Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Goodbye Thailand, Hello Culture Shock a.k.a. Cambodia….We departed in a bit of a frenzy having left ourselves a little short of time (a real shock, I know). We had planned to take a taxi to Pantip Plaza (the electronics mega centre mentioned previously) to pick up a new camera. As much as we love our little point and shoot, we had decided that a bigger zoom was needed for things like safari in Tanzania and the World cup. One camera has already gone by the wayside during this trip….you may recall it fell victim to a large wave in Costa Rica and never fully recovered. But, back to Bangkok; leaving Sivalai Place a bit late (?) and with typical Bangkok traffic on the way to Pantip we arrived there at 1:15pm, exactly when we should've been at the airport. So there was a decision to make… true to form, Derek believed there was enough time, and so dove inside to try to acquire the merchandise. After withdrawing from an ATM exactly the amount we had remembered, it turned out that this was for a different camera, so at the store it was time to spin some Irish blarney and he managed to negotiate the higher priced camera at the lower price! With even the taxi driver pacing up and down, Derek finally reappeared after 17 minutes and had placed us firmly in the lap of the Gods. We arrived at the airport an hour and five minutes before departure…somewhat tight for an international flight, but luckily the security lines were short, the flight was a few minutes delayed, so we even had time for some sticky rice and mango before boarding – yum.

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. Some of the mass holding rooms (former classrooms) are used to display photos and stories of victims and perpetrators, paintings of the brutal goings-on, torture instruments, etc. Some of the classrooms were crudely divided by the Khmer Rouge into small individual holding cells using rough brickwork or wooden dividing walls; some of these cells still contain the shackles worn by prisoners. The most disturbing areas of Tuol Sleng were the actual torture rooms still housing the equipment found in each of them along with photos on the walls of the final victims. It is hard to believe that this happened during our lifetime and even harder to explain to the kids how and why it happened. But we did not shield them from the lessons and morality of this history – this is why we are on this trip, it is not purely a vacation.

“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. So, Monday morning that’s what we had planned to do along with visiting an orphanage and then Choeung Ek (the killing fields), however, something got lost in translation with Rooney and we ended up at the orphanage first. Cambodia is a nation recovering from war and there is evidence of this everywhere you go; poverty is rife, nearly everyone is young, and there are many orphanages. We had chosen two to visit; the first was the Lighthouse orphanage. It is relatively large, caring for just over 100 children aged from four to eighteen years old. When we arrived the kids were delighted to see us and led us by the hand to show us around their home. Lauren and Alex had great fun playing with the kids and learning some new games. Most of the children they played with although not much bigger physically were teenagers. The children were clearly well-cared for, happy and healthy and the orphanage appears to have a good level of international funding. We looked into the bedrooms and seeing four double beds asked how many boys slept in that room….16 was the response! 

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. The centre point of Choeung Ek is a 64m high white stupa, filled with the bones of the victims that have been recovered from the mass graves. Walking around is a sombering experience, especially when you realize that the white parts of the path that you are walking on are human bones and the cloth fragments sticking out of the ground are remnants of the victims’ clothing. Apparently the area is prone to flooding and during the floods some remains from the unexcavated graves float to the surface and are deposited randomly when the flood waters recede again. The terrible recent history of this country isn’t buried very far below the surface, both metaphorically and literally.

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. The kids enjoyed visiting both orphanages, particularly SCAO where they sat in on English lessons and played games with them at breaktime. Alex particularly enjoyed giving them his ball and playing soccer ... it’s been a long time since he had a good boisterous run-around with other boysJ One thing we have discovered while travelling is that soccer truly is a universal language that crosses all barriers and Manchester United are the prevalent team everywhere we’ve been so far! (Everywhere but Manchester, we know).

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. We had almost finished dinner when we noticed some commotion outside; it was pouring with rain and incredibly windy. Remembering the laundry we had left to “dry” on the balcony, Sarah bolted back to the hotel. Dripping wet, she ran past something that slowly registered as vaguely familiar….a pair of her own shorts that had blown off of the balcony onto the street below! Back in the room Sarah discovered that all of the kids’ clothes had vanished whereas all of Derek’s (of course) had blown back safely on to our balcony (he claims it’s good karma). After a few moments (and some choice words) she spotted the missing garments on the balcony below…. a word with the concierge and they too were retrieved.
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 ….
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countrybumpkin on

Good old Phnom Penh. I seem to remember slow internet, cheap weed and lots of motorbikes. Tip is close your eyes and walk across. They'll manage to avoid you at least 85% of the time.
If you want a really interesting night, go to Happy Herb Pizza if its still around.....

delsar on

Thanks for the tips lil bro....any advice for Vietnam before we leave the country???

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