Cycling along country roads and stopping to talk to strangers has become normal since I have been in Asia. The quieter the roads and the smaller the town the easier it is to find someone to talk to. In fact it's usually hard to find a space where you can sit without being approached or at least stared at. Not that it's been intrusive. I've heard accounts from other touring cyclists of locals sitting at their table watching them eat or even videoing them. Luckily I haven't had to endure this, yet. Entering a major city for the first time since leaving Bangkok eleven weeks ago has been quite a revelation though. There are people everywhere, but not one of them wants to stop and talk, most don't even look at me. 
Whenever I enter a new town it's hard to know where to go to at first. At least in a small town there aren't too many side roads to choose from. The first job is normally to find a bed for the night, which is often a case of finding the only guest house or hotel in town. That's assuming that there is in fact one in the town !
When entering a new city however, the trick is knowing how far to go towards the centre or which area to head for. Do I want to find a cheap bed, a bed that's close to the centre, a bed with amenities close by or just anywhere to lay my head. No-one is interested in a foreigner on a bike in a city, after all I'm just another foreigner.

Phnom Penh is the same as all cities. Traffic, people, a multitude of choices. The roads are chaotic to say the least. Everyone is trying to get somewhere fast. And when you enter the fray without an idea of which way to go you are fair game for anyone to run into. The trick is to choose a route quickly and push yourself into any available gap with enough confidence to show that you won't be pushed out again too easily. A former London despatch rider mentality helps with this of course.
At least in Phnom Penh I had somewhere to head for. A recommendation from a couple of new friends I met in Siem Reap led me to the headquarters of Smallworld. The friends are Arpi and Zita from Hungary who are cycling around the world on recumbent bicycles for their honeymoon. They have been on the road for 20 months now with about another 2 years left at their reckoning. You can take a look at their blog here: http://360fokbringa.hu/en
Smallworld (http://smallworldcambodia.com/) is a social enterprise set up to foster development of ideas and to encourage new entrepreneurial talent. They provide office space and guidance on business startups as well as accommodation for those wishing to stay and study here. Luckily for me they also welcome travelers.  There is an informal and friendly atmosphere here that allows people to relax and express themselves openly in a supportive environment.
In the city itself the main tourist attraction is the royal palace ans silver pagoda. The palace is in fact a gilded cage for the King. The Peoples Party of Cambodia run the country, the King is nowadays merely a titular role, but as the King is unmarried at the age of 56 and with no heirs it's more than likely the end of the line for this monarchy.
My first mission in PP was to visit the Vietnamese embassy. This is the first time on this trip that I am having to apply for a visa prior to reaching a border. Up until now I have been able to turn up and get a 'visa on arrival', in effect an entry ticket. This time a form had to be filled in and left along with my passport and the necessary processing fee. A return visit the next morning and there is a new three month Vietnamese visa covering a page of my passport. I chose a three month visa as there are 1600 kms of country to cycle through. It's possible in a month but that wouldn't give me much time to stop and see any of the country. I certainly don't envisage taking three months but it saves the hassle of getting an extension later should the need arise. Let's just hope that when I get to Hanoi and apply for my Chinese visa things go as smoothly.

Next on the list of things to do was to visit the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School, later renamed Tuol Sleng. Ask anyone (of a certain age) what they know about Cambodia and they will tell you about Pol Pot and the 'killing fields'. Tuol Sleng high school was taken over by the Khmer Rouge regime and turned into security prison 21 (S-21). During the five years of the regimes dictatorship up to 20,000 people passed through here, one of more than 150 such prisons throughout the country. Phnom Penh itself was by this time deserted as the entire population was forced to move to the countryside within three days of the Khmer Rouge entering the city. They were forced to work in the fields as part of an agrarian socialism project that ultimately saw up to a quarter of the countrys population die of malnutrition, poor health provision and of course torture and execution. Special camps were set up to cater for the mass executions and burials that took place as there wasn't enough space in the city, hence the name the "killing fields". These photographs are of S-21.
The best known of these killing fields is south of Phnom Penh at a place called Cheung Ek. Trucks would bring prisoners from S-21 to be killed here. Bound and blindfolded they were lined up and clubbed or hacked to death while kneeling next to their grave. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves, while 43 of the 129 communal graves have been left untouched. Over 8000 skulls are on display in the Memoral Stupa, which was erected in 1988. The site is just under 6 acres in size and can be walked around in about ten minutes. It's unbelievable that so many people were buried in such a small area, and that there are another 150 such sites dotted around the country. Today the site is a peaceful memorial to those who died in the name of one mans crazy idea of utopia and later of his paranoia. The following photographs were taken at Cheung Ek.
What's left today is a memorial to mans inhumanity to man. But what I found most disturbing was the way the west refused to do anything about it. It was neighbouring Vietnam that invaded the country to oust the Khmer Rouge. Many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers defected to the Vietnamese led invasion while the leaders including Pol Pot fled to the west of the country where they still retained power near the Thai border. Surprisingly it was not until 1998 that Pol Pot died, believed to be poisoned by one of his former colleagues. The west and the UN, ever fearful of the spread of communism, still recognised the Khmer Rouge as the rightful rulers of Cambodia as it was thought that a Vietnamese supported government made up of ex Khmer Rouge leaders was no better. This way the Khmer Rouge were still allowed a seat at the UN until 1994. For those that remember being taught at school about the genocide it's hard to believe that the Khmer Rouge was still operating up until the end of the last century, over 30 years since the initial take over of the country.
A chilling reminder of what one mans unbridled power can do to a nation.

 





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