school converted into a prison where the Khmer Rouge used to take Cambodian people hostage and torture them until they confessed to crimes they did not commit.  The visit was sad and humbling, but a necessary trip in order to educate ourselves about such events.

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The next stop would be even harder to take.  Since that was the case, we grabbed some delicious food from a place that had a lot of local clientele before continuing on our way to the killing fields.  We needed that mental break.  The road to the fields was dusty and extremely bumpy.  The streets were narrow and had vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing for a clear path.  We covered our faces to lessen the amount of junk we were inhaling.  We arrived at the killing fields, paid our $6 entrance fee and grabbed a headset to listen to the tour.  I won’t go into too much detail about the tour because it was very sad and depressing.  In summary, this was a location in the countryside near Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge would take people (men, women, children, infants, mostly educated) and kill them in mass graves.  The site had over 100 mass graves which contained hundreds of innocent people.  The tour was well done and extremely emotional.  It made me really appreciate how the Cambodian culture has been able to move forward despite a loss of more than 25% of their population not too long ago.

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Enough depressing stuff!  We got back to town and ate at the same local spot we had for lunch – it was that good!  After a leisurely dinner, we had a chill night relaxing in the guesthouse because we were exhausted from our short night of sleep on the night bus followed by a day of intense, emotional sightseeing.

We woke up the next day and finished touring some buildings in the genocide museum that we missed the previous day.  The rest of the day was really relaxing as we checked out the day market, grabbed some good food with milk green tea and oreo shakes and headed to a nice little movie theater called flicks.  You pay $3.50 for the day and can watch all sorts of movies.  We watched A Birder’s Guide to Everything and The Killing Fields.  Both were really well done and we got to chill in an air conditioned room with comfy couches and pillows.

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We went by the night market after the movies and then strolled along the riverfront and saw the royal palace.  As we passed the palace, a local guy threw something that looked like a badminton birdie at us.  We soon realized we were supposed to kick it back and we engaged in a Cambodian version of hacky sack.  We played for nearly an hour, only communicating with shouts of excitement and laughter until we were all exhausted and sweaty.  It was a super cool experience.  We got back to our guesthouse at 1 am, picked up our new visas, and booked a bus for the next morning to country number 5 – Vietnam!  First stop: Ho Chi Minh City!

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When we planned this trip, I never expected Cambodia would end up being one of my favorite countries.  As much as I was looking forward to our next adventure, I was genuinely sad to leave these amazing people and this welcoming country.  We are already planning our next trip back.

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One thought on “Happy People Despite a Sad History

  1. Wow. As I’m trying to write a comment, my baby is pooping on me. I’m so happy for you and so glad you went to Cambodia. Have fun in Vietnam!!!

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