Phnom Penh is like a breath of fresh air after HCMC. Lying at the Tonle and Mekong river, with only 1 million inhabitants and therefore with much less traffic, no tall but lovely renovated French colonial buildings, with much cleaner air, and a warm breeze rushing freely through the wide avenues and roads. Though it's considerably hotter than HCMC! As we only had 1.5 days in the capital, we decided to wander the streets, try out national dishes and do a bit of local sightseeing
On our first night we enjoyed a "Happy" Pizza, which was a bit more amusing then the general pizza but the cause was probably the rather strong Cuba Libre they served there... Then, the other night we tried out Amok Fish and were straight away hooked on it. What a lovely national dish - fish in a coconut and lemon grass curry served in a banana leaf - it's divine! More or less throughout our trip in Cambodia we had it once a day!
Several times we walked passed the National Museum and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh but they seemed to rearrange their opening hours whenever we came along and therefore were closed. Wanting to learn more about Cambodia's recent history, we went to the S21 interrogation centre from the seventies. We were still recovering from the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, but the S21 is in many ways even more shocking. S21 was originally a high school, which was turned into a interrogation centre/prison, where many Cambodians, men, women and children were killed during the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge era. The S21 centre today is a memorial and gives many of the victims of this time a face as they were all photographed when they came to the centre. Hardly any of them ever left it again. The fear and loss of hope can be seen in the eyes of every single victim on those thousands of photos. How can a country turn so badly on its own people and betray them? This was once again hard to take and understand so we dismissed the idea of visiting the killing fields.
But enough of all this seriousness! 6 hours bus drive north-west from Phnom Penh lies Siem Reap. Again its a charming town with French shophouses and leafy boulevards in the old town
. But more interesting is, that the temples of Angkor lie on the door step of Siem Reap. Angkor used to be the capital of Cambodia's ancient Khmer empire from the 9th to the 13th centuries, but was never a lost city in the jungle, as many believe, rather more abandoned. It's the heart of Cambodia and national pride to its people. It's truly a source of inspiration and the extravagant beauty of the many temples can't be described, nor can it be captured on photos. One has to experience the intense heat, smells and sounds of the jungle, mixed with the imagination of a city which
its zenith boasted a population of a million at a time when London was a little town of only 50,000 inhabitants. Some temples have been restored, some are in restoration and some others have been overtaken by the jungle, massive trees growing in and on them. Angkor must be what the dreams of an archeologist are made of! And its a great income to the country too as millions of tourist stream there to experience it. Ever dreamt of a romantic sunrise or sunset in Angkor with your loved one? It's about as romantic as a candle-light dinner at a Prodigy concert... There are hundreds
of people! But nevertheless: it's brilliant!
After three days in Siem Reap/Angkor we left to make our way towards Bangkok for the New Years Eve. According to Matt's previous trip here, our travel guide, and people we'd spoken to recently, it can take up to 12 hours
. So we decided to start as early as 5am, to make sure, that we didn't arrive in the middle of the night in Bangkok. Now, our taxi driver to the boarder must have robed a bank or so, otherwise there is no explanation why he was driving that fast. Instead of the expected 6 hours it took us 1h45 only - also partly thanks to the newly paved roads (the guide was talking about a dirt road). So we arrived before 7am at the border - which opened at...7am! At 7am on the dot, the busy boarder town stood still, whilst the Cambodian national hymn was played. It was like out of a sci-fi movie: everybody froze in what they were doing, cars stopped and once the hymn was over everybody went on with their life. Weird, but funny! 15min later we were in Thailand and wondering how and where we'll find a bus to Bangkok. We walked around the corner and there it was: a big VIP bus, just waiting for us. Or at least that's what it seemed. We jumped on and 5min later it left and we couldn't believe when we were told that we'll arrive in Bangkok at 11am. This was truly the smoothest transfer between countries! We were always expecting something to go wrong, it was just too good to be true! But for once the gods were on our side.
On Christmas Day we left Vietnam early to travel to Cambodia. We were the only Westerns traveling at 7am with the local bus company, Mekong Express, and were pleasantly surprised by a great and efficient service on board. As we knew we can get the visa at the border directly we informed our bus hostess, and to our surprise she took care of everything for us. Before we actually knew it, we were in Cambodia. Only 5 hours after leaving HCMC we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.