Having thoroughly enjoyed my time in Vietnam, I was sad to leave, and spent my time on the bus to Cambodia thinking about how quickly I could travel the around the rest of South East Asia to give me as much time possible back in Vietnam when I return to China.
Like most of South East Asia, I had done painfully little research on what to see in Cambodia. It was in truth, on my list of places to visit for only two reasons:
First, it has the magnificent ruins at Ankor Wat,
Second… well, it’s the quickest way to get from Vietnam to Thailand without flying.
So as I sat on the bus to Phnom Penh (a capital it has taken my the best part of a week to learn to pronounce correctly) I thought about how I might be able to get through Cambodia as quickly as possible. Why stop at Phnom Penh at all I thought. Why not just transfer and jump straight on a bus going onto Siem Reap to see Ankor Wat and then get out to Thailand? What was there to see in Phnom Penh? Was I just using it as an excuse to break up the journey?
Wrestling with these thoughts, I finally made up my mind as we drew into Phnom Penh that I would not go straight to Ankor Wat. Anytime saved, would I thought, be subsequently lost due to exhaustion, and besides, there was something to see at Phnom Penh – everyone travelling through Cambodia knows that Phnom Penh is where you go to see the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge and their notorious prison, house in a former school where countless Cambodians were tortured and murdered. It’s one of those places people say “you just feel you have to go” so I found a hostel in the centre of town, and booked two nights, before heading out for food and beer (50 cents here – damn inflation) and then bed, ready to see the Killing Fields the next day.
Except I didn’t. Waking up, I found myself asking “why do I want to see the killing fields?” and “what did I think it would achieve other than depressing me?” If you’ve read some of my earlier blog posts you may remember that I found myself asking similar questions after my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, a thoroughly depressing experience. I’d been asked on several occasions if my travels have made me a more spiritual person – and to be honest I don’t think they have (although I am willing to claim that they have if my fellow interlocutor is an attractive lady…) – however whilst my trip hasn’t made me more spiritual, what it has done, and what has been one of its highlights, is shown me the generosity and kindness and just plain basic to honest goodness of people the world over, whatever language, religion or government they follow. It’s a hugely uplifting thing – especially when you are travelling alone and sometimes feel the comforts of home, with its comfortable familiarity and safety net of friends and family so far away – to understand that kindness, good deeds and people’s basic moral compass seems to be values held far more universally than we sometimes believe in our little island off Europe. All of this was playing on my mind as I thought about visiting the Killing Fields. Perhaps I can be accused of just blindly ignoring the darker side of humanity to fit with the happy narrative I’ve just outlined, but as I sat in my hostel bed, 9 months in, 8,000km from home, I just plain didn’t want to go to a place that would show how that narrative can sometimes be crushed under foot by twisted, evil people who seem able to crop up at intervals throughout world history.
So I didn’t go – and I’m glad – and my memories of Phnom Penh are now happy ones of a seemingly relaxed pace of life, where tourists numbers didn’t feel overwhelming, where the kindness of the locals is palpable and where there are many beautiful buildings to explore, a river-front to pass the time quietly observing and good food – I even found a Lebanese restaurant for a tasty break from noodles noodles and more noodles.
Now just to clarify – I am not suggesting travellers to this region blindly ignore the history of the Khmer Rouge. To understand Cambodia today without knowing something of its history would be impossible. But having read up on it, if you are passing between Vietnam and Siem Reap – but do not fancy the experience of seeing the Killing Fields, please don’t feel there is no other reason to stop at Cambodia’s charming capital. I only spent one full day here, but could have spent several lazy days. I found it a really nice contrast to the slightly soulless, full-on city experience of Ho Chi Minh city, and the party-town drug scene you can find in Siem Reap.
Just maybe don’t get your hair cut here…