Phnom Penh, Cambodia
11° 33' N 104° 54' E
Jun 22, 2009 10:21
Distance 211km

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Blog 17 - Phnom Penh Cambodia

Blog 17 – Phnom Penh


From the Vietnam border we bumped our way along the extremely variable quality road passing numerous small and very poor looking villages and small towns. Between these centres of population, the countryside is surprisingly flat and monotonous with roadside trees and vast areas of land sectioned into small rice field.


The poverty of the country was immediately apparent travelling through the rural areas where what can only be described as peasant farmers toiled in the fields adjacent to their small ‘houses on stilts’. The small towns and villages were instantly recognisable as the backdrop for news reports from third world countries with tin-roofed shacks clustered around unpaved side streets.


After an eight and a half hour, “six hour” bus journey, we eventually pulled into Phnom Penh. Apparently we were at the town’s bus station although it seemed more like a traffic jam of busses on a city street surrounded by tuk-tuk’s. Not sure exactly where our hotel was, the ‘organiser’ who came with the bus very kindly showed us on a map and told us that a tuk-tuk should cost around $2.


Having been accosted by a tuk-tuk driver before I even made it off the bus steps, we agreed the $2 price to the hotel and gladly approached the end of our journey. The difference in the standard of living in the city was quite obvious. The scenes here could have been from any Asian city with the standard throng of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and unusual (from a western perspective) roadside shops selling everything from food to heavy industrial plant. Needless to say there was the ubiquitous KFC although this is the first city where we haven’t seen a McDonalds.


Arriving at the hotel we were met by deafening construction noise in the reception area. The receptionist informed us that the building we were staying in was actually two doors further down the street so fortunately we escaped the worst of it. However, as seems to be the case with most of the cities we have been to, a major construction project was ongoing across the road resulting in the ‘river view’ being replaced by timber fencing. We suspect the promenade was probably being re-built but we never did find out exactly.


The hotel itself was nice enough but located in the city centre, offered a view of a tin-roofed market area and what seemed to be an open-air car repair garage.


With only two nights in the town, we decided (as usual) to try and squeeze as much as possible into the following day and retained the services of Bora, our tuk-tuk driver for the day at a rate of $20. While this is still relatively cheap, it was a  surprise to us just how much more expensive Cambodia was than neighbouring Vietnam. This was particularly evident in the restaurants and bars.


Despite having their own currency (the Riel), as with Vietnam, the US$ is the preferred form of currency, even to the point that the ATM’s dispensed dollars rather than Riel. The only small snag is that anything purchased for less than a dollar resulted in change being given in Riel which with such a small value, is next to useless.


Planning on heading to Siem Riep by boat we got Bora to take us to the boat booking office first thing in the morning only to discover that apparently they had run out of water and the boat couldn’t sail up the river for another month when the monsoon season had replenished supplies. As luck would have it (we were more than a bit suspicious about that one until we saw the river for ourselves) the same man who told us the boat wasn’t operating just happened to be able to sell us tickets for the bus.


Knowing only a very little about the country’s history and the Pol Pot atrocities we felt almost a duty to visit the ‘S21’ prison and ‘Killing Fields’ just outside the city. During Pol Pot’s crazed attempt to return his country to basic subsistence farming, 2.5Million people were taken to the S21 prison and tortured before being transported out of the city to the Killing Fields.


The vast majority of these people had committed no more crime than to be educated and therefore did not conform to Pol Pot’s idealistic peasant lifestyle. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, school teachers and even anybody who wore glasses, were regarded as criminals against his ideals and had to be eliminated.


The prison has been left un-modified as a museum and reminder to all of what happened there with the small cramped cells and torture rooms providing a chilling insight into what went on there less than thirty years ago. Thousands of black and white photographs on display inside show the faces of the ‘criminals’ as they were registered at the facility and the look of terror in their eyes as they realise what lies ahead of them is genuinely spine chilling.


The Killing Fields themselves are equally horrific places. The field outside of Phnom Penh is only one of many scattered around the country but contains a glass walled monument to the dead containing thousands of skulls dug up in the area. For a donation, we obtained a guide who walked us through the area and explained the history behind it. In addition to having lost his own uncle here, his ambition is to complete his masters degree in history to become a school teacher and ensure that the atrocities are not forgotten.


Despite reservations about sensory overload, we then agreed to visit a local orphanage, taking a 50kg bag of rice with us, as they rely on donations to feed clothe and educate the children.  Like the video reports you see on Comic Relief, we entered the compound to be greeted by a sea of smiling children who, despite having virtually nothing, really touched our hearts with their trusting friendliness and affection.


After playing with the children for an hour or so, we left to visit the Royal Palace – a very impressive series of temples and pagodas, however having seen so many of these over the past two months we very quickly worked our way through and headed back to our tuk-tuk.


Arriving back at the hotel we splashed out and bought a tube of Pringles for afternoon snack (for what seems the standard price when they’re not sure what to charge a foreigner, of $1).


With the intention of finding somewhere cheaper to eat than last night, we discovered the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (which was actually more expensive than last night but had a fantastic open fronted veranda on the first floor overlooking the river. Forgetting our plan to eat local cuisine, we had superb fish and chips and pizza.


The following day, we were collected by a minibus and taken to the bus booking office where the Siem Reap bus departed from. Speaking to other passengers who had all paid different amounts for the same ticket, it appeared that we had done not to badly with ours and – as luck would have it – the man who sold us the tickets arrived to tell us he had arranged for his nephew, a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, to collect us from the bus station.


Once again, the bus came with an ‘organiser’ who dished out bottles of water, wet-wipes and counted us all off and on the bus at toilet stops. Among the several stops was a snack stop where we had a range of unidentifiable fruit, fried locusts or spiders – I had a very nice dry loaf.


Having endured six hours fifty minutes of the seven hour bus journey (only one hour longer than we were told!) with only one earphone working on her iPod, Vicki fortunately saw the funny side when I suddenly remembered that I had a spare set in my bag.


Finally arriving at Siem Reap bus station (for some reason located outside of the town with no onward transport other than, surprise surprise, some tuk-tuks), we were met by Mr Snar who gave us a free ride into town in return fro hiring him the following day for a temple tour.


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