C’Bodes: Phnom-inal Penh

Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

(things I like and recommend are bolded in case you readers ever go some day)

As the adventure continued, I found myself on an express boat on lake Tonle Sap from Siem Reap headed south to Phnom Penh. $35 was steep for Cambodia, and the van that picked us up from out guest house in Siem Reap was both crowded and tardy, but once we arrived at the shore and gently elbowed our way through the fruit and bread vendors and made it to the boat and flung our bags down it became a pleasant experience; one of the best I’ve had in Cambodia. Sure I should have brought my ear plugs to block the din of the boat engines, but there were many pros. There was a bathroom on board (it’s a 5 hour ride down the lake), I could buy two baguettes and cheese for $2.50, and best of all were the sights to be seen around the boat: fishermen and their children smilung and waving at us, houseboats with hammocks… Unfortunately I can’t remember what else I saw, and I didn’t take any photos so as to make a better mental memory (but you see how well that worked).

Upon arrival in Phnom Penh we shouldered through more offers ( the usual “Hello ladyyyyyy, you wan tuk-tuk?”) and stopped at the Riverhouse for lunch- a nutella/raspberry shake, bbq duck with wok-fried hokkien noodles, and for dessert we split the mousse palet. Everything was delicious. Over lunch we looked over our copy of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring to get an idea of where to stay- we hadn’t booked anything in advance, and we sort of wanted to know where we were going before we set out from Riverhouse with all our stuff to minimize any hustling and heckling along the way.

After looking at a couple of different places we picked a nice one on the river: Royal Mekong Hotel. Rooms were clean, hot water showers, complimentary bottled water, and just $35/night per room. I liked this billboard across the street.

We had a rest and then took a sunset walk through a local street market,

passing the National Museum, which is shaped like a wat (temple), and a lovely silhouette in the evening.

We continued to the river and sat on the wall there admiring the boats when a cheerful, monkey-like street kid came to us, laughing and trying to sell us an orange. It was cute until it wasn’t cute any more. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at Khmer Borane for lok lak (spicy beef) and pomelo saladboth delicious. Pomelo is like a sweet green grapefruit. And of course, Angkor beers to wash it all down. During dinner my friend and I talked about what all of our top places to travel to would be if money were no object. Then back to the hotel to sleep as best we could with Phnom Penh’s traffic roaring down below.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A marathon day in Phnom Penh. Breakfast and free wifi at the charming Cafe Fresco where I had a delicious (and very un-Khmer) pumpkin-artichoke-pastrami-feta-pesto bruschetta in order to fuel up for the Palace

with its Silver Pagoda, where the floors were made of silver and the Buddhas of gold and diamonds. I’ve never seen or heard of so much gold and diamond in one place. The murals were also lovely.

It was cool, but when you think about how poor the rest of the country is it kind of becomes trivial.

Then on to the National Museum (lovely also in daylight) for a brief walk around.

We walked to the Independence Monument which was so-so in daylight, but very cool at night when it’s all lit up.

Next, a tuk-tuk to Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, aka the Genocide Museum. This is the most important thing to see in Phnom Penh- a former high school that was converted into Cambodia’s most notorious prison/torture unit in Khmer Rouge history. Here they interrogated and tortured prisoners until they herded them into a truck and took them outside the city limits to the Killing Fields where they were shot into pits of dead bodies (more on the Killing Fields later). They killed anyone with an education, anyone with glasses for looking like they had an education, women, children, and babies. Just over 30 years ago, making it fresher than the holocaust, though way less well known.

Before entering we ate next door at the Boddhi Tree, a crowded lunch spot with a happy/hippy vibe to contrast the horror across the street. After a chickpea salad, a falafel, and a nice breeze while enjoying the tasty food, we were ready to go next door.

S-21 had four big buildings that had once been filled with high school classes had then been used as holding cells, offices, and torture chambers. There were not many tourists here at all. There were some rooms and even an antire hallway where I was completely alone within the cement walls. Mostly horrifying were the mug shots of every prisoner looking straight into the camera/at you in fear, taken by their captors. There were some preschool aged kids in the mix. On one room we watched an hour long documentary on the Khmer Rouge regime. Out of respect I did not take any photos here, except for the sign at the entrance.

No merriment here!

After S-21 we needed a mental rest so we went back to the hotel to watch Swimming For Cambodia. Dinner was at a French place on the river where I had a pizza and an Anchor (not Angkor) beer. Usually I’m so good about eating the local food but sometimes after seeing a high school-gone-torture chamber you just need to eat a damn pizza.

Saturday, Jan. 10, 2011

Brunch at Chi Cha, featuring all-you-can-eat Bangladeshi food for $4 per head. Veggie samosas were good.

Then to Phnom Penh’s main temple, Wat Phnom, which was depressing- monkeys and beggars everywhere, and $1 admission to get in. Not that a dollar breaks the bank, but shouldn’t all religious buildings have free access? Whatever. Anyway, skip this temple if you’re short on time.

The Central Market was pretty cool, and huge. We just browsed before catching a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields (Cheoung Ek as the Cambodians call it). It was, literally, a field. Full of large holes, where the dead had been shot into over 30 years ago.

You can still find little clothing fragments here are there, sticking up out of the dirt. All of the victims’ skulls had been placed in a clear glass tower in the middle of the fields, displayed all together.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of skulls, most with bullet holes. The grounds were quiet. It was a nice day out. Not many tourists (this city doesn’t have many to begin with, unlike Siem Reap). It was hard to connect with the reality of what happened here. S-21 had certainly felt creepier, I guess because it might be worse to experience torture and imprisonment than a simple shot to the head.

Back in town we had 80 cent Angkor beers and tasty Khmer noodles at On The Corner for happy hour, just by Tonle Sap lake.

The next morning we left to fly to Vientiane, Laos, but not before returning to Cafe Fresco again for a strawberry-watermelon-mint shake.

1 Comment

  1. Must’ve been pretty sad to see all those horrifying things. I went to the Holocaust Museum and it made me really sad. I can’t imagine how much worse it would’ve been. Much more grittier…

    Obviously both events were horrible though. That’s a given. I bet it was a humbling experience. Even for a person like me who doesn’t believe in the afterlife, events like these make me wish there was one because at least all these souls would have a final resting place where they’re free from such injustice, tyranny and genocide.

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I’m no tourist! I have studied in Europe, taught in Southeast Asia, and volunteered in Africa. Blending in with the locals and eating weird new things are priorities when I travel… Though I’m not above the fun touristy musts.


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