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Phnom Penh Is Ruthless

December 30, 2014
Enlightenment tree

Jake and Juuso were leaving to Phnom Penh, so the Five Musketeers were hanging out at the hostel, hamming it up and chilling out before the ferry came in. We scanned the water, trying to spot the ferry—it was well past four and it still wasn’t there. Jake and Juuso were getting antsy, so they decided to head to Coco’s to grab their luggage. We all made our way down to the pier and waited with them for a bit, but Annina’s alter ego Rhonda—who only shows her colors when she’s very hungry—was starting to peek her head out, so we had to get something to eat. We didn’t get very far before Rhonda sat down at the White Rose.IMG_1622

Rhonda is the type who will already be ordering food when she checks to see if her choice is okay with everyone else.

Sugar Palm Tree Leaf

A leaf from a Sugar Palm Tree which was used to slit prisoners’ throats

I knew I wasn’t eating since the thought of food still didn’t sit well with me, so I got some fruit and wandered off. I hadn’t taken a single picture the entire time I was on the island and the lighting was perfect, so I had my time to shine and shoot some pictures. I was running around the beach for an hour or so and ran into Jake and Juuso again while they were picking up some last minute things. I knew something was churning, but I couldn’t figure it out because my head was behind the camera.

I got the shots that I wanted, so I waved my goodbyes to the ferry as I saw it speed off and found my way back to the White Rose to see if Annina and Shukri were still there. After walking by and seeing Shukri in my hat, I started to make my way to their table and saw there was an added bonus waiting for me there. Jake and Juuso had decided to ditch the ferry to join us for one more night of shenanigans in Koh Rong and make the bus ride to Phnom Penh to see the Killing Fields.

When we got to Phnom Penh, we stayed at 11 Happy Backpackers that had a rooftop bar, really clean rooms and very friendly staff. We all wanted to go out that night because we were full of energy, but all the places around us were pretty dead. So we wandered around for a bit and found an internet cafe for Juuso to book his plane ticket from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, so he could make his flight back to Finland.

We all woke up one by one and eventually found each other at the rooftop where we got a bite to eat before our trekking at the Killing Fields. We also met a super cool local named Sam who worked at the hostel—he gave us tips on the town, how to be safe in the areas, and he was able to arrange a tuk tuk for us.

At the Killing Fields, there wasn’t much to see—when the Khmer Rouge fell, the structures were destroyed. Once we entered and paid our fees, we were given an iPod-like device that we plugged our headphones into. Going from marker to marker, we listened to the history of the Killing Fields as we wandered around the land.

Sugar Palm tree

A little history lesson for you: The Khmer Rouge believed in the idea that everyone should be equal. Their idea of equality, however, meant that anyone with any sort of intelligence or quest for higher learning would be put to death or at the very least separated from their family. As a result, any doctors, attorneys, teachers, those who were multilingual and those with glasses were evacuated from their homes and sent to prison. The prison was where they were held until they were taken to the killing fields to be put to death. The hardest part for me was the smashing tree. The saying goes: “To kill a weed, you have to kill the roots.” This signified that they would kill entire families so that no one could come back for revenge should they escape. At the smashing tree, they would kill the women and if they had an infant or small child, they would grab the child by the feet, thrash it against the tree and then throw the remains in the grave. At that gravesite, they found women without clothes buried with their children. Often, the children were killed first while the mother watched.

The Killing tree where executioners would beat babies and throw them into the mass grave

The Killing Tree where executioners would beat babies and throw them into the mass grave

After the Killing Fields we were going to go see the prison, but time wasn’t on our side. Juuso had to make his flight, so we headed back to the hostel for him to grab his stuff and go to the airport. We sat down for one last dinner as the Five Musketeers and got one (or two) last beers before we all said our farewells for the second time as he loaded his stuff on the tuk tuk. Jake started to miss his bromance but he was headed off to Bali soon to meet his possible future wife, so he was full of excitement for the next leg of his adventure. Shukri, Annina and I were headed to Bangkok the next day, so we opted not to do anything crazy and just chill at the rooftop bar and watch the sun set.

Jawbone with one remaining tooth

A commemorative stupa at the Killing Field of Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh

A commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of the victims at the Killing Field of Choeung Ek.

Juuso had lost his debit card and had absolutely no money to his name—he was living off Jake and the rest of the Musketeer family. I told him the night before that I’d cover it for him since he ditched the ferry and the bus the day before to spend more time with us.

