If there were ever a place in the world where words simply cannot describe emotions you feel when traveling through then it’s simply: Cambodia. The Kingdom, as many refer to it, has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit having grown up in Lowell, MA. For the better part of my teenage years I was exposed to Cambodia lore, culture, food, and best of all, the people. Needless to say their influence runs through me.
A great majority of my friends are of Cambodian descent, and like me, shares a sad and tragic past. Many of their parents fled during the tragic years of the Khmer Rouge, while others were left behind to live through the genocide of its people. I spent many years of my youth listening to their stories, eating from their plates, watching them blossom in both people and culture. My interactions at a young age cemented my thirst to travel here, to learn about what really happened, to feel a fraction of what they felt.
So I entered the kingdom through a land border passing going from Saigon to Phnom Penh to start my next adventure. What the next few weeks had in store for me caught me off guard entirely. Here’s my story circling the Kingdom of Cambodia:
Phnom Penh – The Capital
My first stop was the capital city of Cambodia: Phnom Penh. Being the capital it’s like any other you can find around SE Asia, albeit on a MUCH smaller scale. Sure it’s no Bangkok in size, Hanoi in liveliness or even Kuala Lumpur in tech advancements, but that’s not to say this place doesn’t have HISTORY. And history it got. Oh it has a Krispy Kreme too, you bet your ass I went there.
I spent only a few days here as from my previous experiences they can be a hit or miss in terms of what you get. I trusted my instincts on this one (staying only a few days) and in the end was proven right. BUT there is so MUCH you can and NEED to do while you are here. Sure the hotel rooftop bars and air-con malls would be nice in Cambodia’s SWELTERING heat (the hottest in all of Asia in my opinion), but this isn’t the blog post for that.
The Killing Fields
Yes, this is one of those things you NEED to do. The Killing Fields can be found ALL OVER the Kingdom and there is one just outside of the capital city. During the Khmer Rouge’s rule they performed many ATROCITIES in the name of one man: Brother number 1 (Pol Pot.) Every person I met that was affected by this genocide recounts things that one could only find in Hollywood horror movies. For this injustice I wanted to learn everything I can about it, much like I did with the Vietnam War while I spent time there.
Why do this, why bring yourself to such an immense level of sadness when you’re on vacation? Simply put: to turn a blind eye towards the past is the same as spitting on it. Cambodia’s past is both as BEAUTIFUL as it is TRAGIC and coming here is a lesson in the stories we should never forget.
I took a tour booked through my hostel with a few mates and went out on a day we knew was going to be heavy in the feels. Coming up to the entrance gate to pay your admission and grab your headset you can already feel it come over you. The chill down your spine despite it being a humid, tropical day, your hair standing on ends. You don’t forget feelings like those, and I haven’t even gone inside yet.
We spent a couple of hours with our guided headsets walking through the grounds that morning. We peeked into the memorial at the more than 9,000 skulls laid to rest, took in the views of the many burial mounds where prisoners were thrown in alive, walked around the lake in which people were drowned, saw a beggar and his son on the other side of a fence that kept them from escaping. The stories I was listening to were chilling, haunting, something you think was part of a nightmare, but still fell short of the real thing.
be prepared with all the feels you have, it’s heavy.
I don’t want to take away from what you can gain by listening to those stories yourself, but I will warn you: be prepared with all the feels you have, it’s heavy. These fields can be found all over Cambodia which is one of the saddest thought I’ve ever had to put through my head. Do the people of Cambodia justice, come and learn about what really happened about their genocide, this place is a good start.
In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed this high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Now the grounds have been converted into a museum for the public and the second place of our tour. The boots are really heavy today.
We venture into the courtyard after receiving our headset guide in language of choice and was met with an eerie silence. Normally you can find hordes of tourists gazing at buildings, standing on things for photos, meandering in large groups, but not here. Everyone who walked through came in with respect for the grounds, and to do otherwise is unacceptable.
The Khmer Rouge used this as a torturing facility where former classrooms became the last place a prisoner would enter, alive. In the middle of the courtyard hung nooses for those whom they convicted of wrongdoing on baseless accusations. Other prisoners were kept dozens if not hundreds to a room tied together with makeshift shackles. To wash the prisoners the guards would shoot a hose through an opening in the window. If you got wet then consider that your shower for the week. Other rooms hosted a solitude cell made from bricks that lined up wall to wall. Inmates unlucky enough to find themselves here were shackled by the ankle with just a feces bucket making for company.
They did everything they could to break people’s spirits in this place. Worse of all was they wouldn’t kill you right away – just kept you alive long enough to wish you were dead. The museum displayed photographs of people who were brought here. Fathers, mothers, brothers, daughters, aunts, uncles, children, grandparents, even a few foreigners were pictured. Putting faces to these stories was heart wrenching.
