I had only planned to stay for a couple of days in Phnom Penh but because it was high season all the hotels in Siem Reap were full so stayed here for a week. I was expecting a typical big, noisy and dirty city and assumed that I would be ready to move on very quickly. I was pleasantly surprised, it is quite attractive. Within an hour of arriving in the country I knew I was going to like Cambodia. The people are just lovely. Soft and very gentle.
The Royal Palace is truly beautiful. I spent the best part of my first afternoon here. It has a lovely balance of buildings and immaculately kept gardens. The palanquins are quite something. Watt Phnom is set in a park area and I enjoyed walking around it. An old school now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with its barbed wired fenced windows and balconies to stop prisoners jump to their deaths was the place where many prisoners were kept before being sent to Choeung Ek, the best known of the Killing Fields.
One day I went to see the Killing Fields. It was a most humbling, moving experience. As I entered I faced a Buddhist stupa filled with skulls. Listening to the audio guide I realised how little I knew about what had happened here years ago. Anyone who wore glasses, spoke a foreign language or was educated in any way, like a teacher or a doctor, was detained. When someone was executed, the entire family was too, including any children so that they would never return to avenge their parents. It seemed impossible that somewhere that had witnessed so much death could be so peaceful now. Even today, the ground keeps pushing bones and clothing up but they are left there for people to see and during my visit I walked past several.
One of the trees had a trunk that from a distance looked multi-coloured, but as I got closer I saw the trunk was covered in friendship bracelets that people had hung on it. This tree is called the Killing Tree and children were killed by being smashed against it. I cried many times during the visit and what I learned will stay with me forever. I can never look at life’s problems in the same way. My regret was not to have any bracelets to add to the tree and that my children were so far away, all I wanted to do was hug them tight.
The people in this nation are remarkable, they have lived through something unimaginable and yet, they are the sweetest and kindest I have encountered in seven months on the road. I am humbled beyond words.