Sunday, 13 January 2013

Something like a Phnom Penh

Hey, hey we're the monks. 
Alex and I took the afternoon bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the border control was painless and we arrived at dusk in Cambodia's capital. The ride through Cambodia showed a fairly stark contrast to Vietnam. The country was evidently much poorer and the first sights we were greeted with when the bus took a rest stop was naked children playing in the dust; their mothers arms outstretched with empty bowls in our direction asking for money. The landscape was flat and the distant horizon reminded me of home, but ramshackle shacks lined the road, and many of the houses were on stilts, perhaps to provide shade underneath or to keep livestock.

Once in the city we took a tuk-tuk to a hostel where James was staying, a friend of Alex's from Lichfield who he had met in Australia the year previous. That evening we drank in an upstairs bar with a mix of younger expats and travellers until closing time, and finished the night with 4am hot dogs delivered to our hostel. 

Phnom Penh roads.
Gutter reflections.
We had one full day in Phnom  Penh before we would be heading to Sihanoukville to spend Christmas and New Year on the coast with Lars, Abby and Liv who we would be meeting there. That afternoon in the city we had a wander through the streets and got a feel for the city before heading to the central market for a spot of bartering and shopping. I liked Phnom Penh, it felt slightly wild and a little edgy. Security men rode by on motorbikes with AK-47s strapped to their backs, tuk-tuk drivers would attempt to offer us girls or drugs, which of course we declined, but I enjoyed the relative feeling of lawlessness, even if everything was fairly orderly.

No hand grenades in the shopping mall, please. 
The central market looms at the end of the street.

Phnom Penh's central market. 
The market was great. There was much less hassle and pressure than the markets in Saigon, no one grabbed my arm and looked aggressively into my eyes when I stalled or teased on a purchase. Cambodians seemed really friendly and warm, and I took an instant liking to them. Smiles were always returned and haggling was a pleasurable and comedic game rather than a war of negotiation. Everything was housed in the cavernous hall, from clothes, jewellery, electronics, household goods, the lot, with food and flowers on the peripheries which bordered the street. I did a little bit of Christmas shopping, just small gifts for family, even though they wont be receiving them until I am home later in January.

The central atrium of the market. 
Food sellers outside.
Fresh flowers for sale.
Back in the market.
That evening I had a quiet one, catching up with picture editing and this blog, as the following day we would be leaving the city on the bus to the coast, to meet up with our friends from Vietnam. I'd be returning to Phnom Penh in ten days or so, as I still wanted to visit the famous Killing Fields, to learn about the tragedy that occurred in the country in the late 70s, but decided that ignorance is bliss and would rather not know the details of the events whilst I tried to enjoy myself over the Christmas period.

Phnom Penh Part Two

I returned to Phnom Penh on January 2nd after a wonderful ten days on the beach. My bus from Sihanoukville arrived at midnight, and earlier in the day I'd been looking online for a place to stay, but most seemed to be full for the night. I did find room at one inn, a type of Irish bar that had private rooms available and so my tuk-tuk dropped me off there, along with a girl from New Zealand I'd met taking the bus back to the city who also had nowhere to stay, so I recommended my place to her. Upon arrival the American owner poured us a beer, and I never made it to my room until 5am, as beer and intriguing conversations flowed. It was essentially a lock in with the American owner, who became lazy and allowed me to go behind the bar to pour my own pints, and even got me to roll his joints for him, which I didn't mind. Also in the scene was a middle aged Texan who claimed to work as a mercenary, predominantly in Africa and Sierra Leone, a 40-something east Londoner who was incredibly bright and well-read, and we had some interesting conversations, and a 30 year old American tourist who worked on movies and commercials in LA. It was an interesting mix and Cambodia seemed to be a haven for expat characters who were perhaps running from something at home. It's hard to say, but a lot of people I met seemed to have a similar thread running through them, it was intriguing, and added to the excitement of the city.

The following lunchtime I met up with Todd, the LA American from the night before, and we shared a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields together. It's a short ride out of town, and is one of many locations across Cambodia in which Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered about 30% of the population, including women and children; as professionals, intellectuals and political opponents were wiped out in an attempt to create an agrarian totalitarian communism, as far as my understanding of it goes. I'll try and read a book on it when I go home. It's added to the list of books on Asian history I know nothing about.

