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The Lawless city of Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Saturday, 14 June 2008 | Views [4446]

12th June 2008

I arrived in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, at about 6pm after a 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap. I dropped my bags off at a guesthouse, and went out to explore the town immediately. I walked along the main road, which took past Independence Monument in the middle of a roundabout (unremarkable), then up past the Royal Palace to the main tourist strip along the river called Sisowath Quay.

I walked up and down Sisowath Quay (which isn't very long) a few times, before I found a restaurant to eat some dinner. But by this point I was fed up with the city already. Within 3 hours of arriving, I had been pestered by tuk-tuk drivers to take a ride in the tuk-tuk (which is common everywhere); but also to buy marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc; and repeated offers to visit prostitutes/brothels for some "boom-boom" (I find it hilarious how "boom-boom" actually passes for a noun all over South-East Asia); constant pestering by child-hawkers trying to sell books. This all takes place in front of the police, who simply pay no attention. All of this within 3 hours, AND while stepping over rubbish which carpets the back streets, stopping one child from trying to pickpocket my bag, and averting a group of guys trying to rob me by pulling out my large pocket knife.

13th June 2008

After a sleep-in, I went to find where Stephen was staying. We went for breakfast together, and then I hired out a bicycle for the day.

I met Stephen later at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. The museum was simple in its layout, starting with the cells as they looked when in use - just the metal frame of the bed to which prisoners were chained at their hands and feet; the floor under the bedframe permanently stained with the blood of the various occupants. In each room was a photograph exhibiting the condition of the prisoners in the room - these photographs are themselves evidence of how cold-hearted and brutally meticulous the Khmer Rouge Regime had been.

I am not one to be affected emotionally by these types of museums normally; it is a simple case of struggling to relate to the plight of the victims and the period in which these tragedies (e.g. WWII) occurred. But the Khmer Rouge is so recent that one does not have to stretch the imagination far. The simple layout of the museum was very effective. I felt sick to the stomach just after visiting a few rooms; nauseous to the point of contemplating vomiting either in the room or outside - but holding it in just to avoid embarrassment.

Then I found myself nearly in tears whilst I slowly walked through rooms filled with photographic headshots of the prisoners of S-21, all of whom would have been executed. I was struck most by the photos of the children and babies, to whom no mercy would have been shown despite the innocence in their eyes. I looked at each photo, one-by-one, just because I felt like each of these people, particularly the children, deserved to be remembered by someone having suffered a pointless death. I still have a clear image of one of the children, in particular, in my mind.

One of the rooms contained the weapons that were used for executions. The Khmer Rouge, in an attempt to save ammunition, often would use a spade to snap the spine at the back of the neck; or drown the prisoners; or simply torture them to death with all manner of instruments. Babies were often killed by grabbing them at the feet and smacking them against a tree. The soldiers that committed these atrocities were not always adults, but sometimes child-soldiers who had their conscience eroded from an early age. How could anyone believe that this was for the greater good? True, many people were oblivious to what was actually happening (or at least, oblivious about the scale of the atrocities being committed), but how were those higher up in the political party able to rationalise these acts with political philosophies?

The evening was spent with Stephen in FCC (another branch of the same bar I went to in Siem Reap), before heading back.

14th June 2008

Stephen headed into Vietnam today, so I was back by myself again. I cycled to the bus station to buy a ticket for the next day, and then to the Central Market to see the art deco architecture (built 1937) and visit the stalls, which were selling mainly silver and gold jewellery.

I felt quick weak in the morning, which I put down to hunger, lack of sleep, and/or the malaria pills. So I then cycled to the east side of town to get a good old english-breakfast from an english pub (I had had a craving for an English breakfast for some time). But I still didn't feel quite right.

I cycled slowly to a nearby art gallery, to have a look at what Cambodian artists had to offer. But I could not keep concentration. I felt like I was going to collapse unconscious at any stage, and I repeatedly had to sit down to rest and breath and drink some water.

I realised that something was wrong with my health and grow increasingly concerned as I felt my strength depleting and as a faintness started to take over me. My main worries were (1) if something happens to me, it will probably be a day before anyone finds me, and (2) if I need medical treatment, then I would need an emergency evacuation to Bangkok, Thailand, because the hospitals in Cambodia are not up to a decent standard (according to both of my guidebooks).

I very slowly cycled back to my guesthouse. Before going to my room, I attempted to ask the person at reception to check up on me in a couple of hours to see if I was okay, but unfortunately the person at reception did not speak enough English to understand. So I slowly went to my room (it took me about 5 minutes just to make it up the 5 flights of stairs). I had a rehydration treatment (which is always my first port of call when I feel unwell) and tried to go to sleep (which I did with difficulty, as I felt so weak I was not sure whether I would wake up...I was astonished by this point that I had managed to keep going for as long as I did without collapsing).

Fortunately, I did wake up after a few hours, but still incredibly weak. It took me 1.5 hours, though, before I mustered up enough strength to lift myself out of bed. And I found I had two new symptom, fever and headache. My first-aid thermometer indicated a temperature of 39.1C (which according to the enclosed instructions, meant that I should have sought medical treatment immediately). I started to worry again, and took a couple of ibuprofen tablets to deal with the fever and headache, and another rehydration treatment sachet.

I headed down to an internet cafe a bit later to speak to Rebecca. I decided to walk, as I was took weak to cycle. But by the time I settled into the internet cafe, I was starting to feel stronger. After a few hours there I felt considerably better...sitting directly under the air-conditioner cooled me down, and just hearing Reb's reassuring voice helped alot.

I decided to postpone any self-assessment about the state of my health until the next morning. I did not want to over-react by unnecessarily seeking medical treatment and, as a result of that, wasting time.

The next day I felt alot stronger, and decided to stick to my initial plans of travelling to Kratie. I put the previous days events down to dehydration - it is possible that I failed to take in enough water while I was cycling around the city, which was exacerbated by the glasses of wine I had had in FCC. A lesson learned!

Torture techniques.

Torture techniques.

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