Flashpacking Vietnam-style


This was our honeymoon, so please do not comment on why we did it in style and splurged. Well, actually the splurge part is only the Halong Bay cruise, we dedicated the rest for our usual-budget-backpacking style.

OK. Right after the wedding, avoiding post-wedding disaster (we managed to learn how to do that after successfully avoiding pre-wedding nightmare) we headed to our newly-rented apartment in Jakarta, to head for Ho Chi Minh City the next day

Hup hup hup, leaving Indonesia on AirAsia flight we arrived at Thanh Son Nhat airport  in the evening. Catching a metered cab to downtown HCMC is not very expensive, pretty similar to the taxi fare in Indonesia. It took us 45 minutes. We headed to Dong Khoi. For those who have been to Vietnam, yes Dong Khoi, not Pham Ngu Lao, although it’s within walking distance.

Pham Ngu Lao in Distrct 1 is famous for backpackers as it offers a range of budget up to 3-star hotels, guesthouses, backpacker lodges, dorms, you name it. Nightlife, massage, coffee shops, pho vendors, restaurants, souvenir shops pamper tourists with their bargain prices. Ben Thanh Market is just around the corner.

While Dong Khoi is the hipper side of the city where four and five-star hotels are located, along with fancy malls, consulate offices, and so on.  And I chose to stay in Dong Khoi, because I’ve been to Vietnam and previously chose to stay in a budget hotel in Pham Ngu Lao.

Around Saigon

Whatever you call it, Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, you will see the pictures, statues of Uncle Ho everywhere. As a national hero, the most prominent figure for Vietnamese, Uncle Ho depicts the independence of Vietnam. His statue, in the heart of HCMC is only one evidence. The other is the Dong that you are holding.

Cu Chi Tunnel

As I did not have the chance to go to Cu Chi Tunnel in 2008, this time I must go. Paying equal to Rp 100,000/person we joined for a half day tour. They picked us up in our hotel and we started the 1,5 hour trip. Around a few kilometers from the destination, the minibus taking us there got flat tire. After almost an hour we got a replacement, a better and bigger bus.

Cu Chi Tunnel is complicated networks of extremely small underground tunnels, used by the Vietcong to move around during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Hundreds of tunnels would cause the inexperience lost. The entrances of the tunnels are very small it’s impossible for American soldiers to enter them. My husband tried to enter one of the tunnels and he could fit in. OK, I should feed him more!

Overall, with a 10-minute experience exploring the tunnels, I enjoyed it. The fact that I’m a fan of history, war history particularly,   may contributed to that. In the tunnel, there were chambers where the VC women cook. They created the tunnels in a certain way so the smoke from the kitchen would go out hundreds of meters from the original chambers. Cooking it during dusk, the enemies would mistaken it as fog.

The site also offers original tanks and traps and weaponry used during the war. And don’t be scared if you hear a loud pam pam pam pam – sounds of fired arms. They want to add an atmosphere of war for the tourists. For those who fancy shooting, a shooting range is provided in site.

Mekong Delta

We did not join this one, because my husband thought that going to weedy river would only remind him of his previous oil rig. But since I went to this tour before, I think I will share whatever I recall from 3 years ago.

It cost around USD 15 for a day trip. At first we went to the pier using minibus. Transferred to a wooden boat, we went along the muddy river. And yes, it may look like a river in Kalimantan. Brownish with some floating villages – I would definitely prefer to see floating villages in Halong Bay where I will tell later in Hanoi part of the story.

We visited coconut candy factory, which tastes like ‘sandal jepit’ or even harder. You cannot chew the candy, the candy will chew you! The best part of the tour is a short trip using very small boat (2-4 persons per boat) across the bushes.

We got back to the city using speedboat (with extra cost). For those don’t want to spend extra money, you can take the minibus back to the city.

The tour provides you with tea and snacks, also lunch (I came during Ramadan, so no comment on the food).

Reunification Palace

It is a five story palace where the President of South Vietnam lived during the Vietnam War. When the Northern Vietnam Army crashed its gate in 1975 marked the victory of the Communist, also the lost of the United States in Vietnam.

