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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Entering Cambodia felt like a breath of fresh air after Vietnam. It is always interesting seeing the changing faces and landscape of the new country you enter and Cambodia marked a significant change as we crossed the border and moved towards Phnom Penh. Faces became much darker with an almost Indian aspect to the appearance of the people (which is no surprise as the Khmers were heavily influenced culturally by the Indians and the Buddhism they introduced to the region). We speed past a very flat landscape with ever present palm trees dotting the fields but the land wasn't green and lush, more brown and dusty. When you see stick thin cows walking the roads you know you are in a poor region. Several hours later we arrived at the 'bus station' in Phnom Penh, which was actually just the side of a busy street. It was here that I met Mr Tom, a friendly tuk tuk driver who would be my driver for my stay in the city. As he drove me to my hotel Phnom Penh impressed itself on me immediately with its easy charm and beauty , despite the fact that poverty is everywher.e The city itself is fairly small but well spread out in a New York style grid system, which makes getting around fairly easy. As with some other Asian capitals there is the influence of the colonial past in the architecture with many colourful buildings like the impressively yellow central Post Office (where we actually stumbled upon a movie being filmed one day).

Situated where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac river meet the city is home to around 2 million people and is the country's economic and political hub. Phnom Penh remained little more than a large village and didn't become the permanent capital until the late 19th century during the reign of King Norodom I. In 1864 King Norodom agreed to make Cambodia a French protectorate in an attempt to keep the warring Vietnamese and Siamese at bay. In the years following, the construction of Phnom Penh proper began. By the time Cambodia became a part of French Indochina in 1884, Phnom Penh had developed into a sizeable, largely French-designed city, and by the 1920s it was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia, earning it the moniker 'Pearl of Asia'. Although you do hear that term a lot to be fair. Historically Cambodia had been a battleground between the Thais and the Vietnamese, but through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodian fought Cambodian as a civil war broke out in the country. By the time the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and evacuated the city, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, and it was but a shadow of itself when the Khmer Rouge were finally evicted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79.The city was then repopulated in the 80s and revitalised in the 90s. So a lot has happened here

With so much on offer I decided to stay for a week or more and just take it all in. My hotel was sat right in the middle of the city with direct views of the Royal Palace and National Museum   , with a huge clean room with all I needed. Phnom Penh has many sites and places of interest. The Khmer people are renowned for their art and culture and because the city is smaller and there are less tourists around this time of year it means you can just stroll around and see a lot of the city in a relatively short space of time. The Royal Palace   was a natural place to start being in spitting distance of my hotel. This palace stands distinctively against the riverfront skyline and inside the grounds the high walls put you in a place of calm from the outside noises of the street. The palace was constructed in 1866-70 during the reign of King Norodom and it serves as the residence of the King, a venue for court ceremony and a symbol of the Kingdom. Khmer and European elements can be seen in the styles of the buildings as well as a clear similarity to the design and layout of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Attached next to the compound is the Silver Pagoda, so named for its silver tiled floor, it is where the King meets with the monks and ceremonies are performed. It also houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and historical objects, including the Emerald Buddha. With well kept gardens and gentle Khmer music floating around, the place is very peaceful and beautiful.

There are other wats around the city as well, most notable Wat Phnom . This small hill, the only one in an otherwise flat city, crowned by an active Buddhist wat, marks the legendary founding place of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh fished a floating Koki tree out of the river. Inside were four Buddha statues. She built a hill ('phnom' means 'hill') and a small temple at this site. Late, the surrounding area became known after the hill and its creator, hence the name Phnom Penh. A lovely story, however, against the beauty of the culture in the city lies the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and a history of the people suffering at the hands of various warring factions. A visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum made sure that I had to confront the realities of what happened with the Khmer Rouge. I had shyed away initially at the thought of visiting these museums for fear they wold freak me out. After telling Mr Tom this he eventually won me round to visiting them. I won't go into details because it is pretty depressing what I saw but the overall feeling was of disbelief that this could happen. I cannot pretend to understand and I don't want to patronize either but knowing that these immensely gentle people could suffer so much from other Khmers was depressing.  One day I bought a book in the Gonzo style of journalism called 'Off the rails in Phnom Penh' and written about 15 years ago. To cut a long story short it also made me realise what the city has seen and its inhabitants had to endure from 25 years of civil war. Again the corruption is totally endemic and once again I was reminded of this ever present corruption that exists in pretty much all Asian countries. It is the one thing that sometimes takes the gloss off the cherry of travelling in the region

