I must admit that before visiting Cambodia, I really did not know a lot about it. Now however I understand why this country will teach you so much about history, politics and humanity and why it is really worth going there.
From Vietnam I arrived in its capital, Phnom Penh, where I was hosted by Apollo, Nigerian and from Couchsurfing. He and his flat mate live not far from the centre in a really nice and big apartment.
Illegally in Cambodia
Apollo told me something I was quite surprised of: In Phnom Penh there are actually quite a lot of Nigerian people living. For many of them this country is more like a prison though: Back in Nigeria, they sold all their belongings just to be able to live in Asia, in hope of having a better life, which is what migrant smugglers told them in order to get their money.
Once arrived there, they suddenly realize that what people told them was wrong and that they cannot work legally with their visas. After a certain time their visas expire and they start staying in the country illegally, but they cannot return to Africa after having sold everything. And the worst: With each day they illegally stay in Cambodia, their fine when they finally leave the country would get higher – the longer they stay, the more complicated it is for them to leave. Because of their hopeless situation, many Nigerians become criminals or end up in prison.
Khmer Rouge and Autogenocide in Asia
Probably one of the most important things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit its Genocide Museum called “Tuol Sleng” or “S-21”. It certainly will not be a happy day for you, but a very important one.
This museum shows and explains in a very good manner, with audio guides and a lot of documentaries, to what extend their former regime, the Khmer Rouge, destroyed the country and their own population by torturing and killing millions of innocent people.
From 1975-1979, the communist regime under Pol Pot decided that they wanted to change the whole country by destroying anything modern and industrialized and creating a form of agrarian socialism. Academics and people that were considered as being intellectuals, for example if they wore glasses, were tortured and executed in Security Prison 21 (“S-21”) among other places. Any signs of religion and industrialization were destroyed, like machines and temples. People were resettled out of big cities to the countryside – Phnom Penh for example became a ghost town. Whoever was opposed to the Khmer Rouge or being suspected of opposing the regime was tortured and finally killed.
I spend my whole afternoon in the museum, which used to be a school before it became this place of horror. When I finally left, I felt like every smile was a smile too much.
Angkor Wat and temples – more exhausting than interesting
After the capital, I moved on to what Cambodia is most famous for: Its temple complex and the largest religious monument of the world, Angkor Wat.
Since I am the kind of person to never organize my journey, I was lucky to arrive early in the morning in a hostel in Siem Reap and to meet a young American lady, Kelsy, who offered me to share a “tuk-tuk” (three wheeler taxi) to the temples. We succeeded in watching the beautiful sun rise, and then moved on to visit the biggest and oldest temple, Angkor Wat, and two more, one where the film “Tomb Raider” was made, “Ta Prohm”.
I don’t know if it was because of the sweltering heat, or the fact that we didn’t want to spend our money on a guide, hoping that our tuk-tuk driver was knowledgeable, or even more probable for the fact that I got my phone stolen – this day surely was not my favourite one in Cambodia. I think for a next time I’d definitely pay for someone who could teach us something about the place and even more definitely I would pay more attention to my valuables: It was only when we had left the temple already when I realized that my mobile was gone. At least everything took a turn for the better: In a phone shop in Siem Reap I soon found a new and better one, for which I paid AU$200, worth AU$700. And on my last stop in Cambodia, Battambang, I decided to just relax and watch some documentaries, where I finally learned why those temples are actually worth a visit.
I do not regret at all having visited Cambodia, as I had the chance to learn so much. However, after being confronted with topics and incidents that wouldn’t really make me feel as being on holidays, I was looking forward to doing something more cheerful and pleasant – beach time in Thailand!