The Palace is massive, you can see the presidential suites, war room, radio room, replica of cars used by the president. From the rooftop you can see the life of Saigon.  For you who has children, they maybe like to play on the garden, you can take a break from the hot sun sipping coconut juice. Just don’t get ripped off!

War Remnants Museum

At the first glance, you would see a lot of planes and choppers. If you go inside, there will be weaponry such as bullets, grenades, guns, bombs etc. If you go up, you’d see pictures, a lot of pictures. And you’d have to walk from one side to another – don’t do it the other way around if you want to enrich your knowledge on Vietnam War.

That’s just about it. I kinda enjoy it. First, I got the history, second the planes are great background for my photos.

Hanoi

On one of VN’s Airbus 330s, we flew to Hanoi.  The flight took 2 hours. It’s around 45-one hour drive from the Noi Bai Airport to Old Quarter. For me, walking around Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake is just lovely. In the middle of the lake there is a temple where you can go in through a famous red bridge – one of the landmarks of Hanoi.

The Old Quarter consists of silk shops, restaurants, bars, all with its own style without losing their Vietnamese touches. You can find some halal restaurants in this area. Souvenirs are even cheaper than in Saigon.

Halong Bay

If you go to Hanoi, I know that you will go to Halong Bay. It is 175 km away. And it is stunning!  Halong City is a bit of a drag, an overdeveloped town with some unfinished construction. But when you aboard the junk – a wooden traditional boat – and sail away, you can just forget about your problems.

We took a tour from Handspan, cruising on Indochina Sail which cost us USD 192 2D/1N. Yes it is expensive, but let me remind you once again, it was our honeymoon. The junk was great. A real 5-star. The bedroom and attached bathroom was even better than the most 4-star hotels I’ve ever stayed in.

On that day we sailed to Bat Cave and visiting floating villages nearby. The villages have houses, schools, shops. All is floating. Well, that why they are called floating village. These villages are so far away from the mainland where they can get their basic supplies.

We also visited Titop island where tourists can climbed the step up to the top of the hill and see the breathtaking view of Halong Bay.  It was just magnifique.

The meal – don’t get me start it. They provided us with complete set menu for lunch – appetizer, main course, another main course, dessert. Oh my, let’s forget the wedding dress, it would never fit me again. The dinner was indescribable. CRAB. And clams, and prawns, and fish, and squid, and crabs again. Lots and lots of seafood, along with other menu for buffet dinner.

The second day started with taichi session. It was continued with breakfast while enjoying the misty Halong Bay from the sundeck. The karst was gorgeous, better that Phi Phi islands. The boat was then sailing back to Halong pier and this ended our cruise.

For you who want to do the cruise, you can pick a 1N2D or 2N3D, a fancy or more pocket-friendly cruises. Aloha junk is among the most favoured.

Around the Old Quarter

Bargain down – the phrase that always appears in my blog post!  Generally the price in Hanoi is cheaper than in Saigon. Do buy some silk for your moms. They are good quality and indeed very nice.

You can just stroll around the city or take cyclo to some of its attractions: Perfume Temple, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (I told you that the country is full with Uncle Ho!), One-Pillar Pagoda etc.

Walk around the Lake in the evening, have a sip of Vietnamese coffee with Vietnamese spring rolls. It’s simply heaven!

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Promthep Cape: Surga bagi para pengejar matahari


Bagi anda yang pernah berlibur di Pulau Phuket, Thailand, mungkin pernah mengunjungi tempat ini. Promthep Cape atau Tanjung Promthep terletak di ujung selatan pulau dan terkenal sebagai tempat yang sempurna untuk menyaksikan matahari tenggelam.

Ketika saya mengunjunginya pada siang hari, tempat ini terlihat biasa. Hanya seperti bukit berbatu, mirip seperti garu-gardu pandang yang ada di daerah wisata di Indonesia, hanya saja lebih besar. Kios-kios berjualan minuman dan souvenir kas Thailand berjajar di sepanjang area parkir. Beberapa restoran menjadi tempat berteduh favorit bagi para wisatawan yang tidak ingin tersengat matahari. Kelapa muda menjadi teman yang paling tepat untuk beristirahat di tempat ini.

