BootsnAll Travel Network

A World Away

The sun was shining brightly as I woke up in our luxurious guesthouse in Pnomh Penh. I checked my watch, and it was only about 8:30am, which was clearly not a long enough sleep after the previous days’ travel, but with the prospect of no rain, I forced myself out of bed and tried to calmly wake Paul up. Finally, after some negotiating, he too realized that it was too nice of a day, and while we were in no mood for sightseeing some of the major attractions in Pnomh Penh, we wanted to get out and explore the city. But our first goal would have to be food. We set off in what would be the first of many tuk-tuk rides to find something to eat, and began to catch of glimpse of what a completely different place Cambodia is, to what our first two days impression was. After a leisurely breakfast in a restaurant that clearly caters towards all the Embassy and NGO staff nearby, we headed back to our guesthouse to try and figure out what we would do that day. In my tired stupor the previous night, I had left my precious merino wool sweater in the van, and I was strangely desperate to get it back, so our first order of business would be to call Chanta so she could get a hold of our taxi driver. We ran into Louis and Leen, the Belgians, and wandered around town until we found an internet cafe.  Pnomh Penh has clear French influences, and the wide boulevards, tall trees and sprawling colonial mansions surrounded us as we wandered the streets. We managed to make a phone call to Chanta, who was staying with a family friend in Pnomh Penh, and we arranged to meet her at a shopping mall, and after emailing we wandered over to find her. What a difference a day makes! There she was, getting her nails done and her hair done, in a new outfit she said she bought that day. She ended up throwing away her clothes from the previous day, white capri pants of all things. After reliving our crazy trip from the day before, I asked her if she had found my shirt or had our drivers number.  Luckily, she did,  and made a quick call; he had found my shirt and assured her he would drop it off for me, crisis averted.

After a quick lunch at the food court in the shopping mall, we made plans to meet up again at the Russian market, a cavernous place full of little stalls, selling the obvious souvenirs and trinkets, but was also the place to get brand name Western clothes that are made in Cambodia, like North Face, Columbia and Gap. And unlike in Thailand, these were technically real, not knockoffs, as they come straight from the factory where they make. How they get to the market is a whole other question. We wandered around the market, picking up a few odds and ends, as I made a mental picture of what I would buy when I returned, as I didn’t want to lug it around Cambodia for a month. We met up with Chanta again, and as we had promised each other the night before, we arranged to have some dinner together to celebrate our travels. Chanta and her friend took us across the river to a large restaurant and entertainment complex, which offers live entertainment and authentic Khmer food. We were a strange group, and we got stared at from every angle in this restaurant, that easily seats 1000 people. But we got a nice table in front of the stage, and Chanta and her friend quickly ordered a few dishes for us to try, and we ate family style, trying everything on the table. It was delicious! While Cambodian food is clearly not as well known as Thai or even Vietnamese, it was really good, and the fish dishes especially were wonderful. I was instantly hooked. We had ordered too much food, and had to leave some of it on the table, which made me completely sad and guilty as we passed some beggars outside the restaurant as we were leaving. Cambodia is clearly a country with vast disparities in wealth, as the restaurant was full of local people, and outside the restaurant were beggars and poor hawkers, trying to make a living. It would stay on my mind the entire length of my travels. Still recovering from the previous day, we said our goodbyes and thanks to Chanta, as she was flying home to San Francisco the next day. Without her help, we fully admitted we would have been back in Bangkok. After a quick drink in a riverside cafe, we headed home as well.

After another restful night, Paul and I woke up early to try and get all of our sightseeing accomplished in one day. After negotiating with a tuk tuk driver for the whole day, we headed out of town first to see the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  A bit outside of town, this was where about 17,000 men, women and children who had been held at the Tuol Sleng prison in Pnomh Penh by the Khmer Rouge, were brought to be executed. They have found 129 mass graves, some of which they have decided not to dig up. There is a large memorial stupa now, which gruesomely houses skulls and bones and old clothing of the victims. What was strange was that it was a slightly peaceful experience for me, as the graves are in what used to be an orchard, and it is actually a beautiful setting. It was a strange dichotomy to walk around these graves, knowing what torture they endured, and while their deaths were cruel and needless, their final resting spot hopefully will bring them some peace. There wasn’t much information to read about the killing fields, so we headed back to town. Our tuk tuk driver was very knowledgeable about all the sights in Pnomh Penh, and basically arranged our day for us, telling what time things were open and closed and which were grouped together.