In January of 1979 the Vietnamese army liberated S-21 Prison and what they found was the gruesome tale of what went on. In some of the rooms laid seven decomposing bodies with warm blood beneath the bed. These seven were the last victims of S-21 Prison. They were never identified, but burial monuments for them were erected on the site.
During my time here I learned more about this genocide than I had a heart big enough to put all my feelings in. While I was at both The Killing Fields and S-21 I opted to not take many photos out of respect for the tragedies that occurred here. The stories you hear from the people who made it out alive will live with you far longer than that photo ever will.
I was looking to lighten the load by a considerable amount after experiencing all of that in the capital. Kampot was the perfect destination to get away from the big city and seclude oneself back to basics. I boarded a shuttle with other backpackers bounded for Kampot in search of some lightheartedness.
Don’t expect WiFi signal everywhere
Once arriving at the city center after a BUMPY ride (roads, or lack thereof, was riddled with potholes big enough to swallow semis!) I haggled with a tuk-tuk for a ride to my eco friendly hostel. What is an eco-friendly hostel you may ask? For starters there are no real toilets in the western sense at least, toilet paper was extra, non existent air-con aside from ceiling fans, beds equipped with mosquito nets, walls made out bamboo and banana leaves tied together. Don’t expect WiFi signal everywhere you walk either, there’s a communal space for that!
Even without creature comforts the hostel I stayed at left me with a wonderful experience. My first at an eco-friendly, and definitely wasn’t my last. The few days I spent there gave me a better sense of my carbon-footprint while I was traveling and at home. Over the course of my advent I was increasingly becoming more conscious about.
Kampot is famously known for that spiky, stinky fruit that isn’t allowed remotely near any hostel dorm room: durian. (I honestly don’t know why, DURIAN IS AMAZING!) There is even a statue of it in the center of town, with its own parade to boot. So what does one do when they find themselves in the land of durian if it isn’t your jam? Don’t worry I got you:
Bokor Mountain is only a 45 minute scooter ride away if you want to escape all the durian smell. The road to Bokor is one of the nicest paved roads in the country! The way up was such a pleasant surprise that I took my time on the twisty bits to really enjoy the scenery. At the top there is an abandoned church (part of Bokor Hill Station) who’s backyard is a sheer cliff making for an epic backdrop. Grab a selfie or two there but definitely BE CAREFUL. You can also find a casino, a rather large one at that, all the way up here as well, pretty random if you asked me.
I randomly ran into a hostel mate of mine that I met back in Phnom Penh who also took the tour with me earlier in this post. I swear you never know who you will run into again on these trips! The world is a large place but re-encounters like this were so refreshing.
views from the top looking back down to Kampot and Kep are amazing.
The attraction here is truly the road getting to the summit. The views from the top looking back down to Kampot and Kep are amazing. Get there before the clouds start rolling in or else it will look like a scene out of Silent Hill. Pack a light jacket too because it gets a wee BIT nippy at the top!
Black peppercorn is a STAPLE in these parts and Cambodia is known to grow some of THE BEST in the world here. Lucky for you La Plantation is an easy 40 minute scooter ride from Kampot and does daily (free) tours of their facilities. Here you can learn what kind of peppercorns are grown, how they are grown and how they are harvested. Take your time to chat it up with the local ladies who work these fields, some of the most humbling experiences you can encounter on your trip. Plus the peppercorn tastes fantastic so stick around post tour for a tasting! Ask about the peppercorn infused vodka!
Since you’re out all this way you might as well make it to Kep where they’re known for their seafood but ESPECIALLY their blue crabs! A short ride from La Plantation you can find yourself in this beach town in no time flat. Filled with white sand and flocks of tourists enjoying the hot sun and warm waters. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon if you’ve been out all day riding around under the relentless Cambodian sun.
The fish market is WELL KNOWN in this town and for good reasons. Literally walk to the back of the market, speak to any of the ladies working, and ask for two blue crabs cooked in Kampot peppercorn. Wait five to ten minutes and you will be served one of the BEST and CHEAPEST seafood meals around. Freshly caught crabs cooked with freshly grown peppercorns, and a cold beer – life doesn’t get better than this!
After your dinner you should scoot your way to the top of Kep National Park or trek up it to work off those newly gained calories. The highest peak in Kep, it overlooks both the shore and the ocean, providing one of the nicest view in Cambodia.
Getting there can be tough but with a scooter you can power your way through. A cafe is situated up there, closed when I visited, but plenty of benches to catch a glimpse of the setting sun. In the distance you can also see Phu Quoc, an island belonging to Vietnam.
I met a nice chap on his scooter up there that day and we exchanged a short conversation. The sun was setting we discussed our plans, full of the whats, whys, wheres of traveling. It was so nice to have that conversation and makes me happy knowing that these moments, short and random, can be the ones you remember the longest.