Pemandangan ke arah laut biru, dengan bukit-bukit berwarna hijau di kejauhan, terlihat indah walau tidak berbeda dengan pemandangan di Phuket secara umum. Momen matahari tenggelamlah yang dinanti oleh semua orang.

Jumlah wisatawan, baik yang domestik maupun internasional, makin banyak yang berdatangan seiring dengan  beranjaknya matahari menuju ke ufuk barat. Masing-masing berebut posisi, mencari tempat yang paling sempurna untuk menyaksikan matahari tenggelam. Hari itu langit biru cerah. Setelah mendapatkan posisi yang tepat, kamera-kamera dan tripod pun kami siapkan.  Kami sama sekali tidak beranjak dari tempat tersebut karena takut tempat itu diambil oleh orang lain, walaupun matahari masih bersinar cukup terik dan pemandangan masih belum bagus untuk diabadikan. Di kanan kiri kami, wisatawan yang lain pun melakukan hal yang sama.

Pukul 06.00 sore, matahari semakin kehilangan teriknya. Sinar yang tersisa menimbulkan siluet-siluet berwarna jingga. Inilah saat yang tepat untuk mulai mengambil gambar. Di saat ini, seluruh pinggiran gardu pandang telah penuh dengan wisatawan. Mungkin karena saya datang pada hari Minggu, wisatawan lokal pun sangat banyak jumlahnya. Beberapa pasangan muda sibuk mengambil foto, banyak keluarga dengan anak-anak kecil mereka, serta kelompok-kelompok perempuan yang berkerudung – mungkin seperti kelompok pengajian kalau di Indonesia. Wisatawan dari berbagai bangsa, usia, semuanya dengan tujuan yang sama, yaitu menyaksikan matahari tenggelam di Promthep Cape, Phuket.

Saya, saat itu bersama suami dan adik, tidak kalah gencar berfoto. Hobi fotografi suami tampaknya terpuaskan di tempat ini. Berbagai pose dan angle diabadikan. Beberapa melirik kami bergaya sambil tersenyum-senyum. Kami tidak peduli, toh sudah jauh-jauh datang ke Promthep Cape untuk berfoto-foto.

Matahari jingga semakin tenggelam, menciptakan suasana yang membuat semua orang terdiam untuk menikmati keagungan Sang Pencipta. Pantulan warna keemasan di permukaan laut menciptakan paduan serasi dengan alam sekitarnya.

Ketika matahari telah seluruhnya tenggelam di batas cakrawala, orang-orang pun beranjak untuk pulang, dengan puluhan foto di kamera mereka.

Ke Promthep Cape dari Phuket Town atau Patong

Promthep Cape dapat dicapai dari arah Phuket Town, melalui Wat Chalong. Anda bisa menyusuri jalan utama menuju ke perempatan Chalong, kemudian mengambil jalan pantai melalui Pantai Rawai. Sangat mudah menemukan tempat ini karena di Phuket tanda arah cukup banyak dan jelas.

Apabila anda berangkat dari daerah pantai, Pantai Patong misalnya, anda tinggal menyusuri jalan pantai melalui Pantai Karon dan Kata. Jarak Promthep Cape dangan Patong sekitar 18 kilometer.

Untuk menuju ke tempat ini, dan berkeliling Phuket secara umum, anda dapat menggunakan taksi atau menyewa tuktuk. Namun, yang paling nyaman serta murah adalah menyewa sepeda motor. Selain lebih fleksibel dalam hal waktu, juga lebih mudah menikmati pemandangan dan bisa berhenti sewaktu-waktu.  Jalanan di pulau ini semuanya beraspal halus, walau berliku dan naik turun karena kontur pulau yang berbukit. Sewa motor sehari sekitar THB 250-300 atau Rp 75-90ribu tanpa bensin.

Selamat mengejar matahari!

