History in Phnom Penh

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hitting the ground running in the capital, we headed out to visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.  Normally the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda can be visited under the same ticket, but the Cambodian King had died a few weeks previously and so the Royal Palace was closed while his body was prepared to be laid out in state.  The Silver Pagoda has a floor made of silver tiles, each apparently weighing 1kg, and two priceless images of the Buddha. One of the two images of the Buddha is made of solid gold with approximately 9000 diamonds decorating the figure, the other is a seated Buddha made of emerald - both very impressive.  Unfortunately the majority of the silver floor is covered with carpet to provide protection.  The pagoda itself was very nice although, as V remarked, the number of other Buddha images around the central emerald Buddha meant there was somewhat of a “jumble sale” feel to it!

The Silver Pagoda was close to the Museum of Cambodia and this is where we headed next, A getting lost again and V rescuing the situation (two corners and he really is unable to tell where he is!).  The museum houses statues from the great temples at Angkor Wat and many other places around Cambodia - the setting is beautiful with the museum opening out on to a central courtyard which contains four pools teeming with fish.  These fish are so used to being fed by visitors that if you walk around the edge of the pool they will all follow you in the hope of getting food!

The FCC Club was our next destination for a beer on the roof at sunset overlooking the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers meeting below us.  A lovely setting for a nice cold beer and time to reflect on our initial thoughts on Phnom Penh.  The city itself is different to every other Asian city we have visited thus far, there are relatively few buildings over five or six storeys high and the pace of life appeared much slower than Bangkok.  We loved it. 

While in Phnom Penh, we sampled Lok Lak, a Cambodian dish of beef and onions on a bed of lettuce, and some more Fish Amok - delicious.  We came across street vendors selling “snakes on a stick” snacks and many other beetles, grubs and insects which had been fried and made ready for the hungry masses of Phnom Penh to get stuck into.  We would love to say we were brave enough to try the treats on offer but we denied ourselves the pleasure of grasshoppers for dessert.

Having spent some time marveling at the wonders of the Cambodians at the Museum of Cambodia, the following day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the S21 Tuol Sleng museum and then on to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.  The S21 prison, a former school, was used by the Khmer Rouge to extract confessions from Cambodians they saw as traitors to the regime.  The methods used were gruesome and there are photos of the victims on display within the blocks. At the height of its operation, approximately 100 people per day were killed at Tuol Sleng.  Those who were not killed during torture at S21 were transported to Choeung Ek (approx 14km outside the city) and murdered by the regime after “confessing their crimes”.  Choeung Ek is one of many hundreds of “killing fields” in Cambodia where citizens were murdered in quite brutal ways in order to save bullets.  Approximately 10,000 people were killed and buried at Choeung Ek. Many have been exhumed and a memorial stupa has been built which contains 8,000 skulls - it is a very eerie place. Pieces of bone and material from the clothes of the victims is still brought to the surface of the ground during the wet season - sadly, we saw examples of this while walking around. 

After learning more about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime (1 in 4 Cambodians murdered by them in less than 4 years), we returned to the city and headed out for dinner to 278 Street, a very lively place indeed.  We opted for a restaurant with a rooftop terrace to escape the car horns and motorbikes for a while.  What a decision!  The mango and passion fruit smoothies were incredible (we had two each) and the food was very tasty too. 

We spent the rest of the time in Phnom Penh by the pool topping up our golden tans (!!!) and preparing for the bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. After previous journeys by bus, the ride was a treat! The bus left on time, the staff handed out pastries and water and the bus stopped only to get us through the border crossing. The head conductor even gave us a bit of a tourist blurb when passing through areas of interest. One observation we made from our seats in “prime position” near the bathroom - the Cambodians have very weak bladders......  

Our most comfortable bus journey in Asia to date ended on a high when we arrived in HCMC and discovered our hotel was a couple of minutes walk away. Something had changed though, there seemed to be a lot of bikes...
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