Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad
Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
92Trip End Aug 27, 2010
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The hop from Bangkok to Phnom Penh is pretty short; too short in fact to fill out all of the paperwork for Cambodia…. four (same-same, but different) documents per person were required….room for some process improvement there, hey Derek? Newly acquired visas in hand we were soon on the way to our guest house in a very welcome air-conditioned car. Driving into the city our first experience of Cambodia was an eye-opener. The vehicle we were in was one of the few enclosed vehicles on the road (maybe 5%). Motorcycles and scooters are everywhere like swarms of insects. In fact, ant-like they seem capable of transporting loads many times their size and weight. Pretty quickly we started playing "craziest scooter" spotting. Here’s the scoop: whole families on one bike – commonplace; girls in beautiful dresses – surprisingly frequent; babies sitting on the speedo – yep; sleeping passengers – quite a few; one or more monks – regular occurrence; cellphone usage –ubiquitous; huge loads balancing precariously – more than you’d think; random household objects – everywhere; helmets – not so much
We soon arrived at our guesthouse overlooking the night market; a huge room with two double beds & extra mattress seemed ideal at first, but unfortunately, the air conditioning unit clearly wasn’t adequately sized for the room and had little impact on the heat and humidity, the windows weren’t really windows, just dividers between our room and the next room and the bathroom had such a terrible stench that we decided to move out the next day. For $10 dollars/night more we found a room that had good a/c, a clean bathroom and a balcony overlooking the river…perfect! We were also overlooking the main road running along the riverfront which provided lots of entertainment watching the crazy traffic.
We left the hotel to the usual cries of “tuktuk sir?”, “tuktuk?”, “where you going?”. We chose one of the many drivers using a thorough selection process (he was wearing an England shirt with “Rooney” on the back while Alex was wearing one of his Manchester United shirts with “Rooney” on the back) and negotiated a fair price. “Rooney” became our tuktuk driver for the rest of our time in Phnom Penh and despite the mayhem surrounding us we felt safe….most of the time
Our first destination with “Rooney” was Tuol Sleng or S-21. S-21 stands for security centre 21 and was the largest of the prisons set up by the Khmer Rouge in the mid seventies. Such locations were the penultimate destination for these unfortunate souls where they would be tortured until they confessed to “crimes” against the regime.
We arrived at Tuol Sleng, incredibly a high school reappropriated for much more sinister purpose, just in time to catch the documentary which was shown in one of the classrooms previously used as a mass holding room for prisoners. Retrospectively, Derek is convinced this was a ruse intended to provide insight into a certain kind of torture as the movie ran for over an hour and we were literally dripping when it was over (36C in there, fans broken) – Didn’t seem right to leave a place with such a history because we were feeling a bit hot! Tuol Sleng was abandoned in a hurry by the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and aside from the recovery and burial of 14 (recently deceased) bodies, everything was left as found as evidence against the regime and a warning to future generations. We toured the rest of Tuol Sleng rather cautiously, with Derek or Sarah checking out each room/exhibit before determining whether or not the kids could go in
“Rooney” was waiting for us when we left and took us back to the hotel. We went for dinner at a fantastic little restaurant nearby called the Chiang Mai which served both traditional Khmer and Thai food. Khmer food is much more to Lauren’s liking than the Thai food as it seems to be a little less spicy. A favourite traditional Khmer dish so far is Amok – fish with lemongrass and coconut wrapped and cooked in banana leaf.
With plans to visit Vietnam in a week or so, one of our “must-dos” in Phnom Penh was to go to the Vietnamese embassy to get a visa
We left the orphanage for an even sadder place to visit…Choeung Ek a.k.a. the killing fields. After prisoners had “confessed” at Tuol Sleng they were blindfolded and trucked to this location just outside of Phnom Penh where they were bludgeoned and dumped into mass graves. The regime believed it was important to “remove the roots” and so eliminated entire families so that no revenge could be subsequently sought; and thus there was evidence of the “destruction” of women and children, even babies
With an unexpected but welcome lack of bureaucracy we were able to apply for our Vietnamese visas at the local embassy; the lady must’ve had a hair appointment or something, because she only seemed to want about a third of the form filled in and told us they’d be ready in a couple of hours! With the pressure off, we decided to collect the passports the next day.
Next morning, after returning to the Vietnamese embassy, we set off for another orphanage which was much smaller and which we discovered was located close to a third one, that we also visited. These facilities where in much greater need of support and were less well established. CPCO cares for about fifteen children and SCAO cares for about twenty. Both have a strong focus on educating the children and teaching them English and computer skills. The director at CPCO was amazing – although disabled, he had a proven plan which he was resolutely sticking to which admirably (and maybe prudently) was fairly self-sustaining and not reliant on much foreign aid. We decided to donate computer equipment instead of cash, more in line with his vision
We finished the day with a visit to the Grand Palace where we bade farewell to “Rooney” who has been so patient with our orphanage visits. The Grand Palace is spectacular, though the Silver Pagoda was not as impressive as expected with many of the tiles of its much vaunted silver floor stuck down with what appeared to be cellotape, but the collection of Buddhas was impressive. The centre piece is an emerald Buddha sitting atop a gold altar, but in our opinion was runner-up behind the gold Buddha with 2086 embedded diamonds (the largest of which was 25 carat).
For our final night in Phnom Penh we returned to the Chiang Mai restaurant for the third consecutive night – can’t get enough of a good thing; the food is good, location ideal and the kids had fun playing with the staff, learning Khmer words and how to fold napkins
One last comment on Phnom Penh... our overall impression of this intoxicating city is a positive one of hope. The sheer exhuberance of youth is on its side and with a little more democracy introduced to government, we believe its future will sparkle.
Next stop Siem Reap, home of the Mother of all temples ….