17.01.2011 - 20.01.2011 28 °C
It was Monday morning and I was finally feeling human again – the previous two days had been painful sitting in the room all day long as I physically couldn’t go anywhere. My recovery was well timed as we were heading off to our next stop, Phnom Penh. This is the capital of Cambodia and located on the Eastern side of the country.
We were picked up at 10.30am and once again it was another six hour journey. This one was far easier as it involved no border changing. The only annoyance was the bus driver who was rather fond of his horn and beeped incessantly for the whole trip. Please stop? Once again we stopped off at a baron location for a dodgy restaurant with lots of mosquitoes and locals about – a trip to the toilet resulted in me running straight back out much to the amusement of the Khmer people. The smell was unmerciful.
It was obvious we were near our stop when large buildings and traffic began to re-appear. We had just gotten used to a more quiet and simple town only for the chaotic world of Bangkok to revisit us. Roads were choc-a-bloc with cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes (known as motos here and an alternative lift to the tuk tuk that drivers are only too happy to offer for half the price and double the danger).
Khmer people started to wave at us while stuck in traffic – we waved back but when we stated to move again so did they. It was then I realised they were drivers trying to get us into a tuk tuk or moto with them. We soon pulled up at our destination and the front doors opened. The drivers sprinted to the door and feverishly waited outside waving their hands in the air like zombies would for fresh human flesh. We waited until the end letting the other Western passengers go ahead so they could get the brunt of it – only that didn’t really seem to work. Coming off the bus we felt like celebrities with a group of ten drivers screaming for our attention. Thank god I’m not famous as this was just pure brain damage. After picking up our bags myself and Carly were separated by the crowd. At one point I had no personal space at all so I couldn’t help but point at Carly and shout “talk to the wife she makes all the decisions!” in order to send some her way. Woops sorry Carly. A few minutes later we picked the most desperate of the drivers and went with him. To be fair to the tuk tuks here, they are in slightly better condition than their Thai counterparts. The carriages are a little bit more attached and it feels a little bit safer. When we arrived at our hotel the driver was trying to sell us a trip to the killing field, museums or even a random orphanage. I hate booking tuk tuk drivers in advance as I have no idea what time or day we’ll be going so this was an ‘absolutely not’. Only I had to spend another 5 minutes explaining this. He automatically came down 50% in price before finally giving up. Of course, the same driver would appear the following morning having camped outside overnight for a possible fare with us.
Our hotel in Phnom Penh is very much a city centre residence as opposed to the holiday resort feel of the Central Boutique in Siem Reap. The pool is gone, the staff are far less personal and there is a lot less space in comparison. On the other hand it has the most comfortable beds we’ve had yet as well as the shower. Internet connection is much better too! First impressions of the city were not so good. The streets are filthy in comparison to Siem Reap. Traffic is a nightmare, it’s impossible to walk on footpaths due to the stalls/vehicles and walking on the road does not feel like a safe experience given that there are constant motorbikes coming up from behind at all times. Smells ranging from ‘ok I can handle this one’ to ‘what just died?’ fill the streets in the main central location. Cows hanging on spits roasting over flames are a regular street sight. It even led to the purchase of a cheap surgical mask which you can see me in later on! Drivers are much more aggressive than our previous two locations so ‘no’, ‘we’re walking’, ‘dei ar kun’ and ‘no thanks’ are our most frequently used words here.
So what have we been up to over the past few days? On Tuesday we paid a visit to the Royal Palace. This was similar to the one in Bangkok but on a much smaller scale. The grounds themselves are stunning with some beautiful architecture that was built over 100 years ago. After that we had a wander around the town before finding a modern shopping mall – the thrills of in-door air conditioning. We were far too easily pleased with some familiar Western sights. A trip to the arcade resulted in humiliation for me as I decided to have a go on one of the Japanese arcade dancing machines. Unfortunately a local crowd quickly gathered behind me only to point and laugh loudly at my inability to dance. Carly found it hilarious of course.