We made our way to the National History museum, a small but very pretty building housing statues and other antiquities. The museum is also famous for a colony of bats that live under its’ roof, and a new ceiling had to finally be put under to hold up the weight of all the bat guano. We wandered around the small museum and then headed towards the Independence monument, a large monument modeled after Angkor Wat. You can’t enter the monument, so our driver stopped basically in the middle of this huge roundabout to let us take pictures, as other cars honked at us and veered around. Our next stop was Wat Phnom, which is a large pagoda set ontop of the only hill in town. Crazy monkeys scrambled around the top of the hill and while it was a pleasant view over the boulevard below, there wasn’t much else to see and we made our way back down again. Since we were only gone a short while, our tuk tuk driver was surprised to see us, and wondered what we should do. The Tuol Sleng museum wasn’t open during lunch, so we had our driver find us a place to eat, which ended up being the same restaurant we ate breakfast in the day before. But it was decent food so we agreed and enjoyed a nice lunch in their garden. Following lunch, we headed to the main stop of the day, the Tuol Sleng museum.

In 1975, this big high school was taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and turned into a prison. There were more than 17,000 people held here in a 4 year period, and most of whom were taken to the Killing fields to be executed after being tortured for information. When the Vietnamese army finally liberated Pnomh Penh, only 7 prisoners survived the prison. It was a very disturbing place to visit, not just a museum but a reminder of how completely screwed up the human race can be. In what was once a nice high school, classrooms were turned into torture cells, and other floors held hundreds of prisoners, including many women and children, the latter who would then be trained as prison guards themselves, sometimes controlling their own family members. The Khmer Rouge kept records of every person to enter the prison, and their photographs were on display in a huge ground floor classroom. Individual story boards were another exhibit, and at 3pm we made our way to the movie room to watch a film, which combined the personal account of one family with history and actions of that time. In some ways, I wish I had hired a guide to take me around and explain some things, but in other ways, some things don’t need explaining. And after the video, Paul and I agreed we had had enough and left the museum. It was a very mentally exhausting visit, something I couldn’t really wrap my head around at the time. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for killing over 20% of the Cambodian population, almost a 4th of the country died either directly in murder, or indirectly from famine and disease. While the Vietnamese liberated Pnomh Penh in 1979, the Khmer Rouge fought well into the 1990’s, and finally in 1998 came peace to Cambodia with the death of Pol Pot, though many Cambodians don’t truly believe he is dead. Not surprisingly, I had learned very little about Cambodia in any history class I’ve taken, and what I have learned was always somehow wrapped up with the Vietnam war. The US took a huge part in the infighting of Cambodia, trying to weed out any communism that might be lurking in it’s hills. it is well worth reading about the vast amounts of money that flowed into Khmer Rouge hands from US.

Quickly getting tired, we headed towards our last stop of the day, the Royal Palace. On the other end of the spectrum of Tuol Sleng, the Grand Palace is just that, a huge sprawling complex of wats and pagodas, gardens and living quarters. The main attraction is the silver pagoda, a large structure that is so named for the hundreds  of silver tiles lining the floor. Paul and I wandered a bit around the complex, but realized the hypocrisy of it all, after visiting a place like Tuol Sleng, and then seeing such a display of wealth just around the corner basically. It sort of made us a bit sick, and as we were tired anyway, we cut our visit very short and headed home. We had plans to meet the Louis and Leen for dinner at 7, and after a short nap and shower, we met them in the lobby. Paul and I wanted to try a restaurant that helps train local children in the restaurant trade, and luckily Louis and Leen wanted to try it as well. The restaurant was really nice, and perusing the large choices of tapas, both Western and Khmer dishes, we made some choices and settled in with a drink. The food was outstanding as it turns out, and we were happy to pay a bit more than normal for a good cause. Following dinner, we headed out to a local bar, which was new and sleek and modern, and could have been found in any big city of the world. We again were bewildered that we were in Cambodia, as we could have just as easily been drinking our gin and tonics in London or NYC or someplace, and we were shielded from the real world for a few hours. Again, we went home a bit early, as we had an early bus trip up to the town of Battambang the next day. It would again be a surprising trip, and one that I won’t forget in a long while.

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