The following day I woke up rather late and enjoyed the first day of 2009 packing myself up for a bus trip to the capital, Phnom Penh. A mini bus picked me up at my hotel and drove me over to a pot hole filled parking lot where my Super VIP bus to P.P. was waiting for me. It was far from super and certainly not for very important people. This tin can on wheels spent the next six hours chugging through the center of the countries flat agricultural communities. From Siem Reap to downtown Phnom Penh we stayed on the same two lane paved road the entire way. For years tourists had to take a slow, loud and smelly boat up the river from Phnom Penh to reach the Angkor Temples. The road has only recently been paved in the last few years which has made transit easier for tourists and locals alike. I stared out the window for hours at vast, green, rice paddy fields dotted with tall palm trees. The “main street” to Phnom Penh is lined by farmer’s houses which are built on stilts and sit over muddy ponds which stretch to the road and often features floating lily and lotus flowers. Many of these farms have large a pile of yellow hay sitting in front of the houses which feeds the many wandering cows from the outlying farmlands. Poor local children ran after our bus along the way and I also noticed a few naked children running around covered in mud in front of their homes.
A few kilometers from the center of town traffic slowed to a stand still and we found ourselves slowly coasting for the next hour. Along the street there were many sculpture shops where several men would be huddled around a large Buddha statue that was slowly revealing itself from behind the large stone slab. It seemed as though our bus had been farting the entire journey as the driver constantly tooted his horn in order to announce to moped drivers that he was driving past them on the left. I chatted with a couple from Glasgow who were not at all impressed with Phnom Penh. On first glance we both agreed it was a dusty, undeveloped and chaotic city. A family of four sat in two small seats behind them and apparently the entire six hour drive the daughter had been puking into a zip lock bag. Just before we reached the main bridge into the heart of the city I stared out my window and saw two large hogs ripping apart garbage on the street. Welcome to Phnom Penh.
As soon as I got off the bus I was hounded by screaming moped and taxi drivers. I actually couldn’t get off the bus as they all had their arms outstretched and were blocking the doorway. I screamed at the top of my lungs, “I have a hotel reservation kindly piss off.” Suddenly I was given some space to squeeze through the crowd. I found my large pack and strapped it onto my back. I headed towards the river and spent the next ten minutes telling a small little man to piss off after he refused to leave me alone. “Sir beautiful hotel for you, you are so beautiful and so is this hotel, for you it is beautiful!”
My bus had arrived an hour late and I was supposed to meet my two friends from Dubai as we were going to share a hotel together. I pulled out my laptop on the curb, directly in front of a posh café and checked my messages, wrote down the hotel directions and soon found myself knocking on their door. I dropped my bags and told them of my tumultuous journey. After all three of us had relaxed we hopped out onto the street in search of dinner. We had to walk down several back alleys and small side streets in the pitch black of night. I will never forget passing by the municipal garbage truck. Two boys who couldn’t be older than 13 years old were scooping up garbage off the street with their bare hands. All Cambodians wear a lovely smile but their eyes look tired and torn.
Friends Restaurant is an amazing little eatery which doubles as an NGO and community outreach center. All of the profits of the restaurant go directly to underprivileged families in the city. The restaurant has over 200 local employees, all of which used to be street children. They are sent through three levels of hospitality training and once they reach level three they are then allowed to serve and cook at the Friends outlet. There is nothing I enjoy more than eating for a good cause. The menu at Friends is extensive and features a varied international menu. While combing through the many tapas dishes I enjoyed sipping a delicious Strawberry and Passion fruit Daquiri. I ended up ordering a plate of sundried tomato hummus on crispy wonton wrappers to start. Followed by a bowl of curried pumpkin and cream soup with coriander and garlic croutons. I finished with a stir fry chicken with mango and cashew nuts. The meal was phenomenal. We chit chatted with the servers and I tried to give them as much encouragement as possible (some of them seemed a bit nervous as they were probably serving for the first time).
The following morning we woke up early and grabbed a quick breakfast on the corner of the street. The guys had to fly back to Dubai in the early afternoon and I had one whole day to spend in Phnom Penh. The day flew by as I darted from one corner of the city to the next.
Everyone who has ever been to Phnom Phen knows that this city for a tourist is rather depressing. The capitals two biggest tourist attractions, The Killing Fields and Security Prison S-21 (also known as the Tuol Sleng Museum) both tell the story of the brutal Pol Pot regime and the resulting genocide of 30 percent of the countries people. The Killing Fields is a short drive out of the city so we hired a proper air conditioned taxi in order to avoid the dusty Tuk Tuk filled roads.
Rising above 129 mass graves in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is a blinding white stupa that serves as a memorial to the approximately 17,000 men, women and children who were executed here by the Khmer Rouge between mid 1975 and December 1978. Encased inside the stupa are almost 9000 human skulls found during excavations here in 1980. Many of these skulls still bear witness to the fact that they were bludgeoned to death for the sake of saving precious bullets. Hearing the sounds of joyful children playing at nearby schools while spotting human bone and clothing poking up from the churned ground reinforces the contradiction of Cambodia today. The memorial is a quite place, the wind blew lightly through the trees as we wandered around a quiet pond and through several grass covered graves. Here, one can’t help but feel empty and cold in the middle of a hot day.
We hopped back in our taxi and were dropped off at the National Museum where we spent the next hour slowly drifting through the open concept space. In the inner courtyard of the museum is a large outdoor lily pond where I spent several minutes staring into its reflection of the sky above. The museum contains a huge collection of Khmer relics many of which are from the Temples of Angkor. One really doesn’t need to visit the museum if they have already spent a few days at Angkor Wat, but it was a great spot to hide in the shade for an hour during the hottest part of the day.
