Up the Mekong to Phnom Penh
Trip Start May 20, 2010
195Trip End Sep 05, 2011
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Day : 158
Temperature : 32 degrees
Weather : Sunny morning, cloudy afternoon, rainy evening
We woke up at 6am yesterday morning because the dogs outside were having a fight. Three early mornings in a row and Dom was suffering. At breakfast we met a retired couple from the UK who decided they'd had enough of the weather in England and are now travelling the world for a year, or two. They were also taking the Hang Chau fast boat to Phnom Penh. The four of us were taken away with our luggage, each in our own cycle rickshaw, in convoy, through Chau Doc town to the boat jetty where the boat was waiting for us.
We left Chau Doc in the boat at 8am and it took about 45 mins to reach the border on the Mekong. We were given customs declaration forms and immigration forms, and we paid our visa fee of 23 US$ each. After clearing the Vietnam side, we continued on the river for another 5 minutes before stopping at the Cambodian side. It was all surprisingly smooth and painless, and we had completed our border crossing in about 15 minutes.
The next four hours were spent on the Mekong travelling north. The journey was pleasant and we received water and fruit half way through. There was a loo on board and a shaded area out back where you could watch the countryside go by. The one thing that struck us was just how huge this river is. It is immense. We've never seen such a big river before...it must have been well over a mile wide at some points.
At 1pm we arrived in Phnom Penh and ran the gauntlet of tourist touts as we got off the boat. Boy, were they persistent. They followed us down the street and then they were joined by the tuk-tuk drivers. We managed to find our hotel quite quickly, checked in, then ventured out for lunch. By 1.30pm we were sitting in a cafe having salad and garlic bread and Kevin had a burger
Our first impressions of Cambodia were that it feels so different than Vietnam. The city of Phnom Penh feels like an odd mix of European and Asian cultures, thanks to the French influence of the past. There are wide open streets, green parks, a large promenade on the riverfront with flowers and street lights, shops and cafes selling baguettes and croissants, and restaurants with international food and wine menus....except that everything is priced in US Dollars! Add to this the fact that there is a fraction of the the traffic on the roads compared with Vietnam and Bangkok and therefore a much more relaxed atmosphere. There are beautiful wats and temples with Khmer architecture and buddhist monks walking down the street carrying orange umbrellas. Take in the country's traumatic history of war and Genocide, the amusing fact that you go to the ATM to withdraw money and you receive US dollars (I still can't remember what the national currency is!) and super friendly people.....what a fascinating place.
Yesterday afternoon we visited the famous Tuong Sleng museum. The Khmer Rouge, under the direction of Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh in April 1975. Within 3 days of it's "liberation" Phnom Penh was deserted as men, women and children were rounded up and forced to work in the fields with little food or shelter
In the evening we ate at the good cause restaurant called Friends. This is a training restaurant run by "teachers" and their former street youth "students". The organisation works with over 1,800 street children and their families. The students are educated and trained in hospitality trade so that they may become independent, skilled adults and productive members of the community. The decor was pleasant, the staff were super friendly, the service was excellent, and the food was ok...but expensive. Well, it was for a good cause, so we didn't choke too much when the bill came to $ US 28 for two small main courses and two dessert and one smoothie.
We were both looking forward to a decent sleep and a long lie since we have now been on the go, more or less non-stop for 13 days now, since we left Bunaken island in Sulawesi
The Choeung Ek killing fields are located 14km south of the city and are the site of mass graves where some 300 Cambodians were killed PER DAY during the Khmer Rouge ruling. Presently, a buddist stupa marks the site. It is filled with thousands of bones which have been excavated from the graves. Each skeleton has been forensically examined to determine the age and sex of the person who died, and the manner in which they were killed. There are one or two skulls in the museum which show how lethal blows to the head were made by various tools. Many of the young children and babies were held by the feet and had their heads smashed into trees. The bodies were thrown into the mass graves and chemicals were thrown on top of the pile of bodies in order to destroy the smell of decomposing remains as well as to kill off any people which were still alive. The many pits in which the bodies were buried are still there, mostly filled with water. Several wooden signs with descriptions in English tell the story of what took place. It's incredible to think that all this happened within our lifetimes.
We spent this afternoon wandering the grounds of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Afterwards we caught a tuk-tuk back to the riverfront where we sat down to watch the world go by with an icecream...and we managed to get a few more interesting snaps with our camera. The clouds started gathering mid afternoon and by 4.30pm it was chucking it down.
Tomorrow we head north west to Seim Reap...I've been waiting to go here for years!