Our journey moves to another country and we were both looking forward to what Cambodia had to offer us. We’d spoken to many travellers coming from here and we had not heard a single bad thing about this country.
We toyed with the idea of getting there via the Mekong from Chau Doc, but decided our Mekong trip had satiated our river travel urges, for now, so we opted instead for the Mekong Express direct from HCMC to Phnom Penh. A journey which was promised in six hours, but in the end took just over, not a bad experience at all.
The Mekong express is a comfortable coach with good leg space and you get a complimentary water and snack box along the way, as well as an on-board ‘hostess’ that updates you along the journey. The border crossing was seamless, probably due to some exchange of Dong and Rial we saw from our hostess to the border guards. This meant our requested entry visa was dealt with very efficiently, and we used a few more from our stockpile of photocopied passport pictures, that we’d brought from home.
We decided to try our luck in a fifteen dollar a night hotel in Phnom Penh. Our first impressions, when we arrived at the Hometown Hotel, were not favourable. However, the place grew on us, the staff were pleasant and although things broke while we were, they were fixed promptly when we let the staff know. It was also in a great location by the waterfront and close to the Palace, National Museum and, as we found out, two great little gay bars.
Cambodian Gay Pride
For our first evening we decided to check out the Rainbow bar which was just a few doors down from our hotel and it is a tiny little place, but they have ‘cabaret shows’ on and it had a great atmosphere, with visitors spilling out onto the road.
We also discovered it was Lesbian and Gay Pride week in Cambodia, something we neither knew existed or that it would be happening while we were there. Gay Pride in Phnom Penh consisted of a week long series of LGBT events held in different locations around the city, and activities included blessings, yoga, film showings, exhibitions and parties. As a result of a Pride event, the bar soon filled up, and we had a great night here with some interesting US Peace Corp volunteers who we met, before moving on with them to the Blue Chilli Bar around the corner.
This was a larger bar and accommodated us into the small hours of the morning as we continued to chat to fellow Pride revellers. We wandered back to Hometown in the early hours of the morning having had a great and unexpected first night in Cambodia’s capital city. Phnom Penh has about 5 gay bars and 2 clubs which are of a high standard.
Sightseeing Culturally Speaking
Phnom Penh is filled with French influenced buildings down all the small streets of the central district and on the river front. It also sports some more impressive grander buildings dotted about the city. These architectural titbits pale into insignificance though when put against the grandeur and beauty of Khmer temples and palaces.
We visited Wat Phnom which was about two kilometres from our hotel and I decided it would be pleasant walking up the riverside along Sisowath Quay. What we hadn’t banked on though was the heat and humidity. We thought we were getting acclimatised after a month in Vietnam, but it is just energy sapping here.
We arrived after many rest stops only to find the Wat is perched on a little hillock, so we had some steps to negotiate, bugger. A rest at the Wat and then we made our way to the Train station along street 96 admiring the French boulevard and the Raffles Hotel (not quite as grand as its Singapore sibling), and the huge American Embassy.
The train station is interesting in that it has no trains. The Cambodian train service has not been operational for some years, but the promise is that the infrastructure is being rebuilt and freight services are currently the only trains running.
The National Museum is a must do visit on a trip to Phnom Penh. The collection of Khmer treasures are displayed in a stunning building, and we pottered around here for a good hour or so. The exhibits are impressive and the setting around a quadrangle of ponds and palms encourages you to sit and have a rest for half an hour afterwards and just take in the ambience of the place.
We arrived at about 11.30am and the last of the coach tours was just leaving so we had the place pretty much to ourselves except for a handful of other visitors.
There are many Buddha statues among the collections and at various points you will be asked to buy a beautiful scented flower arrangement to offer to the Buddha along with a prayer. We declined, as we are not of that faith (in fact not of any faith really) but we did see the women collecting up the offered flowers for resale to the afternoon crowds. Bit cheeky we thought, but I suppose its green and good to recycle.
You are not allowed supposed to take pictures inside the museum, without seeking special permission, but it seems a shame so we broke the rules here and there.
The second must see is the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda just around the corner, it costs US $6.50 entrance, but it is well worth it as you will see the moment you enter the grounds. The planting and palaces are kept in tip top condition.
These are an expansive set of stunning Khmer buildings built in the mid nineteenth century in a huge site covering around 180,000 square metres. You need to leave at least a couple of hours for this visit to allow enough time to wander through the different buildings, gardens and exhibits.
As we neared the end of our tour there the afternoon monsoon arrived and it was a real belter. Visibility reduced to around 10 metres and we just made to a little covered area towards the exit where we found a DVD playing a documentary about Angkor Wat which kept us entertained while the rain eased some thirty minutes later.
Our visit to Phnom Penh would not be complete without a visit to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng museum. Unlike the visits to the temples and museums this was not going to be a day of joy and wonderment, but one of painful history, astonishment and reflection.
The killing fields are located about 15km out of the city so you will need to get a remork moto. I’m guessing the word remork dervies from the french work remorque meaning trailer as these taxi rides are much more spacious and comfortable than a tuk tuk ride and can easily accommodate four people. Be prepared for a dusty ride as you bump along some of the unsealed city roads.
