February 21 – 26, 2016
Phnom Penh is a city of mixed emotions. The city went from over one million people in 1974 to 50,000 people in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot wreaked havoc on the country. Now, Phnom Penh is rebuilding, people have moved back into the city and (entertaining to us) it is quite chaotic. It is only in the past five years that Phnom Penh has built high rise buildings and the clash between old, really old, even older and then new boggles the mind.
We arrived via bus where we were dropped off in a gravel, dusty parking lot. Tuk tuk drivers equipped with their caged tuk tuks (bag snatching is common in this city) are everywhere waiting to pounce, but we were determined to get some steps and exercise in after sitting on the bus for almost 7 hours. Tuk tuk drivers call us crazy, and maybe they are right. After a 45-minute walk in the extreme heat of the city, dodging scooters, cars, continuous puffs of black exhaust with 40lb backpacks plus a front pack we arrive with 10,000 steps on the pedometer and soaking wet clothes. Our first experience… As we leave our hotel, a young, local man approaches us and pretends he is lost… obviously two white foreigners are not the right ones to ask! Christine already suspicious, Mark’s radar took a bit to kick in. Likely he was waiting for us to pull out a cellphone to look up directions only to have him grab the phone and run. We politely let him know we cannot assist.
We walked everywhere in 35-40C heat. The smell of garbage and sewage almost knocked us off our feet many times. Garbage is everywhere! This is a very developing city with a major influx of rural people. For instance, 46% of Cambodians do not have access to a toilet facility (Asia Now, Nov 2015) – we are not sure how this translates to Phnom Penh, but suffice to say, the occasional smell of sewage is found in the air. We walk by three barber chairs sitting beside the road under a temporary ‘roof’ of a sheet of corrugated metal with men getting a haircut. A new building is built beside a ram shackled home. A Rolls Royce dealership (with a Rolls Royce Wraith, which start at $306,000 USD in the US, displayed in a full glass container) sits between a pop-up restaurant and a cell phone shop. The entry is a dusty, red sand roadway. We are told the dealership opened recently and sold more Rolls Royce in its first opening months than they were expecting to sell the entire year. This crazy juxtaposition between dirt poor and super rich is really, really hard to understand. I get dizzy trying to figure out how everything in this city will meld together.
Walking through Phnom Penh is entertaining to say the least. Tuk tuk drivers are everywhere and they are really eager to get a customer. We say ‘no thank you’ eight times in one minute to the ever so common phrase “sir, want a tuk tuk?”. On the roadside, blenders connected to scooter-based kitchens mix delicious mango, pineapple, banana smoothies and they are to die for! Sidewalks are turned into secure, pay parking for scooters. As we walk, we confirm for ourselves that there are absolutely no road rules in Cambodia, anything goes. Seriously, anything goes! And worse, turn down the wrong road and you encounter major sleeze with women sitting outside in skimpy clothing under rude named bar signs such as Happy Girls, Simply the Best, etc. Sadly, we see far too many white, older, bald (not that I have anything against bald guys) men exiting from the establishments and I have to subdue the feeling of nausea I get from what I see.
We stumbled across the night market one evening and enjoyed amazing food sitting on a mat on the ground. We ate like a King and Queen (even had dessert – coconut ice cream with dragon fruit) for $7USD. The cost alone would have been a reasonable cover charge just to sit, listen to the music and people watch.
This is a video shot from our tuk tuk as our driver navigates traffic.
Every evening as the sun begins to set, karaoke style speakers come out on the promenade along the mighty Tonlé Sap River, locals gather, and a Cambodian “Richard Simmons” cranks up the tunes and he leads the largest display of street aerobics we have ever seen. On this particular evening, a drunken Cambodian looking fellow approximately 100lbs soaking wet snapped his flip flop but kept busting a move.
Phnom Penh has a brand new mall and we treat ourselves to a Hollywood movie complete with Cambodian subtitles. Marvel Comics “Deadpool”, rated R, was a great taste of home and it appealed to my sick sense of humour. Christine loved it too. Speaking of sick sense of humour…If you are a man visiting in Cambodia (and Malaysia) you better not have any type of pee-performance issues. Public restrooms in the malls have a female attendant and if you can’t fart, piddle or shake in front of a strange woman, your eyes are going to be floating and you will get ‘bunged up’. The female attendant is there to (watch, listen) clean up after your every move. Mall washrooms ARE the cleanest washrooms without a doubt.
Phnom Penh is also home to two must-see museums that are related to the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known to many of us as the Killing Fields. We spent a large portion of two days at each of these museums. Each visit is a depressing and somber experience. Reminiscent of our time visiting Auschwitz (Poland) and Dachau (Germany) extermination camps, they are a much needed and ‘in your face’ look at the brutality and indifference towards human beings that can occur.