From Starlets to Starless


Hotels differentiate office budget and your own pocket

I bet many of you have experienced this: moving from a five-star hotel to a no-star or budget hotel, maybe youth hostel or event a backpacker lodge. And certainly I have. Several times.

Usually this begins with a business trip – workshop or meetings, fancy luggage, high heels and make ups, every little thing that I dislike – continued with a short holiday at your own expense.

A drive from the airport to the five stars hotel is most probably taken on a taxi – some people use one of those Chrysler thingy, but soon after the office business is over, you’d start looking for any cheapest means to get around. Whether it’s a bus, MRT, autorickshaw, jeepney, tuk-tuk, anything.

And these are some of my experiences….

Bangkok

I had this 3-day workshop held at Amari Watergate Hotel, in Pratunam area in the heart of Bangkok. Luckily since the beginning, I managed to resist the temptation of bringing suitcase (can be suitcases if you wish). Instead, I packed everything including my laptop, kamera, business clothes, shoes, shorts, into my 55-litres Deuter. And yes I wore my Teva for the trip from Jakarta to Bangkok. This is because I had the plan to skip to Luang Prabang in Laos after the workshop.

The Workshop with multicultural faces

So then the workshop finished. My international friends started to leave the country and I packed my backpack to move to a budget hotel in Khao San Road – famous for backpackers as KSR. I caught a motorcycle taxi just in front of Amari Watergate and bargained it down, hopped on, and there you go…to the first starless followed by another starless in Laos.

The cost of a night stay in Amari Watergate is around USD 80-90, not very expensive but definitely not my choice to stay alone in my own expense. My hotel in KSR, I don’t remember the name cost USD 20. It did not offer a wide range of brekkie as in Amari, but it’s definitely worth the price. You simply get what you pay for.

It was continued with another budget hotel staying in Luang Prabang. Sayo River Guesthouse is not actually a bad choice, since it has Mekong view, a decent room and shower, a veranda and free coffee and tea anytime of the day. It cost around USD 25/night.

Sayo River Guest House

Singapore

Another story was in Singapore when my husband got a chance to do training in Singapore. He is very lucky since his company allows the staff to choose the hotel, doesn’t matter how much it costs. Marina Bay Sand was fully booked. Raffles was fully booked. So The Fullerton Hotel it was…

The Fullerton

The Hotel once used to be a general post office, so you can wonder how antique and beautiful the building is. It’s overlooking Singapore River and two country’s oldest bridges, the Cavenagh bridge and Anderson bridge. The interior was luxurious so was the heritage room where we were staying in. Banquet was excellent as so was the price, approximately SGD 700-800 for one night. It costs SGD 6 to laundy a pair of panties. But they do have the best hotel toiletries!

Time is up and the story continued with a search of much cheaper hotel. It was NOT very easy to look for a cheap hotel in Singapore especially because we decided not to go to Geylang. We tried one of this chain hotel, 81, that has over 15 hotels all over Singapore. Searched over the Google and booked it over the phone, we jumped on to MRT (yes MRT, no more taxi) to Little India station. The street to the hotel was Indianish…the smell of onions, masala, flowers…

Hotel 81 Dickson is pretty good. A budget (SGD 100) – those kinds of budget will get you to at least a 3-star in Jakarta – it was clean and got newish look. I think it was a newly-built hotel. Compared to the Fullerton (how dare me!), the room was very small but decent and clean enough. It was definitely sufficient for us to have a good night sleep after one day in IKEA Alexandra.

Hotel 81 Dickson

Kuala Lumpur

A recent trip, about a week ago, brought me and my 28-weeks preggy belly to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Another “nebeng” trip of my husband’s business trip. Flying in with AirAsia, I got to LCCT at midnight. Because my dear beloved husband disregarded my wish to pick me up at the airport, I had to catch SkyBus from LCCT to KL Sentral. He waited me there.

As most of you know, the distance between airport and KL Sentral is around 60 km. I got to the station at almost 2am. My phone was off so I got to walk around (yes with bulging belly and bulging backpack) around the dark and deserted station to look for my husband. There he was reading a magazine with red eyes in McDonald’s.

