Destination: Phnom Pehn

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, May 14, 2010

Apols in advance for the massively lengthy blogs, i've been pretty poor at writing since in Cambodia and I've just spent a marathon session on the laptop trying to catch up. Been sitting poolside all day away from the hustle and bustle just outside.

From the 4000 islands I headed south across the border into Cambodia via a pretty nondescript crossing where you had to pay a departure tax of one dollar, an Avian swine flu test (They took our temperature with a little hand held temp gun), which cost one dollar, A processing fee of one dollar and a gratuity to your bus driver of, guess how much, one dollar. Plus the actual cost of the visa. I didn’t mind as it was only a few bucks but it was fairly amusing how the locals take a little bit on the side. And while i’m on the subject of dollars, in Cambodia, Dollars are used here alongside Riel, the national currency. I can’t imgine why though. I know in Laos they prefer to be paid in dollars as they stockpile them so when the exchange rate is right, they bulk exchange to gain on the FX. It’s all very amusing as you go to the ATM and come away with a handfull of dollars. Feel like i’m in a rap video i’ve got so many one dollar bills on me.

 I arrived in Phnom Penh late at night after having just awoke from a nap on the bus and was bombarded with Tuk Tuk drivers screaming at you and thrusting fliers for guesthouses in your face. I’d already studiously gone over my lonely planet and found a fairly well established, cheap and central place that was only about 500m from where we were getting dropped off. Try telling the Tuk Tuker’s that though.  After I told them in no uncertain terms that I did NOT need one, they persisted to the point that I look directly at a copper for help who just smiled and laughed! So as I was walking down the road the boy was driving along side me in his Tuk Tuk relentlessly giving me his sales pitch, almost to the front door of my hotel. And that about set the tone for the harassment that followed through the whole of Cambodia. Regardless of how you tried to ignore them they’d unremittingly wave, clap, bark, shout, yip, dance.....anything to get your attention.  They were times that you just banter with them and they take it in good spirits as they know the chances of you actually saying yes are slim. But if you’re tired and not in a playful mood, let’s just say that my short temper got the better of me on occasion and they Cambodians don’t take kindly to irritable Scotsman telling them where to get off.  Let’s leave it at that.  I guess there are so many as it’s low season and the massive unemployment in the country probably doesn’t help matters.

So, before I left my Mum questioned why I was going to Cambodia and at the time I didn’t really understand why I wouldn't. I had a vague knowledge that the country had a tumultuous past but no idea exactly what had happened. But now I understand. My generation probably don’t know fully the gravity of what went on here only 30 years ago. This beautiful country has a tormented past because of an insane Khmer Rouge communist revolution headed by Pol Pot which ended up with 1.7million dead. Pol Pot was an ideologue who wanted to create a communist agrarian utopia and return his country to year zero, but instead turned it into one where paranoia, famine, hardship and fear brought out the evil inside them and turned Cambodians and even family members against each other. People were killed for simply being too fair skinned as it showed you were a capitalist who had not done a hard days work in the sun.  You were killed if you wore glasses, if you could speak foreign languages, if you were not 100% Khmer, if you had soft skin and smooth hands you were sent to be 're-educated’ through hard labour, and chances of survival were low. Pol wanted his people to be docile, ignorant and to blindly obey the authority. If you had an inquisitive mind, you were an enemy of the people and had to be done away with. So basically Cambodia are miles behind it’s Thai & Vietnamese brothers cause a whole generation of educated and entrepreneurial indvidual simply disappeared.    I’ve spoken to a fair few travellers who are around my age we are all shocked at how little of this is known or taught in school in europe considering the gravity. S-21 and The Killing Fields of Choeung  Ek have been turned in memorial sites where they remember those who had their lives cruelly taken from them. These were the most notorious of 19,000 mass graves scattered around the country, something that the Cambodians are gonna have to deal with for a long long time. I’m not gonna explain the history of it all as that would take forever and i’m sure not all of you want to hear about it but if you’re interested look for a book called 'Daughter of the Killing Fields’ which is a pretty potent account of it all. It’s a harrowing story and you feel sick at times reading about what happened but if you wanna know then it’s worth a read. Right, had to lead with that one as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen experienced since then.

So Phnom Pehn, once called 'The Pearl of Asia' is a scenic river side town sitting along the banks of the river Tolne Sap and has a beautiful promenade that you can take a stroll down, nicer in the morning as the heat is unbearable in the afternoon. In the morning they do their exercise, doing like tai chi style aerobics or playing this game which is like volleyball, but the net is lower and instead of using their hands, they use their feet playing volleyball keepie uppies.  And some of these guys are nimble. They’re able to launch themselves up off one foot and use the same foot to smash the ball downwards over a net that’s maybe five feet off the ground! It’s very impressive.   The riverfront area is where the Royal palace and Pagodas are so is well kept. Also down that way is the National museaum which was great to walk around and look at all the artefacts from way back when. Cambodia was Buddist for a long time, then someone decided to enforce hindusm so they tried to change some of the statues to Hindu ones, or just savaged them. But now they’re back to Buddhism, and like Thailand there are Wats and Buddhist shrines everywhere. Although, i’ve not seen quite as many monks here come to think of it.

