Day 6 – Phnom Penh/Ho Chi Minh City

Silence / Day 6 of 64 / 15 May

Today was our second and final day in Phnom Penh. We sort of wished we had allocated more time for this amazing and bustling city. With no time to waste, we woke up at 8am and left Pich Guest House. We headed for a corner stall and we had some pork and beef noodles in fish broth for breakfast there.

Having consumed our soupy breakfast, we were energised and took a Grab tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum [សារមន្ទីរឧក្រិដ្ឋកម្មប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍ទួលស្លែង, Saromontir ukredth kamm braly pouchsasa tuol sleng].

The Grab app is a definite must for travel around any South East Asian country. What would’ve been a 10 USD tuk-tuk ride cost us only 6400 KHR, or 2 USD, via the Grab app. There’s no need to worry about being charged the “tourist price”.

Not only was the tuk-tuk cheap, it was also more environmentally friendly. Here’s the interior of a new generation of CNG tuk-tuks.

After a short fifteen minute ride, we arrived at the museum. The admission fee was 3 USD. For 8 USD/10 SGD, you can get an audio tour and admission. We paid for one audio tour and shared the audio device. The audio tour is highly recommended. The guide will inform you of the various atrocities the Khmer Rouge committed at Tuol Sleng, also known as S21 or Security Centre 21.

The entrance to Tuol Sleng is unassuming. But behind these gates lie stories of the greatest evils. A former high school turned torture centre, it accurately describes Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”.

Tuol Sleng was just one of many centres that were established during the time of Democratic Kampuchea. This centre was established to torture and execute former Khmer Rouge cadres that were deemed to no longer be loyal to Angkar, the highly secretive organisation that presided over the Cambodian Genocide. The genocide resulted in over 3 million deaths, almost a quarter of the Cambodian population then.

Building “A” on the left housed the torture rooms. On the right are the graves of some of the last few victims of S21.

The tour highlighted the barbarism of Angkar. Civilians that merely looked “subversive” were detained, tortured, and executed. Even the wearing of spectacles was sufficient to deem one an “intellectual”, and thus an enemy of the agrarian state that Angkar had envisioned for Cambodia. During the years of the Khmer Rouge, millions of Cambodians were forced to leave the cities and work in the countryside. Millions of people that had no knowledge of farming were instructed to grow rice and other crops by equally incompetent Khmer Rouge cadres. Many died due to starvation. The farmer was upheld as the ideal Cambodian, the “old people”; and engineers, doctors, academics, and other professions were deemed to be “new people” and had to be eliminated.

The now serene compound of the museum used to be called “the place one enters but never leaves” by locals.

And with that, we left Tuol Sleng with a deeper understanding of the history that haunts Cambodia till this day. In spite of this, the Khmer people seem to be resilient. They showed no signs of being held back by the events of only 30 years ago.

After our tour, we had lunch at a small restaurant not too far from the museum. We had some Khmer style baguettes with luncheon meat. We then left for the air-conditioned AEON Mall, to escape the insane Cambodian heat and humidity. Being the fat-asses we are, we had our second lunch at a restaurant that specialised in Khmer kuay teow. Sam got a kuay teow and I got some beef stew served with baguette.

Around 12pm we took a tuk-tuk back to our guest house. We grabbed our bags and headed to Orussey Market to board our bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Mekong Express, catmekongexpress.com, 15 USD/20 SGD/pax), and all we had to do was present our e-ticket to the bus station staff for boarding. The Mekong Express bus station is located in the parking lot in front of Orussey Market’s main entrance.

The area around Orussey Market is just as bustling as inside it. The market literally spills over into the streets surrounding it.

As we were about an hour and a half early, we decided to explore Orussey Market [ផ្សារអូឬស្សី, Phsaar au ryy ssaei], which seems to be the central market of Phnom Penh. We left our bags with the station staff and entered the imposing market building. Inside, it was hot. Very hot. It was also cramped and claustrophobic. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if there was a fire. The market has three floors, each packed with stalls selling everything from cooking ingredients to children’s toys. There‘s even at least one hair salon. Orussey is the physical manifestation of “organised chaos”. People flowed like liquid between the rows and columns of shops. But yet, I couldn’t help but enjoy the vibrancy of the market and the people within it.

If you’re not a fan of small spaces and poor ventilation, stay away from Orussey Market.

Our bus departed from Orussey at 3.30pm. There were seven passengers on the minibus. We were seated behind a visibly anxious young woman. Throughout the ride, she kept searching her bag for various items, and she constantly talked to herself. Around two hours into our ride, two passengers alighted and handed the driver some cash. I’m assuming they used the intercity bus as a form of taxi back to their town on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Now, there were five passengers left. And it was then that we started to make small talk with the strange lady on the bus. It started with mundane conversation about the Cambodian weather. But soon, she was telling us her life story. She was 26, Cambodian, and could speak relatively fluent Mandarin. She works at a textile factory but is now stuck in her job because of gratitude to the person that had employed her. Her days are long, and she frequently skips meals to meet her work quotas. She is often scolded by her boss when she fails to meet these quotas. We asked her why she was headed to HCMC, something we wish we hadn’t asked, as you will soon find out why. She was going to HCMC to meet her “friend”, but she couldn’t contact him for much of the ride. This might have explained her anxiety.

Around 7pm, we were nearing Krong Bavet, the Cambodian town nearest the Vietnamese border. The anxious lady started to argue with her friend via WeChat voice note. In a span of ten minutes, she had fallen out with her friend and decided to head back to PP the next morning. When the bus driver pulled over for our last rest stop before the border, the strange lady headed across the street to a hotel to find lodging for the night.

We crossed the Cambodian border around 7.30pm. And we entered Vietnam around 8pm. The border crossing was pretty weird on the Cambodian side. A runner for Mekong Express brought our passports to get stamped ahead of us. When we arrived at Cambodian passport control, he returned us our passports and we walked the 25m out of Cambodia, without having to stop for any kind of passport control. Then, the runner took our passports again and left to get them stamped at the Vietnamese side.

We’re in Vietnam now! Clearly, I was more interested in getting back on the bus than taking a picture.

When we entered Vietnam, we observed many differences. The main difference was probably the existence of a median divider on the road. We were no longer subject to the overtaking into oncoming traffic that seemed the rule on Cambodian roads.

From the border, it was a two-hour ride to HCMC. We reached our drop off point at Pham Ngu Lao Street [Phố đi bộ Phạm Ngũ Lão], the backpacker district, at around 9.30pm. It was another 20-minute walk to our hotel, the Phuc Khanh 2 Hotel (5 SGD/night). Along the way, we bought our first Banh Mi from a street cart.

“Aaahhhhh, that’s the stuff…”

The seedy exterior hides a cozy interior.

We finally arrived around 10pm, and we were shown to our shared room. It was a shared room with eight other people, and we had to unpack very quietly to avoid disturbing them. Before we knocked out for the night, we discussed our plans for the next day, and for our next city: Hue.

Think capsule hotel, except more generous.

– Ryan

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