Jumping on a cab, we drove to Intercontinental Hotel (still famously as Nikko Hotel) in KLCC area. A five-star, I think it has the biggest hotel bathroom I’ve ever seen. But the rest is just like another normal four or five-star with free fruit everyday, two bottles of water, Herald Tribune and so on. It cost around USD 130-150/night.

After a more-than-fulfilling breakfast, we drag the (his) luggage to an LRT station nearby, I think it was Ampang Park. Taking Ampang line to Masjid Jamek, we took a different route and got off in Sultan Ismail station. And there was our new hotel. Tune Hotel.

We had to wait until 2pm because that is the check in time. And Tune sort of has the earliest check out time, 10am. A bunch of not-very-rich tourists from the West, China, and Indonesia were waiting until 2pm.

When we got to our room, my husband said, “It’s so small.” In fact it was tiny. I once stayed here about 3 years ago, it was as tiny but this time it’s not only tiny but needed renovation. For a one night stay, it’s alright, but I think no more than that. It cost RM 95 per night for two. The best feature of Tune Hotel Downtown KL is its location, in between a monorail station and an LRT station. Bus stop is just around the corner. And KLCC, Petronas Tower is just a stone throw away.

So, whether you want to save or splurge, it’s your choice!

Menyusuri masjid di Phuket dan Koh Phi Phi


Sebagai seorang Muslim, walau kita sedang berlibur di negeri lain, ibadah shalat lima wkatu tidak boleh ditinggalkan. Apalagi bila di negara yang tengah dikunjungi, akses terhadap tempat ibadah tidak terlalu sulit, hal itu justru menambah pengalaman dan kesan liburan.

Keindahan Koh Phi Phi

Pulau Phuket berada di Thailand tenggara, kalau dilihat di peta, tidak terlalu jauh dari Banda Aceh. Phuket merupakan salah satu tujuan wisata favorit turis lokal maupun internasional karena terkenal akan keindahan pantai-pantainya.

Pada tahun 2004, daerah ini diterjang tsunami Samudera Hindia yang mengakibatkan  ribuan orang tewas dan hilang. Sama seperti di Indonesia, Sri Lanka dan negara-negara lain, tsunami di Thailand tidak hanya merenggut korban jiwa, melainkan harta, infrastruktur dan mata pencaharian warga lokal. Pariwisata hancur lebur selama beberapa waktu, namun kini semua telah kembali seperti sebelum bencana. Tidak tampak bekas-bekas tragedi tersebut di  Patong, Kata, Karon, pantai-pantai paling populer di Pulau Phuket.

Kini, yang terlihat hanya resort-resort, hotel mewah, restoran-restoran yang ramai oleh turis asing, serta gemerlapnya Bangla Road – jalanan yang paling terkenal bagi para backpackers – dan keindahan pantainya.

Tentu, seperti di daerah wisata pantai yang lain, banyak sekali diskotik, bar, dan turis-turis asing yang berpakaian minim. Namun di Provinsi Phuket ini banyak juga warga lokal yang Muslim dan banyak di antara mereka yang mengenakan kerudung, sehingga saya juga tidak merasa asing.

Apabila kita menyusuri jalan-jalan utama di daerah ini, tidak perlu merasa khawatir karena jumlah masjid cukup banyak. Pemerintah lokal pun sangat membantu dengan selalu menyediakan papan arah untuk masjid.

Islam merupakan kaum minoritas di Thailand dan sebagian besar bermukim di Thailand bagian selatan. Di Phuket dan Phi Phi Don, pemandangan perempuan berkerudung dan laki-laki berpeci adalah hal yang biasa. Makanan halal pun cenderung mudah untuk didapatkan, walaupun di tempat wisata yang menyediakan makanan halal biasanya adalah restoran India atau Arab.

Di beberapa pantai, misalnya Surin dan Kamala, banyak warung-warung yang menyediakan makanan halal dengan ibu-ibu penjual yang mengenakan kerudung. Anda juga jangan khawatir bila membeli makanan kecil di minimarket, banyak yang memiliki label halal.