Phnom Penh, translates literally as Penh hill and is named after a old Nun who found four statues of Buddha on the riverbank and lugged them up to the top of a hill where the town built up around it. I went for a wander around the hill and there’s now a Wat up on top and some really interesting statues. One in particular was pretty striking. The mythical Naga which is the God of Snakes and has five heads with dragon style faces. Buddha himself would sit on the coiled Naga and meditate. Very cool story and you see a lot of these Nagas built in and around the temple. The staircase up to the top of the hill has the coolest onei’ve seen.

I also managed to have a Luxembourgish re-union with Bryan so we rightly celebrated with a night out and a few choice Angkor beers. It also happened to be Kings birthday so there was a massive celebration for that. They organised a Californian/Cambodian band called Dengue Fever to play to a crowd of 20,000 in the park in front of the palace. The warm up band were these Cambodian rappers who cracked me up. Half rapping in Khmer, half in English. As the show ended we were invited up on stage so danced alongside a load of locals which was pretty amusing.  We met Caroline, a girl from Edinburgh who ended up teaching a Khmer fitness instructor how to do the Gay Gordons with me, which had to be my bizarre highlight of the evening. The Gay Gordons is a Scottish country dance for all you wise asses out there ready to take the piss.

Now, I do like to brag about my guns, but this next one is completely justifiable.  To supplement their meagre income, the army have a backhanded tourist attraction that allows travellers to make use of their arsenal for a hefty fee. We were Tuk Tuk’d out of the city to an army base where on arrival you get presented with a menu of every thing on offer. You can shoot M-16s, MK-50s, Grenade launchers, tommy guns, pistols and the crème de la crème, an RPG! I opted for the AK-47 and Bryan went for the shotgun.  We were larking around on the way up but as soon as you’re standing there with a loaded AK in your hand, the adrenaline fuelled with a fearful respect of the damage this thing is capable puts you in a very intense state of mind. The AK was LOUD and massively inaccurate but to be honest I wasn’t really aiming at the target, just trying to hold the thing and fire was difficult enough. The shotgun was a whole different story.  It reaked of awesomeness and when you had it in your hand you felt bad ass, the recoil was huge but the best was the pump action to load up the next round.  After we were giddy and it took a good hour for the adrenaline levels to come back down.

Aside from that we drank G&Ts at the foreign correspondants club which felt very  colonial. Ate Chicken Amok, a local coconut curry and tres tasty. Did evening exercises at the Olympic stadium. Played volleyball with the locals with they thought was hilarious considering the fact that Bryans about 2m tall but the local shorties could out jump him easily ! And bantered with the local kids trying to sell you books, when they refused they’d play rock, paper siscors where if you lost, you bought! Crafty little scamps. 

The Cambodian people have a childlike quality about them and i’m finding them very strange compared to the Thais and Laos. I’m guessing it’s because of what happened in the past but they are all very simple and lack a certain je ne sais quoi. I think it’s what we’d call common sense. For example, the other day we wanted to go to a pool so asked the Tuk Tuk driver take us to a specific hotel where Bryan had been the previous day, via KFC for some food (There’s only so much rice you can eat). So after the guy completely bypassed KFC we had to shout to get him to stop. We ate then got out and the guy started up his moto and looked at us with a vacant expression. A bit confused Bryan and I looked at each other and then repeated the name of the place we were trying to get to and he shook his head no. This guy did not have a clue on where we were going but picked us up, haggled a fair and then just drove off. Where exactly he was taking us is anyone’s guess. It takes a lot of energy to constantly explain every single little detail of exactly what you need. With most I’ve met, there is no such thing as implicit communication. After three weeks it’s starting to wear thin. I have met one or two well spoken quite clued on locals but they are the exception not the rule. The majority of people are more concerned with helping you part with your dollar bills by any means than actually understanding either the context of the situation, or to help you out. We are definitely seen as a source of income here. Again, that’s a byproduct of the history and having to start learning from such a deficit of educated individuals. I think we take for granted what simple education does for you in terms of how you approach life and rationalise/process situations inside your head.

After Phnom Pehn I parted company with Bryan so he could meet his buddy Adeline for while, and I got on a very local bus (Hannah, that one’s aimed at you) to Takeo, where I would volunteer at an Orphanage for a while.
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Hannah Biggs on

Sounds like you are having an interesting time in Cambodia. I only got to spend a couple of weeks in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) as I had a bad reaction to malaria tablets and headed back to Thailand to relax because, as you say, Cambodia is quite tiring! Would love to go back and explore more though so looking forward to hearing about the rest of your Cambodian adventures.

Myrthe on

Great adventures again and nice to see some pics. Nice you're writing it all down, just too much to remember by the end of your travels, although it probably doesn't seem like that now...
Awesome you're going to volunteer, will be such a different experience to work there for a while. Sure the children will be happy with your company and help, enjoy! xx

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