Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

The tuk tuk driver rouses himself from his slumber. It’s the slightly rude man who took us to the market last night. He’s probably just worn down from his labours in a hot and hectic city. To him we’re probably rich foreigners who sleep in a bed rather than a hammock strung across a tuk tuk. We’re not a prospect for repeat business so he doesn’t have to care. It’s understandable but still unpleasant. I resent having to pay him at the end of my ride. If he’d been friendly I would have given him the last of my Riel as a tip (about $US1.50 on top of a $US7 fare). But I don’t. I take them home because I cannot bring myself to encourage his approach. 

The streets of Phnom Penh are now less alien than when we arrived. I no longer feel as anxious as I did just twelve days ago. I had read so much bad press about Cambodia and its people. So much that turned out to be so untrue. Our bag was not snatched. Our pockets were not picked. Our belongings were not stolen from our guesthouse rooms (we didn’t stay in dives though – we paid $12-$25 per night for places with excellent reviews). I don’t know why I read up so much. Usually I don’t. Perhaps I’d lost my touch being back on our large island continent for ten months. I wish I hadn’t and I won’t in future. 

We experience the last of our Cambodian snow. That’s what Tony called the dust kicked up by traffic on the gravel roads outside Battambang. Next time I see snow I hope it’s the real stuff in Belgium or Holland at Christmas.

Airport officials make us reprint our boarding passes. Ours have bar codes but don’t look like the airline ones. Flexibility will take a little while to ease into officialdom here. 

It’s a short flight to Kuala Lumpur. Forty minutes over Cambodia, forty minutes over the sea and forty minutes over Peninsular Malaysia. Our captain plays tour guide. He clearly loves his job and it passes the time for us. 

We’re both quite tired and have both picked up stomach bugs in Kampong Chhnang. So we have a lazy afternoon in our room then catch a movie.

We eat at a local restaurant.

And have a short walk around our hotel before calling it a night. 

Kampong Chhnang to Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Sitting behind the driver is no place for the feint of heart. So it’s a good thing that Paul and I long ago relinquished our Western sensibilities and accepted the realities of travel. We rattle and bounce down a road built for lighter loads and slower speeds. Overtaking means hurtling headlong into oncoming traffic at breakneck speed. It’s just now it’s done here. As a passenger you just hold on an watch the world approach.

Arriving in Phnom Penh is a shock to the senses. It’s loud, dirty, busy and obnoxious after our ten days in quieter towns. I can only imagine what a shock it would be to young men and women who have left a farming community in search of big city fortune. Dust fills the air. Horns blast. Rubbish litters the ground. Advertising signs visually holler. It’s no better or worse than other global capitals. It’s just that here the contrast between the rest of the country and its capital city is so stark.

The bus station is tucked into the centre of the city. How the bus driver gets us there without squashing smaller road users is a mystery to me. The bus station is everything I imagined it to be. There’s more people waiting than seats available. It’s exposed to the elements and city grime so I feel for the German couple who will wait five hours for their connection for travel to the beach. Tuk tuk and moto drivers swarm us as we step off the bus. They don’t believe we want to walk. It’s their daily battle to make money for food. I don’t ever begrudge them this. It’s just that it’s tiring after a while.

We drop our bags at Feliz Hostel and Cafe. We have returned because we like it here. A short tuk tuk ride takes us to the Russian Market just before closing to buy a few items. A second hammock so I can take a friend camping. Some more paintings. Two cross stitches for me to make because they are one tenth the price at home and I enjoy it as a form of meditation. We haggle hard now. The prices start far too high. The goal is to get close to half the asking price or walk away. We manage to spend a few dollars.

We eat dinner at the Chinese restaurant where they make fresh noodles. Paul loves the beans there and me the noodles. We’ve remembered where it is. A massage follows. It’s the best massage I think I’ve ever had. $20 for a 90 minutes full body oil massage followed by $8 for a 60 minute foot reflexology. It’s our last chance at a cheap massage for a while.

And so we end our trip to Cambodia. Tomorrow we fly back to Kuala Lumpur for another two day stop over. It’s been awesome.

