Jenny\'s Southeast Asia/China Adventure

Travel time: February - June 2004  |  by Jenny Chu

Cambodia: Phnom Penh

Sunday, 3/21
Day 46, Phnom Penh

Shuttled to the bus station at 7 am for our departure to Phnom Penh, I was hardly awake and ready for the treacherous road journey ahead. Our bus was full, but everyone had their own seat, which I now realize is a true luxury in Cambodia.

We departed amazingly on time and rolled out onto the brown, dusty, thing resembling a road. For the next six hours, except for a lunch stop, we drove past miles of seemingly nothing save for a few desolate dirty looking towns. Sometimes, the dust was so thick we could hardly see a thing outside our windows. Sometimes, the road was so bumpy I thought the bus was doubtless to get a flat tire.

Luckily, we made it into Phnom Penh around 1pm entact, giving us time to settle into our guesthouse (Guesthouse No 9 Sister) which was located in the heart of Phnom Penh's backpacker's ghetto. For $4, we had a decent room with bathroom, a view of a dirty, polluted lake, some hammocks to lay on and a restaurant located on premise. Being fully accustomed to the backpacker lifestyle, I couldn't ask for much more for the price I was paying. Food in Cambodia should come cheaper tho. For lunch I had an ice coffee and greasy noodles for $3, mucho expensivo by S.E. Asia shoestring standards.

After a much needed nap, Anna and I left to see the capital of Cambodia. I liked Phnom Penh immediately. Located at the confluence of three rivers, this capital city seemed to offer an intoxicating blend of East meets West. There were Western restaurants set in old colonial buildings, cyclo drivers, food vendors selling delicacies by the road, a few Mercedes cruising amongst countless mopeds - all driving without any form of traffic law obedience, and outdoor markets big and small.

Our plan was to walk by the riverbanks and find the Foreign Correspondants Club, a posh restaurant/bar geared for the expat set. On the way, we walked through a park with the temple Wat Phnom situated on top of the hill, encountering a group of monkeys that were jumping around in the trees, rolling on the grass, and eating fruit fed by onlookers. How the heck these monkeys came to live at the park right smack in the middle of the city, I never did figure out. Nearby in the road stood an elephant trained to give rides. Bizarre. When we realized we had to pay $1 to go inside the temple, we opted not to see it - you do have to ration your temple sightings in SE Asia!

Crazy Phnom Penh monkeys.

Crazy Phnom Penh monkeys.

Old French-Colonial Building.

Old French-Colonial Building.

We then sauntered down the wide embankment alongside the river. Despite the throngs of people doing exactly the same, Phnom Penh offered a relaxed atmosphere with just enough buzz to justify its capital city status. Soon, Anna and I found the FCC located in a charming old colonial building on the riverbanks. We got seats offering an optimal view for people watching and ordered a few pints of Angkor beer. Next to us was a Californian woman, the first Cali person I have met on my trip. She has been traveling for almost two years after the sale of her Mill Valley house. Gee, I wish I had a million dollar house to finance my travels too!

Anyway, clearly enjoying our first night in Phnom Penh, we decided to go all out and treat ourselves to dinner at the FCC (even though the prices were hardly expensive by Western Standards, ordering a $7 dollar entrée seemed steep). For the second time in Cambodia, we feasted upon a Mediterranean spread of foccacia bread, tomatoes, olives, and hummus. Oddly enough, Cambodia and Mediterranean food seems to go hand in hand.

Anna and I enjoying ourselves at the FCC.

Anna and I enjoying ourselves at the FCC.

View of night time in Phnom Penh from FCC.

View of night time in Phnom Penh from FCC.

Several hours later, full and tired, we sat in a cyclo - our driver shuttling us in and out of traffic back to backpacker grotto.

Monday, 3/22
Day 47, Lessons of the Khmer Rouge

Breakfast took forever to be made, so we were ten minutes late getting to the Grand View Hotel (located close by in grotto) to begin our day of sightseeing. Although not a fan of tours, this one basically served as a means of cheap transportation ($5) to the five sites we had chosen to see: Tuol Sleng Museum, Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda, Killing Fields, Russian Market and the National Museum.

I was sure that they would wait for us. However, our driver had already left leaving us to sit in the lobby munching on our baguettes w/ omelets while we waited for someone to drive us over to the Tuol Sleng Museum on the back of their ride.

Twenty minutes later, Anna and I hopped onto the same moped. As I sat sandwiched between her and the hotel dude, I wondered how in the world Cambodian families manage to squeeze five people onto one little vehicle. But they do; Mom, Dad, three kids, and sometimes even a dog is found sitting in the front, paws on the steering wheel, calmly riding through the chaotic traffic of Phnom Penh. No longer a stranger on mopeds, I was still lacking the poise of those pooches, thus I grabbed on tightly as we dashed through the lanes of rush hour traffic.

Luckily, we made it to the Tuol Sleng Museum just in time to catch a documentary about the S-21 prison, in which we now sat. A few prison survivors decided to share with the outside world, the atrocities committed against them inside this dark place. Their narration of the torture inflicted upon them, was eerily reminiscent of Holocaust days. Victims included women, children, men and even a few foriegn nationals. Also included in the film were the words of the prison guards themselves. Even as one reenacted how he would punish and interrogate the prisoners, there was not a flicker of remorse in his eyes. Fear is obviously a factor, and I'm sure there are numerous theories on how people can come to embody such evil. Yet, I sat there stunned that Cambodians turned on each other so easily; some even killing their own family.

Anna and I split up the rest of the time to tour the museum, since sometimes you just have to be alone. I spent the most time in a room that contained hundreds of headshots of the prisoners. It was almost as if I could sense their sad existence. Other rooms remained unaltered giving museum-goers a glimpse into the prison cells still containing the torture devices.

Stepping back into the bright, hot sun, Anna and I got into a cool, air-conditioned Toyota Camry (what else?), joining a British woman and her mom, who would tour the rest of the sites with us. Our next stop was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, located 15km from Phnom Penh. We first passed through a Memorial Stupa, which contained more than 8000 skulls, arranged by age and sex. As if that wasn't disturbing enough, a group of children dressed in dirty clothes stood by the mass graves, and shouted out in unison, " Picture? Picture? One, two, three, smile." I didn't know what was sadder, these poor children having to make money this way or the fact that the killing fields were being turned into a Kodak moment site.

Anna originally wanted to stop by the shooting range afterwards, try her hand at one of the large automatic weapons, but too saddened by what she was learning and seeing, we continued on our way to the Russian Market. Saving the shopping for tomorrow, all we wanted was to find some simple market fare for lunch. But with three of us being vegetarians, this proved to be an impossible task. I'm sure if we spoke Khmer we could have mustered up a dish or two, but instead we settled for some yummy fried bananas, and fresh fruit to hold us over.

The next stop was the beautiful National Museum. I must say that while this museum has an impressive lot of statues and what-nots, I whizzed through as it all seemed to pale in comparison to the Angkor Temples. I then opted out of seeing the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace. The admission prices were adding up to a hefty $7 plus $5 for the car, and I was just too tired to appreciate. So, instead I found an internet café, and on the way back spoke a few words of Chinese to a taxi driver, bought some ice cream and somehow managed to cut my hand on some barbed wire as I walked with my arms swinging by my sides. Fun. I could only hope my tetanus shot would do its job.

After a long day, Anna and I decided to lift our spirits by stoping for a foot massage near our guesthouse. For the next hour, the ladies gossiped in Khmer, probably about us, and rubbed our feet displaying no skill or knowledge of reflexology whatsoever. Sitting there unsatisfied, we wished that we were at the Seeing Hands Massage(yes there is one in Phnom Penh too!) instead.

That night our lazy selves ate at the guesthouse again. And forgetting that we should stick to sharing, (Cambodian portions have been turning out too large even for us foodies), we packed our leftovers, walked down the street of the ghetto and offered our food to a woman begging for money.

Tuesday, 3/23/04
Day 48, Illegal taxis, one-dollar haircuts, and ladyboy facials

A shopping tour of the Russian Market was first stop on the agenda today. While the market had a myriad of goodies, I was not quite in the shop till you drop mentality, and only managed to score a Cambodian scarf for my cousin Carolyn. Carolyn works for Nike, and will happen to be in Saigon for business around the same time as me. Looking forward to seeing my first familiar face and being put up in the Sheraton for a couple of nights!

I then wanted to get a hair cut, so Anna and I parted ways, agreeing to meet up for dinner later. For one dollar, my hair was swept to the back and snipped short a few inches shorter. Makes me wonder how I can go back to paying 20 bucks for the same cut back in the states. Come to think about it, I wonder how I will be able to pay for anything in the States after being accustomed to the dirt-cheap prices here in SE ASIA.

For lunch, I failed to procure a meal from the market again, so I had to settle for a greasy, veggie fried rice, that had only, carrots and cabbage. I then walked out to the corner and was at once greeted with offers of taxi service via moped. I quickly hopped on one after settling a price and told the driver I wanted to be dropped off near this bookstore in downtown. Whizzing through the streets of the city, I almost reached my destination when a bunch of police started signaling to my driver to slow down. Instead of heeding to their orders, my driver decided to do a u-turn right in the middle of the street and headed in the opposite direction. Out to the same boulevard, another group of cops waved for us to slow down, and again the driver took a turn and went down a small street. Now, this is when I figured out that he must not have been a legitimate taxi driver. I wasn't sure how the cops could tell he was not a taxi driver, the mopeds all looked the same to me. Anyway, I wasn't willing to continue on my shady ride any longer. I told the driver to stop, paid him 75% of the agreed fare, and headed out to the nearest big road with my map of Phnom Penh in hand.

Managed to find the London bookstore, exchanged my beloved 100 Years of Solitude for a novel about Shanghai, and then proceeded to wander down a tree-lined street filled with stores catering to the expat community. Thirsty and tired, I walked into a packed little café and sat down at the counter ordering a mint cooler for an obnoxious price. It was somewhat amusing to people-watch and see the expats dressed to the nines, eating Western food that no normal Cambodian would ever be able to afford. Yet, after a bit the somewhat stuffy atmosphere was getting to me, so I left and decided to head back to the guesthouse earlier than planned.

Anna came back a few hours later after exploring a lot more of Phnom Penh than I managed. We agreed to leave the guesthouse for dinner and settled on a nearby Indian restaurant. The food was salty leaving us to contemplate whether we should offer our real honest opinion after first telling the owner/chef that the food was lovely. Well Anna ended up bravely telling the guy what we really thought. He took it well, apologized and gave us some free chai tea to show us his appreciation for our honesty. Before heading back, we stopped by a travel agency to book our minivan tickets to Kampot, our next stop. With our $4 tickets, we got to choose a 15 min foot massage, or a facial. You got to love the entrepreunial spirit in Asia.

Anna took the massage and I took the facial, which was given to me by the first and only ladyboy I would see in Cambodia.

© Jenny Chu, 2004
You are here : Overview Asia Cambodia Phnom Penh
The trip
Follow my travels through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China..........
Start of journey: Feb 02, 2004
Duration: 4 months
End of journey: Jun 02, 2004
Travelled countries: Asia
The Author
Jenny Chu is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 20 years.
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