Phnomenal Difference

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, March 30, 2007

Phnom Penh is quite different to Siem Reap - but understandably so.  It is a big, bustling city with over a million residents.  But still, it has that same Cambodian charm which we loved about Siem Reap.  It is weird.  Cambodians are fairly savvy to tourism and the benefits (read: dollars) they can bring in.  However, they have a completely different approach to somewhere like India (where you are also a walking, talking, giant dollar sign).  In Delhi, people manipulated, cheated and lied their way into getting money (or additional money) from us.  We would arrive at a destination and they would tell us the price quoted, agreed upon upfront, was just for one of us or some other fable which would inevitably result in a heated exchange, some form of payment and then a storming off (with a grudge held for a good few hours).  Cambodia is different.  They seem to understand that incredible service, fantastic food and wonderful hospitality will often end in more than the agreed price being paid.  1 + 1 = 3.  So moto-tuktuk drivers have well maintained vehicles with super soft and comfy seats, offer icy, cold face towels (when it gets too hot) and the restaurant staff fall over themselves to help make your dining experience perfect.  And it works!  We are eating well here and spending more than we thought we would because the people have been so gosh-darn nice!

The French influence is here also - but not quite to the same extent as Laos was.  The baguettes are in the shape of baguettes (but they are more bread rolly), the streets are all numbered (not rued) and the only shops with French names are the obviously extremely expensive tourist restaurants.  It is Asia - but not quite. 

To think we both thought that Cambodia would be one of the harder places we would be travelling through.  This belief was justified as we crossed the border on our dirt road passing stilt shack after stilt shack.  Living was incredibly basic and you could see how the injection of funds for a well ($USD85) or something else relatively inexpensive would really make a huge improvement to the way these people lived.  We passed through a few small towns with no sign of English anywhere and we both looked nervously at each other.  Then we arrived in Siem Reap and within half an hour we were ploughing through 3 delicious courses; excited by the prospect of burgundy napkins (rather than disposable serviettes!!), with Edith Piaf playing softly and a silent but effective fan cutting through the Cambodian heat.

Granted our view of this country will largely be through city eyes - as we plan to spend a bit more time in Vietnam so we want to keep moving - but the place is incredibly progressive.  On the flipside, with the average annual wage pushing US $441 - it is pretty obvious that this is just the big cities.

We have had numerous bus trips about the place giving us ample time for observation, analysis and discussion.  Generally, they end in lots of unanswered questions.  I thought I would include a few snippets:

The Pigs

Me: "You know those pigs on the back of the motorbikes that keep overtaking our bus, do you think they are alive?" [Three pigs on their backs tied up as motorbike passengers]
Iain: "Of course not"
Me: "But they seem to have restrained them, especially their faces which are in little wooden cages. I think if they kill them and then drove for 5hrs into town in this heat, they would spoil"
Iain: "The faces might be the best bits of meat. But how do you lift 3 living unhappy legs-flailing pigs onto the back of a bike? And not have them kick and squeal over every bump?
Me: "The same way you lift 3 dead ones. I'm sure the face is not the best bit of meat...."
We need answers.

Pineapple Sellers
Me: "You know those girls - the 'hey sister, you want buy pineapple' girls?  Do you think that giant 6" Huntsman they shoved in our faces was alive?"
Iain: "Yeh, she sort of had one leg between each of her fingers to restrain it, but it was trying to  escape and the legs were moving"
Me: "They really squealed with laughter when you ran back on the bus to get away.  If they could have got back on the bus and put it on you they really would have.  I wonder if they kept it to eat?" [One of the restaurants we ate at served tarantulas].
Iain: silent and shamed. But safe from giant spiders wielded by 9 year old girls.

Me: "Wouldn't the ice last longer if they at least wrapped it in something before attaching it to the back of their motorbike and driving it across town?  It is really melting in bucketloads"
Iain: "You woke me up for that?"

Overloaded Van
Me: "Hey check out that van.  I bet Toyota never knew it could hold about 50 people when they built it."  [The van had about 8 people across the front; maybe 35ish in the back and a motorbike, boxes and another 5 people travelling on the roof].
Iain: "Even the driver is sitting on someone's lap."
Me: "And she looks like a paying passenger. Avoid the US$2 for 400km trip tickets i guess".
"Do you think that place called 'Massage Members: The Club' is in on the joke?"