On the brighter side  I met many nice people along the way and I was being looked after and helped by all the hotel staff and had my bearings which was great. There was Mr Diamond a local restaurant and hotel owner with lot of good info on the city, the hotel owners who were very hospitable and the hotel owner's daughter Taiwan was also very accommodating, and was as Ayi. Many evenings were spent sipping the local Ankor brew and chatting away. We visited other places in the city like the Russian Market in the south of the city and the Central Market. Having lost my necklaces in Vietnam I was on the lookout for some new ones. After wandering around the warren like Russian Market and the air conditioned Central Market with Ayi I found a lovely necklace to replace the lost one. Later on she took me to her home and made me some Cambodian noodle soup which we ate on the floor of her living room while watching tv. She even cut my nails and polished them! One night Ayi sung Khmer songs on the bank of the Tonle River as cargo vessels snailed down the river. She is a very good singer and I loved to listen to her. Khmer women essentially sing when they talk and the words are much shorter and punchier than Thai or Laos so when they sign the result is rather like a bird tweeting in dulcet tones. So there was this woman sat next to me tweeting like a bird while we sat by the river, it was very romantic. Khmer people are lovely but they are much more of an enigma than the Thais or Vietnamese, they are very superstitious and believe in reincarnation as well. Mr Tom told me some interesting stories about ghosts and such. Apparently there is a well known building where if anyone sleeps inside the bed in the living area then they always wake up on the floor as a ghost lifts them down. The ghost is so strong that monks get the same treatment. I decide the suspend disbelief as his stories are always interesting and well told

Driving around Phnom Penh so much Mr Tom and I soon became good friends. His tuk tuk is effectively a motorised trailer which provides a fairly quiet and pleasant ride, unlike the noisy tuk tuks in Bangkok. I could lie my legs flat across the seats and take great photos from the trailer at the back while riding through the streets. One day we drove around 30ks from the city  to visit a lake called Tonle Bati. The small lake is a popular picnic spot for locals and tourists alike. There are bamboo picnic stands and mats with hammocks by the water and we spent the afternoon chatting and eating by the lake side while watching the occasional fisherman wonder past. Not a tourist in site. On the way we visited an ancient 12th century temple Ta Prohm which pre dates Angkor Wat. It is an exquisitely small temple with narrow enclaves where you can make a prayer with incense sticks in the Buddhist style. Cue lots of cute children surrounding me, a common site in Cambodia, they do ask for money but they are also charming in that they want to talk English with you and to ask you questions. 'Where you come from sir?', 'where you go?' are questions asked in the Khmer's musical tones. The Khmer people are an amazing people when you consider what they have gone through with their spirits still intact. One particular day he invited me to lunch at his house. We drove about 40 mins outside of the city and pulled up at a small village with shacks and stone houses. In humble surroundings we ate a huge meal and got drunk on the Johnny Walker whiskey I had bought him as a present.   It was nice that he wanted me to see his family and home. I got the impression from the time I spent in the city that he wanted to educate me about the city and the history and he wanted to tell me his thought on politics and general life in Cambodia. He is a great guy.

Twelve days were passed like this and they went very quickly. Soon I was saying my goodbyes to all the hotel staff and owners, Mr Tom, Ayi and Mr Diamond - they gave me a nice send off. My time in Phnom Penh had been really enjoyable and rewarding because of all the contrasts I saw in the city, the culture and the people. The place is a real hotchpotch and because of its relatively small size it can be all yours for the taking. It is also however a poverty ridden tinder box city where historically serious political violence has erupted frequently and easily. As recently as 1997 there was armed fighting in the streets. My dark side as well as my light side is often draw to cities like this and the whole edginess makes the stay engaging. One thing for sure was that Cambodia was proving to be totally unlike any other country I had visited before and it completely engaged me. Some say that Ankor Wat is the jewel of Cambodia (I go there tomorrow to find out) but for me the Khmer people are the jewels in the crown
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Caroline on

What a lovely entry - sounds like you really enjoyed your time in Phnom Penh and met some really interesting people. It must be so exciting meeting so many different people and having a peek in to their world for a few days. Hope Cambodia continues to impress you. Keep safe xxxx

M&D on

Another wonderful account, Dom - and you're right, Cambodia is a very different place. When you are back in the UK, get hold of some of Somerset Maughan's short stories, and his novel 'The Painted Veil' - all are set in the Far East and have great resonance for today even though written in the first quarter of the 20th century - you'll greatly enjoy them, I think, now that you are visiting so many of the places that formed the backdrop for many of his stories. They're strong stuff, but all the better for that.

We so look forward to reading your blogs and seeing the photos and videos ! M&Dxxx

astonmcneilly on

Hey Domai, another great blog, keep up the good work bro!

Sounds like Cambodia is much more your kind of thing, a great balance between the interesting (if turbulent) history, the modern day-to-day culture and the indomitable spirit of the locals. Keep the blogs coming mate, it's so great to be able to keep up with your travels and to know that you're safe and having an amazing time!

When can we hope to see you back in Blighty, and what WILL we talk about now that you're kultchured-init?!!

astonmcneilly on

That's right....I look gooood! Passers by stopped taking photos of the Vatican and ALL wanted a piece of the A-dog!....centuries of history ignored for a dashing gucci number...sometimes you just feel like a piece of meat, you know?

domh on

thanks all for the comments :)
I fly to Bangkok tomorrow to see Oi which I look forward too. Just finished my last day at Ankor Wat and am off to see a traditional Khmmer dance performace tonight, updates will follow.

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