Hope you're well.
We've been in Cambodia just over a week now, and it's shaping up to be one of our favourite countries so far.
After parting company with Alice and our long journey from Vietnam involving most possible modes of transport, we spent a few nights in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Like other big Asian cities, it's noisy, crowded and hectic (and with possibly even more motorbikes per square inch than Ho Chi Minh city) but we really liked its vibrancy and lively, welcoming spirit.
We paid a visit to the very bling Royal Palace – something of a tranquil oasis in the midst of the city's bustle. Lots of ornate gilt buildings and imposing Buddha statues set in beautiful grounds, with groups of monks wandering around in their bright orange robes adding to the effect.
We also tested out our haggling skills (we're rubbish) at Phnom Penh's markets which are not for the faint-hearted. Huge, stifling places with narrow alleys and scores of stalls selling Cambodian silks and all manner of other handicrafts. Then you turn a corner and you're suddenly in the fish section with condemned crabs waving forlornly at you. Quite an attack on all the senses.
No doubt most of you are all too aware of Cambodia's horrific past. We only knew the sketchiest of history but thought it was important to learn a little more while we were there. We had a pretty tough-going day visiting the Tuol Sleng museum and the Killing Fields.
The Tuol Sleng museum used to be a high school but in 1975 was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a Khmer Rouge prison. It became the largest centre for detention and torture in the country – around 17,000 people passed through here en route to the Killing Fields.
We found visiting it a moving experience – particularly poignant as it's such recent history, and things you struggle to imagine humans capable of doing to each other happened just three decades ago. It's eerie walking round and seeing the tiny cells, the gallows and thousands of haunting black and white photographs of inmates staring blankly back at you. The Khmer Rouge meticulously photographed all who spent time there.
People were exterminated at the Killing Fields a little way out of the city – often bludgeoned to death in the most horrific ways to save on the cost of bullets. The remains of nearly 900 people were exhumed in 1980 and a memorial stupa built which contains their remains. Many of the other mass graves were left untouched.
It's now a very peaceful place and as you wander round it's hard to comprehend the atrocities that went on here, but the very real reminders of pieces of bone or teeth that get brought to the surface by the rain start to bring the reality home. A difficult experience but we thought it important, in our small way, to pay our respect to these people's terrible suffering.
On a happier note, what's incredible given their dreadful past, is how resilient and warm the Cambodian people seem. They have a real sense of fun and their smiles just light up their faces – especially the kids who are just beautiful.
We enjoyed getting our chops round our first Cambodian delicacies in Phnom Penh – Amoc baked fish with coconut, chilli and lemongrass wrapped in banana leaf, and Loc Lac beef with a lemon pepper dip. Delicious.
From the capital we went Northwest to Battambang by bus (surprisingly not too bad, although the passenger in front who unblinkingly stared at us for 10 solid minutes was a trifle off-putting) but we'll post Battambang as a separate entry shortly.
Helene and Roland xxx