On Wednesday I decided I needed work out time badly and headed off to a local gym down the road while Carly caught up on more Gossip Girl (she’s watched over 20 episodes - I just refuse) and Wot Phnom, another Temple which apparently has the most bling ever. Anyway, on arrival I quickly discovered this was no ordinary gym as I was greeted by no less than 10 female staff at the front reception (I’m not exaggerating either this time). 6 were behind the counter with the other four split into two groups on both sides. Walking up to the reception the ten of them quickly closed in on me smiling like they had coat hangers stuck in their mouths. They were far too thrilled and it was all too much. Why does Asia insist on having so many staff in their establishments? Is labour THAT cheap? For the record they were all stunning and if I was that way inclined I would have been happy to stay and chat to them all day.
Paying 15 dollars in (well I could hardly bargain with 10 Khmer models starting at me like that could I?) I was expecting it to be good and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Only six months old the gym has fantastic equipment and many more bored staff on every floor looking for something to do – one in particular just stared at me while I did weights so I decided to turn him into a free personal trainer for the afternoon. I took a swim afterwards in the outdoor pool and it was like swimming in a bottle of Evian. It was that fresh. The whole complex was like an extension of a six star hotel. I found out that afternoon that a 1 year membership is 600 US dollars – this is three times the price of most gyms in Ireland and just shows there is a filthy rich market somewhere in Cambodia! Speaking of which, in the middle of all the tuk tuks and 1970s lada rivas are random hummers and executive range rovers – I’d be scarlet driving one in Ireland, never mind here!
Today we visited two of the most infamous sites in Cambodia, the killing fields at Choeung Ek and the genocide prison museum, Tuol Sleng. I had spoken briefly about this in my previous post. The Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia in 1975 in a similar way to the Nazi party and committed genocide on more than 2 million of its own citizens in a bizarre attempt to introduce communism i.e. just under 30% of their entire population. Both sites were terribly upsetting but a must visit as these events cannot be forgotten. We saw the mass graves of the victims at the killing fields where they were slaughtered in the most inhumane ways. Pieces of clothing and cartilage remain stuck in the ground and a monument dedicated to these people house hundreds of skulls and bones. We also saw at Tuol Sleng how the prisoners were kept alive and tortured for false confessions before being taking to Choeung Ek for execution. I took many photos but on reflection feel it’s not appropriate to post on my facebook page. Below I’ve put just a few pictures to give you some sort of idea of what we saw. I would highly recommend researching this tragedy further online via Google or Wikipedia. A documentary DVD also worth watching is ‘Khmer Rouge: S21’.
Tomorrow we leave Phnom Penh and head to Vietnam for our first stop which is Ho Chi Minh. We’re expecting another chaotic city so it’ll be interesting to see how it differs from Cambodia. We’ve very much enjoyed our time and experience in this country – with the exception of the drivers who drove me nuts at times, the people have been so polite and friendly. Most of them will never get the chance to leave their own country never mind South East Asia. Therefore they are always curious to interact with foreigners and ask questions in order to find out more about where we live. Children too will always wave and smile on the street which is so cute. All in all Cambodia is highly worth visiting.
It seems there's something about Carly. Khmer people like to stare at my friend - even when there are monkeys getting it on beside her.
Dolls look like something from Child's Play. It's the Christmas gift from hell.
It seems a popular stop after the Killing Fields is to be taken to the local Shooting Range to fire some rifles. In fact our Tuk Tuk driver nearly insisted on it. We politely declined.
La Dolce Vita on street 172 is the best restaurant in the world... EVER. Cheap as chips and they have everything from Khmer cuisine to Italian, Mexican, Western and Vegetarian. I ate there 4 times, Carly 5! We practically put the owner’s kids through school.
People missing limbs like to jump or leap out at you from around corners and scream for money. I've had more shocks in Cambodia than any horror film I've seen recently.
Lost in Translation this week comes courtesy of Carly: