Ah Phnom Penh (aka PP).
This has been a difficult post to write for many reasons, most if which will become apparent on reading.
Cambodia is often described as a place of contradictions and we have certainly found that in our time here. We have been here over two weeks now but this is not a post about Cambodia, it is a post about Phnom Penh so anyway back to Phnom Penh.
We arrived just after 1.30 pm into Phnom Penh port, the sun was still scorching everything it touched with horrific intensity. Our chosen hotel was just over a km from the dock and as we waited for our bags to be unpacked from the bowels of the speed boat we could see the army of tuk tuk and moto (motorbike) drivers ready to “help” us to our destination.
I’m not sure if I mentioned it before but we had left our Lonely Planet (SE Asia on a Shoestring) behind us by accident at our guesthouse in HCMC so we were flying a bit blind. We don’t like to rely on guidebooks but they do give you a background on the country, some dos and don’ts as well as some rough guides of prices. Ours was also the 2014 edition so prices we’re roughly the same. Apart from the visa of course, that had gone up from $24-$34 in 6 months!
Anyway we knew it was about $2 in the city and managed to bargain the guy down by $1 to get our price. We also organised our trip to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with our driver, who had excellent english, once we got to our hotel- there was some pressure on his part to get us to agree to go and we settled on a price of $20 for a half day- we may have slightly over paid but it was within the expected range.
Our hotel in Phnom Penh was a bit of a step down from the quality we had in Vietnam. Firstly it had no glass in the windows, the door was locked with a padlock through two very tenuous hasps and no aircon, only a ceiling fan. For $14 a night with no breakfast it seemed a bit steep but it was the cheapest place available that didn’t have horrible reviews. The staff seemed nice also. However the signs here had a new warning from Vietnam (there it was no drugs, explosives or weapons- something along those lines), no prostitution. Prostitution is still a massive problem here-and if you are alone, especially if you are a man, you will be offered “a girl”. Since child prostitution is also a problem here, rather disturbingly that might be on offer. Luckily we didn’t see much of either but then if you are not looking for it you won’t always see it.
Anyway once we arrived we settled in with a few beers and contacted Ronan who was about to leave PP for Siem Reap, I think he was almost a week there and we almost missed him. We arranged to meet for dinner that evening.
After a few beers and some giggles at the guesthouse kitten we headed off into PP to meet Ronan. The city had a definite edge to it, but we were keeping an open mind. It was also far dirtier than Vietnam with rubbish everywhere, in piles, stuck in drains and bushes, everywhere, it wasn’t just plastic, paper or glass, it was also rotten meat scraps, decaying fruit parings and rotten fruit and feces from dogs or people. Street cleaners did come round with a small wagon and a shovel but it barely made a dint and we only saw two in the time we were there. By comparison we saw one at least every two hours during the day in Vietnam’s major cities.
There was a market near where we were staying that we wanted to investigate to get a taste of the food here. I’ll be honest, we never went in the end.
We arrived far too early to our meeting point and if we sat down we would instantly be a magnet for everyone on the waterfront. There were a lot of beggars, some with horrific disabilities, one guy was missing both legs and I suspect some of his torso and was moving around on a skateboard with flip flops on his hands to protect them from the dirt and waste on the ground, there were women begging with partially clothed or naked babies-I found this the hardest as most kids were the same age as my nephews. Girls and boys between 4-11 yrs, or 70+ yr old men and women selling counterfeit books, cheap souvenirs and bracelets as well as fake monks (who approached Gav) trying to get him to buy bracelets/prayer beads. The street kids although cute were also adept pickpockets so we were very wary of them also.
Anyway we managed to meet up with Ronan and grab our first taste of Khmer cuisine. I won’t lie, I was underwhelmed. I went for a Chicken Kroeung (which was a bit meh) and Gav and Ronan had the Chicken Amok (- both the guys liked theirs- I wasn’t that gone on this either. After dinner we decided to find a bar with cheap drinks, unfortunately rather than stay on the main strip we went up a side street. Ah PP you are so seedy! Blacked out bars that were as inviting as a rabid dogs mouth with scantily clad hostess ladies outside, or seedy massage places. We ended up resigning ourselves to sitting outside a shop drinking weird thai drinks and watching geckos fight each other on the wall.
The following morning as Ronan headed for Siem Reap and I had awoken with mysterious bites on my arms. Gav renamed me the canary as I am so sensitive to everything (we thought it might have been heat rash first), I was so freaked out I started taking my antimalarials then. After breakfast we headed for the Killing Fields. Our driver was replaced by “his brother” who spoke only a little english- apparently this kind of swap is common. Annoying though.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are just south west of PP, about 40 mins by Tuk Tuk. It was one of hundreds of similar sites all over the country where over 1 million people were executed during the Khmer Rouge period. In Choeung Ek just under 9,000 bodies were found. It was a sombering experience of how brutal people can be. The scars of this period are still palpable across the country but most notably in PP.
Shook as we were by what we had seen, the next stop was S-21 or Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, the site of a former prison and torture camp. Most people who came through here ended up in Choeung Ek. We didn’t take any photos here. As hard as it was taking photos in Choeung Ek (Gav was the photographer) it was even harder here. Plus I wasn’t sure if you even could but people did anyway. Photos of every prisoner that was held there was on display on huge boards, room after room of them.So many faces that are no longer alive as a result of religion, education, ethnicity or because they were thought of as traitors.
With heavy hearts we returned to the hotel to collect our thoughts before going out for a wander round, we were stopped every 10 steps by tuk tuk drivers wanting to take us somewhere but we became quite good at politely refusing them after a while.
That evening we had the first of our too few street food experiences in Cambodia. It was a beef bbq stall with beef strips and cows liver. Given that I have only just started eating beef in the months before this trip after not eating it (other than a tiny bit to see if I still don’t like it) for 18 years I was suprised how good it was. It was actually one of the best meals we had in PP and for less than £3!
The following morning I awoke with even more bites- where as before it could have been prickly heat it now definitely didn’t look like it as it had blistered on one arm, I really feared the worst (bedbugs) but found what looked to be a dead fire ant in the bed and no sign of bed bugs. I am still not sure which it was that bit me but anyway I showed my bites at reception and we were quickly given a new room- on writing this the bite scars are still visible even after 2 weeks, I was very conscious of them for a long time too.
Anyway after this kerfuffle and breakfast we headed for the central market. It had loads of stuff but most interesting for us was the food.
We also managed to pick up an older (photocopied) version of our SE Asia guide and a book about the Khmer Rouge from a survivor (also counterfeit) and a few other bits and pieces.
That afternoon we went to the National Museum of Cambodia. There was a guy selling books at the ticket office, his leg was shattered and he couldn’t walk on it. He was selling books for $10. As much as we wanted to help, we didn’t feel we could spend $10 on a book worth about $4 (they were all counterfeit too). We had a chat to him and said we would see him on the way out. We were going to give him $1 but he wasn’t there on the way out.
As the e-book reader was still acting up we grabbed a few more books in a second hand bookshop- all are counterfeit!
Grabbing a beer at the hotel- they were BBQing some frogs- despite my reluctance they gave me a leg to try it was pretty good.
That evening after some beers and a shower we went to our local “Seeing Hands” massage- these are charities where blind people are trained (to varying degrees) as masseurs to allow them to earn a living. This was going to be Gav’s first massage and the amount of convincing he needed was ridiculous! We both opted for Shiatzu, I went for a full body and Gav for a back, neck and shoulders. We were given some green cotton PJs to change into and then our hour long massage by two blind masseuses began. We both really enjoyed it and were planning to go again later in the trip.
The following day we had planned to go to the Palace. So first thing in the morning we set off. We had the usual array of Tuk Tuk drivers wanting to drives us to the four compass points which we deflected until we met one guy- a total chancer- who when we said we were going to the Palace told us “oh I’m very sorry but the Palace is closed today”. It had a reek of bullshit off it as we knew there was no reason for it not to be open so we continued on our “walk” as at that time it was quite pleasant. When we did get to the palace it was scorching hot, there is no shade there either!! All just open with a few buildings and small gardens!
On our way back we went to the second food highlight of PP- Friend’s International– A charity run to train marginalised children in this case it was catering and hospitality. It was the third charity we supported and the reward for this one was very tasty food! We also grabbed some more books as my e-book reader was having issues. We had planned to go to the Brewery also but it was Saturday- which hadn’t dawned on us- so it was closed.
That evening, our last in PP, we decided to go to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents club) for their happy hour, they were good cocktails and we should have stayed there but went on to a place called Le Moon- we thought it had a happy hour- it didn’t! Boooo! Anyway the lemongrass mojito was nice. Then it was back to our hotel, The Laughing Fatman, for pizza- which was really good before hitting the hay early to prepare for our 5 hr bus ride to Kep on the south coast the following day!