"Wonder why the female motorbike passengers all ride side-saddle in Cambodia but when you cross the border into Vietnam they sit normally?  I wonder how they stay on side-saddle carrying all those boxes"

"You know that rooster on our bus this morning.... it was in a wicker bag so it couldn't tell how dark it was, do you think it kept crowing because of all the bumps in the road?"
(Iain began to think the rooster was a road quality barometer... it would let out a nervous low warbling cluck as road conditions got worse. But a cock-a-doodle-doo came at the time of the deepest bumps.)

"Do you think anyone actually buys the $3 Dior sunglasses they shove through the window when the bus stops at the traffic lights?"

Garden Snails
"Wow, they are eating them with toothpicks.  They look freshly plucked from the garden.  I wonder if they cook them first?"


Yesterday we shared a sombre day visiting the the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) and then Toul Sleng Museum - the converted school to torture chamber/jail.  Both were a shocking slap in an otherwise happy-go-lucky holiday.  Try as I might, I could not adequately prepare for my visit to these places and the experience was chilling.  We walked around Choeung Ek in silence trying to avoid stepping on the pieces of clothing and protruding bone which were all across the "walking path".  The piles of bones in baskets to the edge of the path were for pieces that you might stumble across and add to the collection (so they weren't continually stepped on).  It was absolutely horrific.  Toul Sleng was also hideous.  It has been preserved in such a way that it looks like Pol Pot left the old school yesterday - rusty barbed wire, barren rooms (except for the torture, I mean interrogation, devices strewn about the place) and the horrifying school classrooms which had been converted into makeshift 80cm x 1m cells.  As this only happened in the late 70s (in MY lifetime), it was made even worse by the photo exhibition of the surviving Toul Sleng staff who (many) expressed no real regrets about what happened.  "We were just doing our jobs..."  The visitor's book was filled with tourists comments: quotes of Psalm this or that; how could G-d stand by and watch this happen; or 'I am speechless'; or this is all the fault of the US; or we are each other's worst enemy - how can humans do such disgusting things to each other.  Another recurring comment was "bad things happen when good people stand idle ... this same thing is currently happening in Nth Korea; Guantanemo, Africa". It really worries me that this type of thing IS happening in my lifetime (now that I am theoretically old enough to do something) but what can I do?  I think it makes it all that little bit more real when you are in the torture chamber, looking at the thousands of anonymous faces of the dead.


Phnom Penh should almost be two different blog entries. Even the locals advise you to combine all the history into one "sad day", and advise you to have a "happy day" before you go. Skip 6 paragraphs if you want to miss some gruesome history, and join us again for "happy day".

The "sad day" is truly brutal. We went to Choeng Ek (The Killing Fields) first. A simple memorial piles skulls up so high that you can't see the top, and in so doing makes its point. The skulls are not replicas, and bullet holes and crushed sections are very visible. As you walk around the site, you start to think whether more of it should be roped off... as the paths wear away more bones are revealed, which the locals reverentially pile into small shrines adjacent to the path. And this continual slow reveal exposure of long human bones and the clothing in which that citizen died magnifies the impact as you try gingerly to avoid stepping on remains... and fail as the task is impossible. Its as if an area the size of 4 football fields is so dense with bodies that the task to exhume them is impossible. In short, you leave feeling sick. There are over 17,000 bodies at this (large) site. Four thousand such sites have been identified around Cambodia.

The day was made weirder by the election preparations (April 1 election day) we heard in the background during our visit. All the time we spent at this Orwellian site had the live musical accompaniment of a 5 note xylophone tinkle played over a megaphone, endlessly repeated, as the central focus of a rally attended by thousands of party members just eager_to_comply.

We then went to S21, the security prison of the Khmer Rouge which was where "high value" prisoners were interrogated prior to being shipped off to Choeng Ek. Around 20,000 were imprisoned: 7 survived. And the interrogations were conducted principally by 15-20 year olds, with many of the jailers being 10-14 years old.