Masjid Kamala

Salah satu masjid yang sempat saya kunjungi adalah Masyid Kamala atau Kamala Mosque, yang terletak tak jauh dari Ban Kamala dan Pantai Kamala,tepat di depan kantor Kecamatan. Shalat jama’ Dhuhur dan Ashar di masjid ini sungguh menenangkan hati sekaligus juga mendinginkan tubuh setelah mengendarai motor mengelilingi pulau di bawah teriknya matahari.

Masjid yang terbuat dari marmer berwarna abu-abu dan merah ini berdiri tegak di tengah pemukiman padat penduduk. Kamala juga merupakan wilayah dengan populasi Muslim karena kami banyak melihat tanda masjid serta warung halal.

Masjid  Nuruddee Neeyah

Masjid ini terletak di daerah Chalong, berada di jalan utama bila anda hendak menuju ke Pantai Rawai ataupun Promthep Cape. Masjid ini sangat indah dengan kubah berwarna keemasan dan marmer putih. Di depannya ditanami pohon palem untuk memberikan sedikit karakter Timur Tengah, namun juga terdapat banyak pohon anggrek yang mencirikan Thailand.

Di depan masjid, berjajar ruangan-ruangan yang tampaknya berfungsi sebagai pesantren di sore hari. Di daerah ini, yang terletak di ujung selatan Pulau Phuket, juga merupakan komunitas Muslim. Selain karena kami banyak melihat masjid di sepanjang jalan, juga penduduk lokal berpakaian muslim.

Di dekat masjid, sebuah warung makan menyediakan berbagai masakan yang semuanya halal. Pemiliknya yang beragama Islam, juga memajang berbagai hiasan dinding bertuliskan ayat-ayat dari Al-Quran. Tanpa ragu-ragu kami pun mampir ke warung ini. Ternyata, tidak hanya halal, masakannya pun sangat lezat. Bahkan ada beberapa turis asing yang tampaknya sudah sering berkunjung ke warung ini.

Koh Phi Phi dan Masjid Al-Islah

Phi Phi Island terdiri dari Phi Phi Don dan Phi Phi Ley, serta beberapa pulau kecil lainnya. Walaupun wisatawan seringkali pergi ke Phi Phi dengan kapal dari Phuket, sebenarnya Phi Phi islands berada di provinsi yang berbeda, yaitu Krabi. Selain dari Phuket, ada juga yang menyeberang dari Krabi, Ko Lanta, dan Ko Phanga. Daerah ini juga terkena dampak tsunami 2004, namun kini tidak tampak bekas-bekas bencana tersebut.

Pemandangan di sepanjang perjalanan menuju Phi Phi Don sungguh luar biasa. Pulau-pulau karst yang tinggi berwarna abu-abu dan hijau di tengah laut yang sangat biru membuat kami semakin mengagumi keagungan Allah.

Perjalanan dari Phuket ke Phi Phi Don dengan kapal besar membutuhkan waktu sekitar satu setengah jam. Phi Phi Don merupakan satu-satunya pulau di wilayah itu yang ditinggali. Mayoritas penduduk Phi Phi beragama Islam.

Selepas makan siang, kami beranjak mencari masjid untuk menunaikan ibadah shalat Dhuhur. Masjid Al-Islah berada di ujung pulau, sekitar 15 menit berjalan kaki dari pelabuhan. Kami harus melewati toko-toko yang menjual souvenir, restoran, bar, serta penginapan-penginapan.

Masjid Al-Islah bernuansa warna kuning dengan menara hijau. Seperti masjid-masjid lain yang saya kunjungi di Thailand, di depan setiap keran untuk berwudhu disediakan tempat duduk. Ternyata memang kebiasaan berwudhu di Thailand berbeda dengan di Indonesia di mana kita biasa berwudhu sambil berdiri.

