Off the rails
Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
62Trip End Apr 04, 2006
I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine
- Caskie Stinnett
On to Phnom Penh. I like this place. It's a pity the cloud of Cal loosing his money was hanging over us. Not that that stopped the debauchery. Nope, it continued on unabated and was even turned up a notch or two. Oh boy, there were a few rough mornings in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh's Uniqueness
There is a unique, rough charm to this place and Cambodia in general. The country has emerged from decades of war and isolation that made it a byword for atrocities, refugees, poverty and political instability. But Cambodia is well and truly back on the South-East Asian travel map. The successor-state of the mighty Khmer Empire - which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos and Thailand - Cambodia boasts a rich culture, French-era (albeit a little weathered) capital and impressive natural scenery. The peace is young but relatively stable, and the country is slowly attracting the tourism currently sweeping neighbouring Vietnam. However, the proliferation of land mines and banditry in remote areas means the picture isn't all rosy, and for now the beaten path still remains by far the one best travelled.
One of the first things I noticed soon after arriving in Phnom Penh was how genuinely nice the Khmers (Cambodian people) are. We had a very bad taste in our mouths following what happened with the phone calls to the hotel in Vietnam trying to retrieve Cal's money and I guess as soon as we stepped off the bus into the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh we were in no mood to be nice to locals who, although offering a service, were ultimately doing so for our money. Having said all that I immediately felt I could trust the Khmers who were offering us hotel rooms and transport to same. They were, and are, totally genuine. I for one didn't allow that fact to hit home initially, maybe due to the bad experience we had just had with the Vietnamese hotel owners in Ho Chi Minh City. I'm not saying that a Khmer would have acted differently in a similar situation (faced with pocketing $6,000 or returning it to its 'wealthy' foreigner owner) but there is still a feeling in Cambodia that people are there to actually help you and if reward, financially or otherwise, comes from that then so be it. In Vietnam however it's obvious the most important thing is your money. And little effort is made to hide that fact. I guess that's the result of the tourism boom in Vietnam. I'm hoping Cambodia doesn't go the same way and its people stay 'genuine'.
As for Phnom Penh itself. The capital still retains an undeniable charm despite its tumultuous and often violent past. The crumbling colonial architecture makes an attractive backdrop to bustling street side cafes and the redeveloped riverfront precinct - a particularly lively part of town on Friday and Saturday nights. The city has several impressive wats (temple-monasteries), including Wat Ounalom (headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhist patriarchate) and Wat Phnom (the hilltop pagoda which gave the city its name) and the newly painted Wat Lang Ka. The ugly beehive like Central Market is a great place to explore and bargain for jewellery, antiques or the ubiquitous kramas (checked cotton scarves). And of course there is the Killing Fields and the S21 prison, both demonstrating the atrocities committed by the ruling Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
Letting it all pass by
Again, I had been here before and had done all the touristy things to be done in the city. Which was lucky for me because, as I said previously, the debauchery from Ho Chi Minh City continued unabated and between recovering from the previous nights activities and preparing to do it all over again I had no time, or desire, to see any of the aforementioned sights again. Cal and Pat did make it to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison and I used a few of Cal's pictures of those 'attractions' for this entry. Check them out, especially if you're interested in a little history of the sites and the country; I saved that for the pictures having subjected you to the history of Vietnam in the Ho Chi Minh City entry!
Pool & Beer. Beer & Pool
We spent most of our time in the city, the afternoon Cal and Pat spent being tourists aside, playing pool (myself and Pat got through 21 games the afternoon we arrived), drinking, being cycloed or motor-biked between local restaurants, bars and night clubs and brushing off advances by local Cambodian prostitutes. Be warned; male travellers in Cambodia attract a lot of attention, a side of Cambodia I wasn't exposed to the last time I was here with a female companion.
A promise kept
So after two nights in the city it was time to move on. A very early morning start, following a very late night, saw us up for the speed boat to Siem Reap. After the tortuous 8 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap last time I was here there was no way I was doing it again. I had promised myself as soon as I stepped off the bus in Seim Reap back in 2003 that, if I ever found myself back in the country, I would never do that bus trip again. And I was good on my promise, two and a half years later. So I was looking forward to the speed boat trip, if only because it was something I hadn't done before.