I remember the atrocities that were committed here by the Khmer Rouge reported on the news when I was young. Nothing prepares you though for witnessing the places which were the focus of these acts of genocide during Khmer Rouge era. John, who once he commits to something won’t let it go, also became an avid supporter of the Blue Peter appeal to try and raise funds to help the Cambodians who managed to avoid being massacred.
The Choeung Ek memorial centrepiece is a Buddhist Stupa which is the final resting place for the skulls and bones of some of the estimated 17,000 – 20,000 Cambodians who were killed here at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
The grounds are small and for your entrance fee you are provided with an excellent, informative and at times chilling audio commentary of the abominable events that took place here just over thirty years ago.
Some of it you know, but through the narrator and the stories of survivors contained in the commentary you get to learn some graphic and difficult to handle details.
For me the most difficult moment was the explanation of ‘The Killing Tree’. The tree stands next to one of the mass grave pits and was used to smash the heads of babies against to kill them, the remains of whom were eventually found in the adjoining grave. Visitors have taken to attaching friendship bracelets to the grave fence or to the tree, as a mark of respect.
The commentary explains that to save bullets people were murdered with whatever the guards had at hand; picks, hoes, bamboo sticks and the sharp bark spikes of coconut trees used to slit prisoners throats. Its incomprehensible to me that a human being can commit such acts of violence against another person.
Pol Pot said “Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to keep an enemy alive by mistake.”
I can just about comprehend a single despotic, deranged leader believing in their own misguided path, but to get thousands of ‘lieutenants’ to carry out such acts on their behalf beggars belief. Truly sickening, but for those who did not follow the party line, they and their families also became victims. The visit here is not an easy one and you’ll spend time here, along with the other visitors, in respectful silence as you listen to the horrifying story as you wander the grounds of the memorial.
Our half hour journey back to the city gave us time reflect on what we had heard and seen before visiting the place that many of those killed at Choeung Ek, spent a miserable and tortuous few months before their deaths.
Tuol Sleng was a former primary school, a sick ironic choice on the part of the Khmer Rouge, turned into a torture prison after the Khmer Rouge wrested control of Phnom Penh and emptied this and all other cities. Sending city dwellers to the countryside to work in the fields as virtual slaves, starving, dispossessed and under the rule of the ideological communist doctrine of Pol Pot.
The prison was used to torture those accused of acts against the regime and included many women and children. Prisoners were kept here and tortured for anything up to four months until they ‘confessed’ to their crimes and were then sent to the killing fields to be executed.
In a sick, but now historically valuable, act of order on the part of the Khmer Rouge the records of prisoners, their confessions and images were kept by the regime. Some of these form part of the displays inside the former torture cells and serve as a small window into the lives of those that suffered here.
There were few survivors of the jail, but the few that did provide graphic descriptions of the barbaric acts that took place here. There is an international court under the auspices of the UN trying the remaining leaders of the former regime, to date only one senior person has been convicted; Kang Keck lev (known as Duch) who was head of the prison here. There was picture of him in one of the displays, suitably adorned I thought.
The Cambodians are proud of their recovery from this dark period in their history and they are keen for visitors to see these places too. I would urge you to take the time to do as they ask, its important we remind ourselves, lest it happen again some place else in the world.
Phnom Penh’s Unsavoury Expat Community
Phnom Penh is a developing city, the capital of the country sees new high rise buildings and developments sit side by side large pockets of continuing poverty. Aid organisations are visible throughout the city, and the country seems to be getting some overseas development aid to re-build its infrastructure and move itself into line with other Asian nations.
Sadly we also witnessed some of the negative aspects of a developing country. Along with the many well meaning, we also bumped into quite a few unsavoury expats living the lifestyle off the local people, rather than with them. Treating the local staff poorly in restaurants and bars, or just generally opining with each other with their half-hearted negative opinions about the country, which they are living in. A bit ironic I thought. We had to leave a couple of places, as once John bites he won’t back down, and to engage with these morons is not going to change their view of their own self-importance, I won’t go on to describe the context of the conservation, it was just too offensive.
Despite efforts by the government and some NGOs here, to clean up the sex tourism business in Phnom Penh, it is sadly still visible. There are a lot of campaigns inside the country to try and protect the poor children being abused. There is a hotline to report any incidents you may witness, and we have the number and shall use it if the need arises.
That said Phnom Penh is an engaging city, the people are really friendly with great language skills (slipping easily between Khmer, English and French). With the exception of a bit of a haggle with a tuk tuk driver you don’t feel you are being ripped off. The city has enough sights and entertainment to engage any visitor for a few days and, dodgy or creepy westerners aside, I would happily recommend a visit here, its safe, friendly and entertaining for a visitor.
If you visit Phnom Penh and feel the need for a massage, seek out the Seeing Hands Blind Massage at #142, 172 Street. I had what was probably the best pressure massage I have ever had, delivered by someone who could manipulate muscles like no other I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.