Masjid ini menyerukan adzan yang terdengar di seluruh pulau dan warga lokal berbondong-bondong untuk shalat jamaah di masjid ini. Menurut informasi yang kami dapatkan, baru sekitar 40 tahun yang lalu pulau ini dihuni. Penduduk lokal berasal dari Krabi dan Ko Lanta dan mereka adalah nelayan Muslim.

Masjid Al-Islah memegang peranan penting di Phi Phi Don, karena merepresentasikan kerendahan manusia di hadapan Sang Pencipta. Masjid ini terletak di timur pulau, di dekat sebuah pantai indah yang dinamakan Hat Rante tempat turis dan warga lokal berenang dan berselancar. Dahulu penduduk lokal melarang pembangunan hotel dan penginapan di sekitar majid, namun kini karena alasan ekonomis, hotel dan penginapan dibiarkan berdiri di sekeliling kompleks masjid.

Bersembahyang berjamaah di masjid ini merupakan aktivitas yang biasa dilakukan, namun hal itu semakin terasa setelah bencana tsunami tahun 2004. Marilah seperti warga Phi Phi, ketika cobaan tidak menjauhkan kita dari Allah, justru makin mendekatkan kita pada-Nya.

Published in Republika, 13 March 2011

Tour to the one of the scariest places I’ve visited – Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (Cambodia)


(And, darn, I stayed just across its gate!)

Arriving at the Phnom Penh International Airport, my friend Yudit and I jumped on a cab to the one of the Lonely Planet’s top pick hotels for Phnom Penh. We yet to find out what in front of us, and I mean it literally.

Bodhi Tree is a great guesthouse, offering a clean room, minimalist yet with Cambodian traditional touch. The staff spoke English very well. We got the last room available. After a little break and lunch, we headed off to the nearest tourism site, just across our hotel gate.

It was late afternoon but there were still some groups of tourists scattered at this museum. I thought it was merely a museum with the usual stuff I encountered in some other countries. But, I was a hundred percent wrong.

It was the most depressing place I’ve ever visited in my 28 years of life. In front of the buildings there were signs forbidding people to laugh. If I can borrow a little bit of JK Rowling’s imagination, I felt like surrounded by dementors, making me feel like I would never be happy again.

Tuol Sleng was originally a high school complex before Khmer Rouge Regime turned it into S-21 prison in 1975. Around 20,000 people detained in this prison with up to 1,500 prisoners at one time. They include activists from Lon Nol regime, doctors, engineers, teachers, whoever suspected to be against Khmer Rouge, including their family members, children, babies.

Laughing and joking is not allowed in this premise

We were lucky to meet a Malaysian gentleman who hired a guide and invited us to join him. The guide explained how the torture happened. There are some torture devices, such as searing metals and electric shocks. Prisoners were often beaten to death, suffocated using plastic bag, hung, or cut with knives. Female were raped although it was against Khmer Rouge policy, and often time the perpetrators executed for raping. Crying babies were thrown into barb wires.

The guide explained how he lost his father and brother during the Pol Pot tenure. His mother secretly caught the frogs to feed him. The security guards would collect everything owned by the people.

One of the most notable thing in this museum is a skull map, consists of 300 human skulls depicting the map of Cambodia. The S-21 also kept an intensive documentation of all prisoners. After arriving at the prison, the guards took their photographs. The photographs of men, women, old people, children, are now showcased in the museum. It was extremely disheartening to see the faces of the people, who knew that they’d be tortured to death.

Among nearly 20,000 S-21 detainees, only seven known survivors. They were kept alive because they had some skills, such as painting or handy work.

The afternoon wore on, and it was getting even more depressing to witness cells with blood splatters, execution devices, skulls, because the Cambodian government kept it original. I would conclude it as the scariest places I’ve ever visited – I might be able to make a comparison if one day I’d visit KZ Nazi camp concentration.

At the hotel, we simply stripped off our clothes, including my belt and sandals, giving them to the bell boy for laundry.  And only the next day we could smile again….(with all night thought that might be our room was also use to torture and kill innocent people)

An Indonesian travelling family, been to 25+ countries as a family. Author of several travel guide books and travelogue. Write travel articles for media. Strongly support family travelling | travelling with baby/kids. .