Tuol Sleng, also called S-21 prison, was a children’s school turned into a secret center used to confine and torture people. The Khmer Rouge built nearly 200 cells within the walls of this school and they held and tortured anyone deemed to be a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the people tortured and killed were those who could critically think and fight back. These were often educated, influential people (and their whole families were also killed as the Khmer Rouge believed in “pulling out the weed at the root”). Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at this secret center (one of many) and there were only twelve confirmed survivors. The Vietnamese army liberated the camp on January 7, 1979 three days after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.
We walked through four buildings on the school grounds, each building serving a different purpose. Building one was used for torture with photos on the wall of deformed, tortured bodies who were executed by the Khmer Rouge just before they fled. Building two contained photos of the prisoners (the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of everything they did, much like the Nazi’s), and the building contained equipment used for torture. Building three held prison cells made from wood or brick, no wider than a cot to sleep on, only these people lay on the floor in leg irons. An ammunition metal box sits on the floor to be used as the toilet. Building four includes paintings by a survivor which portray what life was like in the camp, a moving documentary, photos of mass graves and the bones and skulls of some of the people killed at the camp. In the centre courtyard are fourteen white graves, anonymous but not forgotten. These graves are for the fourteen bodies found in the torture rooms when the Vietnamese discovered this centre.
There were over 300 killing fields in Cambodia, the most well known one is Choeung Ek located just 15km outside the city of Phnom Penh. This is the site where thousands were executed and dumped into mass graves. Once farmer’s fields that grew vegetables, the fields now contain the human remains of those tortured and killed. An active excavation tent is flagged with a “do not enter” sign as we walk through the fields. Even now, the yearly wet season continues to reveal the truth as bones and cloth make their way to the surface. Signs reading “please do not walk on bones” are posted. As the intense sun shined, birds sang and cows in the field moo’d, we walked somberly through the fields and along a lake where human remains have been left untouched while listening to the audio tour that provided graphic details of the events that unfolded at this place. Many too graphic to write about in this travel post; however, with stops titled “executioners working office”, “chemical substances storage room”, “mass grave 450 victims”, “killing tools” (the Khmer Rouge did not want to waste bullets), “mass grave 166 victims without heads” and “the killing tree”, I think you get the idea. Before exiting, we paid our respects at the Memorial Stupa where the bones of many of Choeung Ek’s victims are preserved and remain. Their final moments …
hands tied, in a field, in the dark night, the Khmer Rouge anthem playing over a rudimentary speaker to muffle any screams, as they were executed.
Sample Expenses for Phnom Penh (All in USD)
- $3.00 raspberry lemonade at Costa coffee (super expensive, but for wifi and beautiful view)
- $2.50 clubhouse-vegetarian sandwich local shop, including 2 delicious green teas with sweet milk
- $1.50 omelette local shop
- $1.25 smoothie
- $1 for 2 ice cream bars
- $1.25 papaya salad x 2 (with black, small crab claws… kind of gross)
- $1 milo because the salad needed some sweet on the side
- $1.30 for 2 baked treats needed after above salad!
- $4.85 for 2 chai lattes (50% off, couldn’t resist)
- $1.60 for 3 Oreo packs of 12 for future
- $8.20 breakfast, two smoothies ($1 and $1.50), $2.75 omelet and toast, $2.95 muesli, fresh fruit salad and yogurt
- $8.30 lunch, 1 tuna melt salad shared, chai latte for 1. Coffee place treat
- $10 dinner, 4 beer ($2 total), 2 Khmer dinners ($4 each) on rooftop patio overlooking river
- $2.87 for two 1.5 later waters and 1 Magnum ice cream bar
- $5.60 for Chatime bubble tea. We walked by with packs on our backs as we completed our long walk from bus to hotel… broke down… delicious!
- $7 dinner ($1.50 for pad thai, $1.50 for fried rice, $1.50 for lychee juice, $1.25×2 for 2 coconut ice creams in a coconut shell with jack fruit and coconut shaved off inside to eat) … awesome. All at the night market sitting on the ground.
- $22 per night at Suite Home Boutique Hotel. Couldn’t find a decent, cheaper hotel online, so booked a slightly more expensive hotel. Great location, feels like an upgrade! Private western-style bathroom, large quiet room.
- $11 for 2 bus tickets for 6-7 hour journey (Battambang to Phnom Penh), local bus, zero frills
- $20 tuk tuk tour to Killing Fields
- $2 tuk tuk to Aeon mall
- $3 tuk tuk back from mall
- $9.00 Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem
- $6 entrance to Killing Fields (includes audio tour)
- $8 hand cream
- $1.60 for 4 bars of soap
- $5 foot cream
- $3 each for movie (Deadpool)
- $0.70 for 2 small packs of detergent