Cambodia – Day Four – Phnom Penh & Khmer Rouge

“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”
― Roman Payne

I can tell you confidently by now that I fell in love with Cambodia. The people, the way they smile, the way so many of them appear so happy so often took me. Exuberance is the right word. The food over and over again was so real and flavorful. Sure, the constant and desperate selling of anything got annoying. The beggars were certainly not a pleasant sight. But if one spends some time with the modern history of Cambodia these troubles become something to tend to, not to hate. Especially when you take into account how much the reason their history went the way it did is because of American bombs and meddling.

Many of these people have not been given a chance for any other choice. The beggars really have no other option, they have nothing to try to sell and there is no such thing as government assistance. Those that do are the ones you find annoying as they aren’t selling you something you want. Others higher up the chain are selling things people want, but may not suit you at the moment and you have already been through the gauntlet of others. These people were giving it their all. They were learning languages spanning English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese in order to communicate with those that would buy from them. They would happily explain things to me in regards to what I was looking at buying. Some would steer me in a direction that meant more money for them, while others would steer me in the direction of something more authentic. Some, once being rejected of a sale, would happily talk. Just to talk. To hear your English and practice theirs.

For a people who had one-third of their population eradicated from the face of the planet, most of whom were the educated and city dwellers, it remains remarkable to me of their resilience. The ability to come back, despite entire pools of DNA being gone. You see, the Khmer Rouge were thorough killers. If the father was to be killed, so too were his children, wife, parents, and anyone else near his bloodline. Pol Pot did not want young children growing up hating and resenting him.

A dark subject, but much of human history is. It is important to remember these things and to remember their genesis. Your high school history book likely covered but a skimming of this subject, if it did at all. Any lesson I have seen of it was surely not deep enough to give a clear understanding of how it went down and how red our American hands are. Be certain there are many other red hands though.

Our first real day started with meeting Ken outside the hotel. We got in his tuk-tuk and he warned us to keep tight hold of our bags. Bag snatching is a problem in Phnom Penh, luckily we never ran into such a problem. We first headed outside of town to the [Killing Fields]( This allowed for a ride through much of Phnom Penh and take it in. He stopped on the roadside and bought all three of us surgical masks. It is a dusty ride and it didn’t take long for us to be glad Ken bought them for us. Most the locals do the same, we just felt a little silly.

We made it to the Killing Fields and took the very worthwhile audio tour. If you have an interest in the subject I urge you to read about it. These posts do not allow the kind of depth needed to explain it all. The first two photos are of the monument Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek houses the bones the have been recovered from the mass graves throughout the site. Powerful, indeed. Clothes, belongings, and bones are still coming up from the ground today. The audio tour did a wonderful job of explaining, in detail, the history of how the site came to be and how it was used by the Khmer Rouge. It contained stories told by survivors and escapees and did its best to explain the sounds one would have heard in and around.

Examples such as the ceremonial songs of Khmer Rouge being pumped over the loud speaker at night to muffle the sounds and screams of those being executed. To call this dark is an understatement. After the Killing Fields, we rode over to Tuol Sleng Security Prison, or S-21 Prison. The prison facility was used to detain suspects, torture them, and if they did not die there, later be shipped off to the Killing Fields. The photo below is of one of the buildings, the front would have been covered in fencing and barbed wire. Especially tight at the upper floors to keep people from attempting suicide.

There is so much more to tell about this time of our trip. For anyone interested I would be happy to talk about it. There is too much to go through here, and a bit too graphic. So on to simpler subjects. After the prison we needed to lighten up a little and headed over to the Russian Markets.

An impressive selection of food, art, clothing, souvenirs, knock-offs, packed into tiny little isles. Look once, and you’ll be asked to look again. “I make you good price!” And likely they would. My tactic ended up being to offer half the asking price, and walk away if I didn’t get it. I’m sure I was still not getting the best price even with that mark down. I bought some wood and marble Buddhas, some local silk, a couple canvas paintings, and some T-shirts with Khmer on them. It was a fun time exploring the markets in each city we went through on the trip, although Cambodia’s felt the most real. Later in Saigon, there would be a lady that would grab my arm and attempt to drag me to her stall. That was an experience.

We headed back to The Pavilion to rest up before trying to have another big night out. This one would prove more successful, but it also had a mind of its own. After reading a while on the web to find out where we should start, I decided to make our way to The Garage. I had read that the bar had a Spotify account with big music fans choosing what to play. Seemed like a solid choice to get started with, perhaps we could gather further intel from there on where to go after that.

I won’t bore you with details from the entire night, but needless to say we had a lot of fun and we got to see some real color of Phnom Penh at night. We met a great gang of folks at Garage, all expats living and working in Phnom Penh. Some of them just real folks who left their world, others were perhaps a little off their wagon but gave some great flavor for the night. Two of these guys took us to a seedy bar in another area of town where more people who really live in Phnom Penh go out. That’s when it got a little more real.

We had some great conversations and saw some silly things. Left to right: Jeff, the owner, James, his friend, and Sean, the Londoner. Jeff is from LA, and James hails from Brooklyn. We didn’t get pictures with any of those off-the-wagon folks, though I wish I had to help illustrate it all. I’m sure I cannot write in such a way to let you appreciate our flamingo dancer friend. For more, someone else has done a better job of interacting with some of the rougher edges of Phnom Penh. For which, it is unfortunately well known.

This next photo is of the seedy bar. I was invited to spray paint the walls and there was a very enthusiastic Aussie who owned the place. Something I won’t soon forget.

The seedy place. I like dive bars, but this takes the cake.

By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.