Annina was the one to get the call that they wouldn’t let him on the flight because the card wasn’t in his name. I frantically called Bangkok Airways on my cheap Huawei international phone, and they agreed to let him on if I sent a photo of my passport, my credit card and a written statement saying that I gave him permission to use the card. Only problem was it was around 6:30 and his flight was in 50 minutes, so time was of the essence. I sent photos to the provided email address, but they wanted a photo of my card with the credit card number, which I wasn’t comfortable giving because it’s Cambodia. After a lot of back and forth, I called them and they insisted I send the photo of the card with the number. When I refused but told them I’d read it to them, they hung up the phone. It was at that point I started to laugh because I knew Juuso wasn’t getting on that flight and I would get to have a long conversation with the head office of Bangkok Airways about my encounter.

When Juuso got back, he was a hot mess and full of energy because of how stressful the past hour and a half had been. So, we got a round of beers. A few beers later, I had the bright idea that we should get tattoos.

We deliberated and argued for a few hours, but got distracted by eating and reminding each other that we still had to get bus tickets. We finally made a decision, paid our bill, got our bus tickets and went to talk to Sam. He didn’t know of any tattoo shops that were open past 10, but he sent us in the direction of one of his friend’s shops. We had the ride of a lifetime on that particular tuk tuk. We got to the shop 20 minutes after it closed, but our driver was determined to get us tattoos and went to knock on the door. The artist flipped back on the lights and invited us in.

It was when he came back to the shop with a tall boy that we realized our tuk tuk driver was wasted.

I made it clear I wasn’t going first. Maybe I was being selfish, but I didn’t want to end up with a bad tattoo. As I watched the artist and saw how he did everything, I was pleased. I hopped in the chair, sat through the 15 minutes of getting jabbed by a tattoo gun, and was happy with the results. None of us could wipe the smiles off our faces because we all had a new, special bond among the three of us.

We all got an asterisk. Jake got his on his collarbone, Juuso on his ankle, and I got mine on my right wrist. Everyone’s asterisk had a bit different of a meaning. For me, it means that you should cherish the time you have with everyone. At the center of the asterisk is your time together, but you never know when you’re going to part ways and move on without each other.

Old Graves at The Killing Field

Old graves at the Killing Field of Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh

When we hopped back in the tuk tuk, I made sure to be on the side with my back to the driver because I didn’t want to see how bad he was driving. By the looks on Annina, Jake and Shukri’s faces, it was probably pretty scary. We all hailed the ground once we were safely back on it.

We hustled back up the four flights of stairs to the rooftop in high spirits with our fresh ink. There was a beer pong game going on, which was the icing on the cake because after everything that happened that day, we still got to play.

I was having fun just watching when Shukri’s team was down by a few cups. I volunteered my skills, and the ball made a nice splashing sound as it landed right in the cup I wanted it to be in. I said nothing as I walked away, off to get another beer and continue watching. Team Finland had made a comeback. Jake handed me the ball, and yet again, it hit its mark. I held my head high and got another beer. The game came down to redemption, twice. Eventually they were just throwing the balls at each other, so, being the ref, I called the game a tie and it ended with cheers all around.

Even though the history is rich in Phnom Penh, it’s a very depressing town.

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Late night Snack

Photo courtesy of Jake Phill

The ice had been shattered after watching the game, and once it was over, everyone took to the couches nearby. The conversations kept rolling as we exchanged travel stories and places to go, places to avoid and all the crazy stuff that happened. When we checked the clock, it was 3 in the morning and our bus left at 5. We were all hungry and the restaurant had closed, so we stumbled our way down the four flights of stairs and wandered to the 7-Elephant on the corner for our late night snacks. I opted for Oreos and ice cream, but Jake had the best idea of all and got bread, salami and cheese. He opened the kitchen for all the munchkins to eat while I scarfed down my ice cream.

Once we hopped the border, we jumped into a van, which had the luxury of air conditioning and was much more comfortable than the bus, and sped our way to Bangkok. Arriving in Bangkok felt like coming home because they had decorated for Christmas. On every boulevard, the trees were draped in lights and lanterns. Even though Christmas is one of my least favorite holidays, I was in awe of the lights and the excitement was boiling over. It was surreal driving through the city, seeing the lights and just soaking it all in.

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