I was surprised by how small the site was. It was no bigger than the average town park you'd find at home, but it had been the scene of the most brutal crimes just 30 or so years ago. An audio guide is provided to explain the horrors which occurred here, as prisoners of the regime were delivered here, usually from the prison S-21 in town, to be executed. Nationalist songs were blasted from speakers suspended from trees, so local residents wouldn't hear the screams and cries of those being murdered. Often the weapons used were simple. The local palms have sharply serrated edges, and these were used to slit the throats of victims, before being tossed into a pit. Iron bars were cheaper than bullets so others were bludgeoned, and the most harrowing was the murder of babies and infants. They were simply held by the ankles and smashed into the bark of a tree trunk. Impossible to think how these smiling and warm Cambodians I had met had been capable of such crimes. I could say the same of any nation. The Japanese were the most polite and serene people I'd met, the Germans some of the friendliest and most fun, and us British have plenty of literal skeletons in our national closet. All of humanity is capable of unimaginable brutality, but how these things get to happen on an industrial and complicit scale I find mind boggling.

The local palms with the toothed edges used for slitting throats still grow in the grounds.
One of the excavated burial pits.
The tree against which infants were beaten to death.
Visitors walk over human bones as they still erode to the surface.
A pagoda in the centre of the sight houses thousands of skulls unearthed from the mass graves.
Imagine being in the marketing meeting when this baseball cap was commissioned. 
After visiting the Killing Field, Todd and I rode the tuk-tuk back into town to visit S-21 the infamous Khmer Rouge prison where opponents were held, interrogated, tortured and often executed. The building had previously been one of Phnom Penh's schools before the regime took over, and classrooms had been turned into cells, and blood splats remained on the ceilings. The building is now a monument to the victims, with thousand of portraits of the victims taken by the regime on show, room after room of black and white portraits of sad looking Cambodians of all ages.

Sometimes we thought our school was torture, this was actual school based torture. 
Inside the complex.
One of the thousands of portraits. 
Photographs taken to document prisoners before their executions.
A French lesson remains on one of the blackboards in a classroom used for torture and interrogation,
Wooden cells constructed inside the rooms to house individual prisoners. 
After a while, enough was enough. We didn't visit the entirety of the site, we'd seen all we could stomach really and didn't need to keep visiting gallery after gallery of tortured eyes staring back. Instead it was time for some retail therapy. I wanted to visit the market again before it closed for the day and we made it just in time. I'd lost my wallet the week before somehow, a new one I had bought from the market, and wanted to replace it with an identical one. I'd previously paid $3 for the wallet, the chap started out asking $8 for it this time. I told him my story, insisted I wasn't going to barter except pay $3 like I had paid before, and he submitted.

Cambodian fast food drive-thru.
A family on the street as I rode by in a tuk-tuk.
Snapshots from a tuk-tuk.
That night Todd and I had a couple of beers at our guesthouse bar, before continuing to drink in the roof veranda bar I had visited on my first time in the city. It then became a good idea to visit an absinthe bar in the city, one of the few true ones in the world according to what somebody told me from some guidebook. I've not verified the facts. We sat at the bar and sampled a few of the different 80% proof drinks. We'd drop a sugar cube into the drink, fish it out with a spatula, light the sugar cube on top of the drink, before plopping it back in and stirring it into the intense alcohol. We sampled about 6 of them in the end, and I quite enjoyed it, despite getting a strange type of drunk where my head span like a terrible hangover, yet I was still capable of conversation and functions. We invited ourselves to join a group of geeky journalists, working for the Phnom Penh Post, for many of them it was their first job on any paper anywhere, and combined with the alcohol I guess I felt a little arrogant in their company, but without reading their copy some of them seemed a little useless, though I could say that about many newspaper offices. My time in Phnom Penh was at an end, it was a pleasant way to sign out from this wild city, and I'd be heading to Siem Reap to reunite with Lars again, so we could visit the world famous Ankor Wat.

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