A day in Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

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Make no mistake about it: Phnom Penh is loud. The sound of traffic along the main roads is constant. I can only imagine how dusty the air must get here during the dry months when there’s no water to hold down the grime. All the online guides recommend against walking here due to the tight squeezes you will find yourself in but Paul and I always ignore that advice. 

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Walking is the best way to really get a feel for a place. In a tuk tuk you rumble along to your destination: the museum, art gallery or other Lonely Planet recommended must see. On foot you are there immersed in the chaos and wonder of wherever you are. You are there with the Buddhist monk begging for alms. You are offered a coconut. The children buying balloons are walking around your knee height. And the tourists in tuk tuks roll past as if in another head space. Sure, we catch tuk tuks sometimes but if possible, we almost always end up walking. 

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Our walk today takes us past Nagaworld. We 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. 

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Soon we reach 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. We crossed this river way back on the Thai, Myanmar and Laos border in January 2015, almost two years ago and now we are watching as its powerful waters push past us again.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

We escape the afternoon heat for a couple of hours in our hostel. We both fall asleep under the relieving air conditioning. Walking 7km (4.3 miles) may not be far but in this sweltering heat and non-stop noise it’s like running a marathon. A marathon in which we are constantly aware of the heavy traffic that we’re walking through because the footpaths are almost non-existent.

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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.

Tomorrow we will take the bus to Siem Riep.

First impressions of Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

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.

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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.

I had read that the traffic here is terrible but it is merely reminiscent of the Indonesian island of Java with the exception that there are more large late-model SUVs here. I feel no anxiety or nerves at all riding in the melee. The tuk tuk ride gives us a chance to take stock of where we are. So much is now familiar after a few trips to South-East Asia. There’s the usual configurations of shops and stalls, the hectic traffic, the damp-affected buildings and the tropical greenery forcing its way through any crack or crevice that it can.

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We leave our bags at our hostel and set off in a tuk tuk to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. A gruesome place to start our experience for sure, but I incorrectly thought it would be an indoor experience that would keep us out of the rain. Also, I have learned that these museums make a good starting point for understanding what we see around us in a country.

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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.

On a personal level I am again moved by the willingness of the world to turn a blind eye and ear to stories of secret prisons, torture and murder. I wonder how much we as humans have actually learned from places like this and other similar memorials worldwide. 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.”

I am afraid to think of how many more memorials like this will be required in other parts of the world in the future.

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It’s almost impossible to just walk outside and resume the travel. Not because of the rain (we buy some ponchos to help with that problem) but because my mind is taking in the horror of what we saw and the reality that exists: everywhere we look we will see people who lived this experience and are now getting on with their lives. I am always drawn to the resilient nations and perhaps this means I will be drawn to this land too.

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Tuk tuk drivers offer their services as they see us walk by but it’s only 1km back to our hostel and we’re now protected from most of the rain by ponchos (though I can see the benefit in wearing sandals rather than joggers). The walk back gives us a chance to gain our bearings and become used to walking in the traffic. Thankfully we have had lots of practice the past two years or this might be a challenge. I comment to Paul that it’s good to be back in Asia with all its colour, sound and quirks.

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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. Tomorrow evening from 6pm there will be a Vipassana meditation session for one our. I hope to attend (Paul said he will got for a foot massage instead).

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I’m feeling exhausted from the short nights sleep, the many impressions and the heat. It’s about 2pm and we can check in to our room so I lay on the bed and fall asleep. My eyes won’t even stay open anymore and my body refuses to move. I have a slight headache and it’s not until the next morning that I realise this might be due to my having almost totally given up sugar at the beginning of the month in an effort to stop growing out of my clothes and to feel healthier (I gave us sugar in Madrid earlier in the year and managed to stay off it until Easter when the chocolates were too enticing). I hope the transition from sugar to food in my diet doesn’t affect our experience here but I’m sure it won’t.

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Besides, there’s too many street foods to chose from here 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.

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I guess my first impressions of Cambodia can be summed up in this photo. It’s modern but traditional, growing in wealth but poor, busy but peaceful and totally engaging so far. The people we have interacted with are friendly and have a resilience to which I am drawn just as I am drawn to the resilience of the South Koreans, Hungarians and Poles. I look forward to seeing, tasting, hearing and smelling more.