"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself." - Charlie Chaplin

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Life & death in Phnom Penh

Day 4

The 6-hour ride to Phnom Penh was a long and painful one.
Some people who'd been there before recommended the river ferry for its scenic journey, while the Lonely Planet guide mentioned taking the bus was a cheaper and quicker option. I agree with the latter. And at USD25 for the boat ride (compared to USD5 for the bus!), the boat was quite a rip off.

That said, it was quite an interesting ride through a floating village on Tonle Sap lake. But I can tell you, this was no cruise. It was quite an old boat, and we were all crammed along with our luggage on rattan chairs. After exiting the narrow river at the mouth of the Tonle Sap, we were transferred to yet another boat. It was really stuffy inside (no air-conditioning), so many people piled up on the boat roof, sun tanning or reading under the blazing sun.

After awhile, the ride got pretty boring, with just miles and miles of teh tarik lake water around you. By the time we entered another river mouth, fishing villages and waving villagers began to blur. Maybe it was motion sickness from the 4-hour ride. Some comic relief came when water buffalos scurried away from their morning swim to make way for our boat.

When the boat docked, I was hopeful we were near Phnom Penh. But that was not the case. We piled on into a bus (WTF??!!) and continued the journey (another 2 hours, with faulty air-conditioning). We broke for lunch soon after at a shack, with a make-shift toilet. Think a wooden cubicle, where you did your business on the wooden floor and let your excrement fall through cracks in the wood.

I wouldn't have minded that so much, if it wasn't because whatever you washed down from the toilet would end up UNDER the restaurant. Which was the very same area where the owner's flock of chickens, ducks and a pig, played and slept. Needless to say, we decided to munch on our mueli bars. With 6 days left, we didn't want to spend it staring at toilet doors.

Anyway, we arrived in Phnom Penh soon enough, and our guide from Siem Reap, VT and his friend's tuk-tuk picked us up. After taking we checked into our hotel, LY and I both hopped on VT's bike to Kadal, south of Phnom Penh, for his niece's wedding.

Along the way, he stopped to share with us his well-building projects for poor villagers, done with the support of some NGOs. We were quite humbled. To think so many rural folk had no access to clean water, a simple commodity often taken for granted.

A well donated by a kind Australian.

VT's a success story in his little village, and probably the best educated of his generation. We met his grandmother, a delightful old lady with a toothless smile. His sisters, a niece and a nephew made us feel very welcome, with mangoes, sugar cane juice and a beef ball dish on lemon basil. And this was before the wedding dinner.

VT's granny and nephew.

His niece's wedding was quite a grand affair, held outdoors under a canopy with more than 30 tables, loud music blaring from speakers stacked to the ceiling, and food coming out non-stop from the kitchen. The dinner began at 4pm and went on well into the night. Like Chinese weddings, the bride and groom changed clothes once or twice. From traditional garb to western-style dress (white gown and tux). The wedding didn't end until the cake-cutting ceremony, of course.

A Cambodian bride.

There were some things we had to get used to though.
Firstly, some street children from the village would hang around the tables. They stared at the food with hungry eyes, then at you. Guests would either give them something (a can of soft drink) and ask them to go away, or simply pretend they were invisible. Secondly, whatever rubbish (chicken bones, tissue paper and what not), were simply thrown on the floor. By the end of the night, the whole party area looked quite a mess.

That aside, it was a happy party. This was evident in drunk cousins and uncles, and happy tears shed by aunts and sisters. When we left to return to our hotel at 10pm, the party was still in full swing, with more villagers joining in the festivities.

Day 5

A little on our hotel, the Boddhi Tree.
It's really nice and quaint, and right opposite the Toul Sleng Genocide S-21 Museum. The museum used to be a school before it was converted into a prison where people were tortured and killed under the Pol Pot regime.

To be staying near a memorial with such a ghastly history was quite surreal, but once inside this modest guesthouse (USD20 a night with A/C and ensuite bathroom), we felt very much at ease. Food here was really good too, so there was no need to venture out to eat. Apparently it's not too safe in the city for lady travellers.

Boddhi Tree staff were people from difficult backgrounds, specially trained to work in the growing hospitality industry. This was just like another restaurant we went to in the city, called Friends. They run a programme to rehabilitate street children, so they can go to school and stay away from drugs or pimps. They're encouraged to acquire usefull skills like cooking, which would ultimately land them jobs. The food in the restaurant was wonderful, with an amazing choice of tapas and fruit shakes.

Friends Lunch of Mango & Chicken, Sun-dried Tomato Hummus, Fish with Pesto, Fruit Shakes.

Anyway, early next morning, we took off to the Cheung Oek Killing Fields, quite a distance from the city. A grim memorial of skulls and bones with clothes the victims wore before they were hacked to death and thrown into graves they dug themselves. Over a dozen pits where the bones were dug out from remain, and there are many more untouched, for fear of landmines.

We fully understood the brutality and evil of the killings when we visited the Toul Sleng museum opposite our hotel. There were galleries of photographs of victims(before/after) and paintings detailing the means of torture to rival those of the Nazis or Japanese during the Second World War. And to think this happened only 3 decades ago. What made it worse was the fact that the UN did nothing to seek justice for the victims or their families. The people responsible were never punished (but ostensibly given protection instead). Most of the perpetrators had passed on, for undisclosed reasons, just less than a decade ago.

School or prison?

A less depressing side of Phnom Penh would be its vibrant markets. Like Psar Thmei and Psar Tuol Tom Pong. Lots of food and shopping. We decided to save our shopping for Thailand because transactions here were in USD, and we'd lose out in currency exhange and on good bargains. We didn't want to lug too many things around either.

Overheard: "Pig today, pork tomorrow."

We also visited the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum. The Silver Pagoda had silver tiles on the floor, which we didn't realise until we were about to exit because they carpeted the floor to protect it. The Palace was really no big deal while the Museum housed many stone carvings rescued from temples in the Angkor Wat area. Not a must-visit unless there's extra time.

Day 6

When we left Phnom Penh for Bangkok, it was with a sigh of relief. Not because we didn't enjoy the place, but the city felt a little repressive. Even at the airport, our passports were retained and we were stopped for questioning by customs officers, asking why I looked different from my passport photo (long hair then, short hair now). I read in guidebooks that they could give us trouble if they wanted to (even plant drugs in your luggage), so we answered questions as politely as we could (but firmly), hoping we could get out of it without having to pay any bribes or calling the embassy.

Some tips for visiting Cambodia

1. Everything is in USD, and if you're a foreigner, they mark up like crazy. Bargain everything down as much as possible, but not too much because these people do need to make a living.

2. Change some of your US dollars into the local Riels. Tipping with Riels (especially in temples and the museum) would cost a lot less. A tip of 1000 riel is generally okay (4000 riels = 1 USD).

3. Buy a simple USD 1 scarf and use it to shield your face from the dust and sun while you're on tuk-tuks.

4. Use ALOT of sunblock.

5. Always carry lots of drinking water with you.

6. Always ask and reconfirm prices before you buy or hire anything.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stayed at The Bodhi Tree too, when i was in Phnom Penh last year. For some reason, i feel PP is depressing. It's like this vibe I got from the place, unlike Siem Reap.
I also refused to set foot in the Tuol Sleng Musuem, too depressing and morbid.
But i loved Siem Reap..much cheerier!

1:05 pm  
Blogger itchyfeet said...


S21 is really depressing...seeing those pics of so many ppl -young n old getting bruttaly tortured isn't much a happy thingy to do!

sigh..e are so blesssed!

1:34 pm  

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