The plane drops below the clouds. Everything is green and wet. Rice paddies take up almost every bit of flat ground. Mountains are slowly eaten away by mining operations. Dirt roads zig zag between red roofed villages. Water abounds as dams overflow. “It looks so wet” are Paul’s ominous words. This is our first impression of Cambodia from the air.
And wet it certainly is. The rain is pouring as we exit the airport. We’ve negotiated the visa on arrival desk (check your change carefully), walked through customs and used the wifi at Burger King to give us a chance to find our bearings and prepare for the usual onslaught of transport providers who litter so many global airports. There is a public bus for 1,500riel just 100m away but it stops about 2km from our hotel and it’s raining heavily so we settle on a tuk tuk. The tuk tuks here are different to Thailand. They are more like chariots that can seat four Westerners or probably about eight locals facing both forwards and backwards. Fortunately, the passenger area is dry though many of the riders themselves get soaked by the rain.
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes is a gruesome place to start our experience for sure, but I have learned that these museums make a good starting point for understanding what we see around us in a country. The museum is not a place for the feint hearted or weak of spirit. But the people who were imprisoned were not as fortunate as us to have the choice to leave or turn off their audio tour if things got too rough. Over a four year period, some 20,000 lives were lost here. The magnitude is made even more terrible when you see how relatively small this former-high school complex is. In the words of German Ambassador Baron von Marshall when speaking about Cambodia’s rebuilding and future:
“It reminds us to be wary of people and regimes which (sic) ignore human dignity. No political goal or ideology however promising or important or desirable it may appear can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.”
We walk through Wat Langka, which is next door to our hostel. It’s a large residential complex with a Buddhist temple reminiscent of those we visited in Thailand. The difference is that the doors here appear to be closed. It’s still raining so we don’t really take the wat (Buddhist temple) in properly.
Phnom Penh has lots of street foods to chose from like barbecued chicken, duck and pork, pho (noodle soup), and some bread stick dishes. I can’t wait to try them all over the coming fortnight. There’s also plenty of restaurants selling Khmer curries that will no doubt be tasty too.
Meal times are always interesting when traveling. Sometimes food comes easily because we’ve found a place we like or we know what we feel like. Other days it’s a challenge to want anything that’s on offer at all – home cooked meals being a luxury we don’t have while on the road. Today Paul mentioned that he wanted to check out the Chinese restaurant we passed yesterday where a man was making noodles by hand out the front. A check of Google Maps showed us where we had walked on our return from the museum so we retraced our steps. Sure enough we found the same restaurant and ate the fresh noodles. It tasted as good as it looked. Most importantly though, they served our favourite dish: chili garlic beans with a little bit of pork mince. We asked for “not spicy” so got it without the chili and it was even better. I am being cautious with food this trip after the last three trips to South-East Asian countries each saw me requiring strong antibiotics to settle some serious stomach bugs. So if there’s an option to avoid chili, dairy, deep fried foods or unpeeled fruit I am avoiding it. I never used to get sick but since my November 2014 trip to Indonesia my stomach has never been the same and I want to enjoy our fortnight here, not spend any days feeling like I’m dying. Hopefully writing this doesn’t jinx me.
We’re not sure what Nagaworld is but are drawn in by the fancy chandeliers and lure of air conditioning. Signs proclaim that it might be a duty free shop – but signs can be deceiving. Nagaworld is a huge casino and hotel. There’s plenty of ways you can lose plenty of money here: pokie machines, automatic roulette tables, black jack and other games. Chandeliers hang glittering from the ceilings, pokie machine music dingles away with mesmerising repetition, the tea and coffee are free, and glamorously bars areas allow you to spend even more money on alcohol. We put $2 through a pokie machine just to say we have. At 30c a press it doesn’t last long and we receive no return. But $2 is a drop in the pond compared with the thousands that the house must win.
We walk the streets of Phnom Penh and find ourselves on the banks of the Mekong River. It is wide here where the Tonle Sap River joins it. Looking back it’s almost like it is opening to the sea, though that’s not the case at all. I am struck by two fishermen sitting on the banks. In all my travels since 2014 through some thirteen countries there have been some similarities: men fish on riverbanks and children feed ducks at ponds. And here again, men fish on a riverbank. How similar we all are. Skin colour, language, culture and food do not change us that much after all.
We meander along the river bank, stopping to take some photos and avoiding the scammers. First is a man who approaches and starts telling us things as though he’s our guide. We tell him that we are just going for a walk. He persists. I speed up to walk off. Paul manages to shake him shortly thereafter. Later a second man will try to strike up a conversation as we enter a wat (temple). He tells us he likes our shirts. I’ve read about this con and tell him we’re not interested. He becomes agitated and persists. We walk into the wat with purpose, dropping him. He calls out after us that he’s “not a tiger” and that he was “just being friendly” and that we should “not be so rude”. Cons are the same the world over too.
Wat Ounalom is one of the most important temples in Phnom Penh. Like Wat Lnagka the complex is large and contains lots of residential space. While the design of the temple building itself is similar to those in Thailand, the actual feel and use of the space is totally different. It’s more living religion than tourist attraction. That’s not to say those in Thailand weren’t spiritual places but the way the space was being used is different. Perhaps those in Thailand are places people come to for prayer while these here in Phnom Penh are places where monks live and train. I can say, though, that the temples here in Phnom Penh are calmer than those in Thailand – possibly due to the lack of people transiting through them.
Kandal Market is not far from Wat Ounalom. It’s narrow lanes are packed with vendors selling meats, vegetables, fruits and flip flop shoes. Ladies sit in raised wooden stalls butchering meat on the stall floor using huge heavy cleavers. Others separate the various gizzards of chickens into different bowls. It’s loud and smelly but still pleasant. We are not of great interest to the marketeers because their primary source of income are locals so walking through here is quite easy.
That’s more than can be said for the streets around the market. These are home to the seedier side of Phnom Penh. Guesthouses boast rooms for $US3 per night. Ladies of the night sit drinking beer at bars while (usually) older white men chat them up or negotiate prices. Advertisements for Cambodia and Angkor beer abound. This is the side of tourism that offends me senseless. It happens all over the world in every major city and town. I can’t help but wonder what drives men to this level of desperation and feel a sense of sadness for them.