The Cambodian Government gets some credit for this being preserved. Their current PM, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge leader, so its a little suprising this hasn't all been quietly hushed up (still no trials for the leaders though). The museum itself is brilliantly done: they interview the jailers and Khmer Rouge S21 operatives in their current lives today. This makes the experience very vivid: the jailers are from towns you've been, farmers in fields you've passed, and people in the street.

The guestbook at S21 Claude has written about. After all the body shocks you've taken, it is disappointing to read of the denseness of clearly educated people. The typical comment focuses on "another example of the consequences of US imperialism". This was a French territory until 1955. Pol Pot was Mao's #1 protege and entirely funded by China. The US armed Lon Nol's resistance to the Khmer Rouge. The support was withdrawn in parallel with the US withdrawal from Saigon, leading directly to the victory of the Khmer Rouge concurrent with that of the North Vietnamese. All those who fought for an end to the Vietnam War - on the surface a noble cause - should perhaps give pause to the fact that a direct result of this pullout was the eminently forseeable death of 2m Cambodians. Everyone writes tritely in the guestbook of praying it will never happen again, and seeing how many times they can reference and wring hands about the 200 detainees at Guantanomo. None wrote of the eerie parallels with today's North Korea (5m+ dead)... a Maoist regime backed by China starves the poor and rules by terror and a quarter of the population dies. And the world largely stands by so as not to offend China. Such is the fashion. But the similarities jump out.

Anyhow, you can buy books if you want more. And I know we've both written about it. But its just part of seeing Cambodia that you get the "icy shower shock" of seeing this amidst the majestic history and great dining.

For "happy day", we went to the absolutely shite National Museum. The most admirable thing i saw was that they sell a separate Camera Ticket, then have a 'No Photography' policy once inside (you can take pictures of yourself in the outdoor kiosk, no kidding). Other than that, the National Museum has the charm of a Kennards Storage locker and the same intent: it is essentially just to stop people flogging artifacts from Ankhor.

However, the artifacts may be no safer here. Despite many 'Do Not Touch' signs, we found a man riding a cannon and whipping it like a horse. When we ever so politely tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the Do Not Touch sign, he looked a little miffed, but nonetheless complied and returned to his job guarding the exhibits. And for those who wonder how Paul would go as a museum guard, we found one guard who brought his soccer ball to work... and proceeded to do a few little juggling moves before a swivelling, pivoting, crackerjack finish into the ninth century Anghor wall section that served as a goal. The admonishment of a co-worker seemed, going by the fingerpointing involved, only to be a remonstration to at least aim at the eleventh century stuff instead.

Phnom Penh has been hot. The mattress gets soaked with sweat fast. The toothpaste melted. We haven't slept. The only positive lesson i have learned is that no Snickers can melt so much that Claude won't eat it.

Food, even excluding the Snickers, has been exceptional. We realised how much we've lost perspective with the real world when we started to question the fact we had three five star dining restaurant meals out in a row and were feeling some remorse. They ranged in price from US$9 - US$16 (dinner for two, incl drinks)... and the food, service and surrounds were incomparable. Banana flower salads, pork wrapped in grilled bamboo, chicken with fried mango were just the start of a concentrated bit of eating we have put in this week.

Unfortunately, we have been in town at the same time as the International Child Beggars Conference. Begging is rife here, and once again we aim to really only give to the limbless (a lot of land mines still around in the north, and US$1 goes a long way for them). The child beggars here are better dressed and have no qualms about sitting at your table at dinner or going directly for pockets so as to not inconvenience you while you dine.   
As a final highlight, we stumbled upon The Lucky Empire: Lucky Department Stores, Lucky Cosmetics, and most importantly, Lucky Burger. Lucky Burger shows a great deal of foresight, understanding they need to get in ahead of the Western chains that will shortly flood their shores. Lucky Burger stealthily replicates the entire menu of Wendy's, KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and also serves fish and chips. Their logo is oddly familiar, and I nearly had to order a second Big Lucky to have the time to work out that they have appropriated the Krusty Burger logo as their corporate logo. Can't wait for the WhatchamaKarkass burger.

We have now left Phnom Penh for Saigon. Its a week we won't forget anytime soon.    
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