Unfortunately we found the worst hostel in Phnom Penh. Crossing the land border by bus was easy; if not a little disorganised, which included a lot of walking back and forth, being grunted at by officials, and handing over our passports to strangers. Before we knew it we were in Cambodia, where the written words appeared as squiggles and we still couldn’t understand a word.

We quickly noticed that the cars and motorbikes didn’t toot half as much as they did in Vietnam, which was a nice break for our beaten eardrums. However, the driving was just as erratic. The bus dropped us off at the Orussey Market, where we had to get a tuk-tuk (motorbike with a carriage behind it) to our accommodation, the Happy House Hostel Zone. With a name like that it must be great, we thought. Oh how we were very, very… VERY… wrong. The two chaps at the front desk seemed mildly helpful, telling us we had to pay upfront, in cash, and pointing vaguely into the distance when we asked for directions to the ATM (which not surprisingly was difficult to find). We eventually got the money and were taken up two flights of steep stairs to our hovel. From here it got much, much worse.

On first inspection the room was fairly spacious and smelt, oddly, like bubble gum. We never did find out the source of the smell. As I put my backpack down two little cockroach-like creatures scuttled out of the way. This I could manage, until I discovered the bathroom. A dim, red light was the only light source, which was probably to hide how unhygienic it really was. I washed my hands to rid myself of the room’s filth, only to find my toes were getting wet. The bottom of the sink was not connected to anything, so it poured the hand-washing water onto my feet. Plus, there was no toilet paper provided. Of course, this must be a luxury in a hell-hole like this. Thankfully, in my pre-travel preparations in Palmerston North I had packed toilet paper to take with us. I only wanted to take a small roll, but my mum only purchases mega-sized toilet paper, which is so unfeasibly large it almost needed its own pack. However, I was now very thankful as the roll not only lasted the three nights we stayed, but it also has enough left to last us the next three months.

Hostel Rules

At this point I had had quite enough. At $19USD a night (which isn’t actually that cheap for Cambodia) we could get a two-star hotel, including toilet paper and soap, which we had been staying in happily until now. It was our quest to be more social that lead us on the path to the world’s worst hostel. Despite telling Ben that we were leaving in the morning, we continued to battle out three nights. Ben assured me that it was character building, which was the point of traveling in the first place, or something to that effect. It was later that we found that not only were our sheets not clean (the smell they emitted now masking the bubble gum), but to shower you had to stand on the toilet while the shower head sprayed water mainly on the roof. If you were lucky you got a drip from the roof to clean yourself with. As rage-worthy as the whole experience was, we eventually left and I was filled with indescribable joy.

For our first day in the city we started with a, much needed and deserved I think, fancy breakfast. I sought out the best eggs benedict in the city, with prices similar to that of New Zealand. I had an English breakfast tea and was transported back to the western world for a brief moment. It was revitalizing.

Eggs Benedict

Then we headed out into the heat of the day to wander the attractions. Our first stop was Wat Phnom, a temple on the top of a small hill. The Cambodian architecture had both differences and similarities to its Vietnamese neighbours. The grounds were well cared for and we enjoyed a nice stroll along the garden pathways. Next, it was a long, hot walk over to the Royal Palace, which we found was closed from 12-2pm. As it was 1pm and 30 degrees Celsius, we opted for a cooling 50c draft beer. At 2pm we headed back to the palace and after forking over $10USD each for entry, we wandered around the beautiful temples, statues, and artwork. We admired the Silver Pagoda, with its 1,500 solid silver floor tiles (although unpolished and mostly covered with cheap carpet) and a 90kg solid gold Buddha statue, and followed a continuous wall mural of the tale of Reamker that stretched roughly 700m to enclose the sacred grounds.

King's Palace

On our first evening we went to the Happy Herb Pizza Restaurant. In Cambodia they use marijuana as New Zealanders would use oregano, as a tasty cooking herb. We ordered a pizza and it came freshly sprinkled with the special herbs. There isn’t enough of it on the pizza to have any real effect, but it does mean that the local drug dealers hover around the entrance, hoping to entice tourists to purchase a bigger dose. We aren’t that stupid and as our sage 1.5L water bottle reminded us, “using drug make you died” (sic). A sentiment we should all live by.

The next day was the day we learnt about the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and how one in four Cambodians were killed under the genocidal regime. It was a deeply troubling day and one that I will not forget for years to come. We got a tuk-tuk to take us the 45 minutes to the Killing Fields. The drive itself was amazing as we weaved through the traffic and small villages. Our driver was a speed demon who overtook all the others and then took us on the back roads to our destination. I knew they were back roads as there were no other tuk-tuks around, the roads were bumpy, and I was constantly worried that we were being abducted. Arriving, we paid the fee (everything has a price in Cambodia) and received our audio guides. The headphones were great, as you got a lot of detail explained in excellent English (a rarity here) at your own pace. Everyone walked along silently as they witnessed the mass graves, the execution trees, and saw the bones and clothes piled in glass containers. It seemed appropriate that the victims could rest in silence, if perhaps not in peace.

Survivor

After that we went to the S-21 prison, what was originally a high school that was turned into a prison to house those that had allegedly turned against the Khmer Rouge. However, many of the stories revealed that Cambodians from all walks of life were imprisoned and forced into writing confessions of being part of the CIA or KGB. Wearing glasses or having soft hands was enough to get you thrown in the prison, as they thought you were an intellectual and therefore a danger to the regime. Doctors, engineers, and teachers were all targeted. There were four cell blocks in the prison, three stories high, which housed tiny cells where the prisoners were chained up and regularly tortured. Again we had audio books that guided us silently around the grounds. I wandered up to the second floor and walked through the cell block. There was no one else in this section, which stretched into the distance, tiny cells either side of a narrow corridor. My audio guide chapter had finished, so I was walking along listening to the silence of the empty cells. You could see blood stains on the floor and scratches on the prison doors left by its inhabitants. It was haunting.

One of the most shocking parts of the genocide was that it happened from 1975-1978, only 40 years ago. How something like this could happen so recently in human history is startling. A survivor who had been kept in the prison sat at a small table under a tree at the end of the tour. He was selling a book he had written with his own personal account. I could not imagine how he found the strength to return to this place day after day, but I suspected it was the same strength that kept him alive. However, I also couldn’t help but think he went from being a prisoner in S-21 to a prisoner by poverty in the world that was left behind.

As we continue our time in Cambodia I now realize that everyone I see is directly affected by this tragedy. If it was not them who experienced it, it was their parents. Cambodians are sharing their experience in the hope that it will stop history from repeating itself. I can only try to share their story and hope that it doesn’t.

Click here for the next in the series.