From the museum we walked over to the cities infamous Happy Herb Pizza restaurant located just a stones throw from the river. This pizza joint serves up pizza sprinkled with marijuana. There are several knock off Happy Restaurants throughout Cambodia and Laos but I wanted to make sure I went to the original restaurant which started it all. I ordered a Happy Sundried Tomato and Pepperoni Pizza and munched away. The pizza looked as though it had been dusted with oregano but only the trained eye could spot the more classic Herb accompaniment. After lunch I gave both of my friends a big hug and waved goodbye. I now had the rest of the afternoon and evening to see the rest of the city and acquire a Vietnamese Visa for the following morning. I stood out on the street and saw two 18 year old boys lazily sitting on their Tuk Tuk. I waved them over and spent the next few minutes bartering with them. We then came to the agreement that they would chauffer me across the city, wherever I wanted to go, for the rest of the day, for 10 USD.
My first stop was the Vietnamese Embassy where I stood begging for a Visa. Just as I had arrived two Australians had told me that they had been told it would take three days to process a Visa. I was worried as I had to leave the following morning. I stood up straight and tried to look as confident as possible. With a little charm I was able to convince them (three bug eyed Vietnamese men behind a glass window) to give me a Visa on the same day. They charged me double the price mind you (45 USD) but I was able to pick up my passport in three hours time!
I ran back to my Tuk Tuk and told the boys to drive across the city to S-21, The Tuol Sleng Museum. The museum is an educational and eerie walk through the very rooms where thousands of innocent men and woman were tortured to death. While walking down the corridors of the Museum, with their checked tile floors and cream walls, it’s not hard to imagine the site’s simple origins as the Tuol Svay Prey High School. However, delving into former classrooms shatters any illusion of normalcy. A single rusty bed and a disturbingly gruesome black and white photo are all that adorn the unthinkable horrors that happened here. In 1975 Pol Pot’s security forces turned the school into Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest center of detention and torture in the country. Almost everyone held here was later executed at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Detainees who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. During the first part of 1977, S-21 claimed a terrifying average of 100 victims per day. Tuol Sleng demonstrates the darkest side of the human spirit that lurks within us all. It is not for the squeamish, but a visit here is instrumental in understanding Cambodia’s past and present.
Looking up at many of the foreign faces at the Museum one feels a rather depressed mood in the air. It’s impossible not to walk around speechless. I quietly walked back to my Tuk Tuk and sat in the back seat. My two young drivers looked up at me and said, “It is so sad, yes?” I responded, “yes it is so terrible what happened here.” Staring up at my two 18 year old drivers, realizing the three of us had somber faces, I understood how painful it must be to grow up in Cambodia. These two boys spend every day driving around tourists who come to see the torture which their parents and grandparents endured. It is almost as if Phnom Penh has become the torture tourism capital of Asia.
From the Museum my drivers dropped me off at the entrance of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the diminutive local skyline of Phnom Penh. Hidden away behind protective walls and beneath the shadows of striking ceremonial buildings, it’s an oasis of calm, with lush gardens and leafy heavens. As it’s the official residence of King Sihamoni, parts of the massive compound are closed to the public. Within the palace interior is the extravagant Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is covered with five tons of gleaming silver. You can sneak a peek at some of the 5000 tiles near the entrance. Rivalling the floor, an extraordinary Baccarat-crystal Buddha sits atop an impressive gilded pedestal. Adding to the lavish mix is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha, which weighs 90kg and is adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats.
I walked up a tiny path and reached a small set of stairs. I walked up to the entrance of a small temple where several tourists seemed to be waiting in line for something. I poked my head inside and found a small Buddha shrine surrounded by glowing neon lights. An old man with bowed legs sat on the floor while a foreign woman sat opposite him. He instructed her to put a deck of wooden cards over her head and she then inserted a small pin. He looked at the top card, closed his eyes and spoke to the English interpreter who then revealed her fortune. I found it rather funny as the man basically said, “Your life is hard right now but it will get better.” What a lovely fortune, five dollars later, I could have told her that for free!
From the Palace we zipped across the city to the Capital Tour office where I bought a ticket to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) departing the following morning. With my ticket in hand I hopped back on the Tuk Tuk and had the boys drop me off at a cheap hotel in the Psar Russia area. I found a single room for 5 USD a night, quickly signed in and hopped back on the Tuk Tuk. We then drove to the opposite side of the city, reaching the Vietnam Embassy once again just before they closed for the day. Passport and Visa in hand I hopped back onto the Tuk Tuk and drove back to my previous hotel on the river where I waited a few minutes before receiving my cleaned laundry. I lugged all of my various bags onto the Tuk Tuk and took one last journey to my new hotel on Psar Russia. I gave my two drivers a big hand shake and waved them goodbye.
After having a relaxing shower I walked across the street and sat in a hole-in-the-wall Northern Indian restaurant. I stuffed my face with Chicken Korma, Naan, Vegetable Samosa and Mango Lassi. All of the food was served on flimsy plastic plates wrapped in tin foil. I couldn’t help but giggle at their attempt to make their little joint higher class than it actually was. I stared up at the television and was thoroughly entertained by several Indian pop music videos (sexy boy bands from Mumbai? Who would have known?) I then watched thirty minutes of an Indian TV Soap Opera which had me in stitches. They filmed a scene which lasted thirty minutes that in any other country could have been filmed in two or three. Each of the female characters whenever shocked, enamored or upset would have a slow motion camera pan across their expression. They did this for all four main characters. So, when the hot stud of a man whom all four ladies fancied announced, “I am a salesman” I fell on the floor laughing as the camera panned on each of the young girl’s faces. An, “I’m in love” corny moment. I headed back to my room to clean the curry residue out of my mouth and went to be early. I turned off my light and spent the next hour listening to a chicken, pig and dog play with each other outside my window.