Phnom Penh

Trip Start Aug 16, 2009
Trip End Apr 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
Spring Guest House

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

We arrived at a bus station in Phnom Penh on Sunday, September 27, in the middle of the afternoon. It was pouring rain, so we had a late lunch in a nearby restaurant as we waited out the weather. After checking out a few options, we found a room at the Spring Guest House. That evening, we ventured out to explore a little. Hungry, we started looking for food, but we weren't attracted by the menus or prices of any of the restaurants we passed. Then we rounded a corner and, lo and behold, there was a good-looking pizza place! Perfect! We went inside, only to find that we were the only customers and there were seven eager-to-please waiters ready to give us their full attention. We ordered some food, but felt a little conspicuous being watched and waited on by seven people.

Monday and Tuesday were spent exploring various areas of Phnom Penh, visiting shops and markets, wandering along the river district, and eating tasty food.

On Wednesday, September 30, we rented a motorbike. We questioned our sanity slightly in doing so: Phnom Penh has the craziest traffic McNeill or I have ever seen. The density, noise, and seeming chaos of it are almost overwhelming. There are few traffic lights, lots of potholes and other obstacles, and little concern for traffic "rules." Nevertheless, we wanted to see some sights well outside the city, and traveling by motorbike seemed the best way to do so. The one good thing about the never-ending traffic jam in Phnom Penh is: no one can go very fast. Everything just crawls along amidst the constant honking of horns, which made it seem safer than if everyone was speeding everywhere. So…we rented a motorbike. Our first stop was to a hand-made knife factory, “Citadel” (we had visited their showroom on Monday, and as McNeill and I have both assembled a few knives ourselves, we were interested in seeing a professional operation). It was cool: the owner (who was French) was enormously proud of his work and happy to show us around. The workers (who were all Khmer) were very skilled at their tasks and seemed content enough (the owner insisted that all his employees were compensated very well for their work).  In addition to various styles of functional and decorative knives, Citadel also makes traditional Samurai swords, which, at $2,500 a pop, are their most expensive item.  All of their wares were superbly crafted and very beautiful; unfortunately, their cheapest knife was out of my price range (almost $100).

Our next stop that day was Choeng Ek, the most infamous killing field in Cambodia. There are many “killing fields” in the country, random places where mass graves were dug and victims of the Khmer Rouge were executed and discarded. But Choeng Ek, a clearing about 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, was where prisoners from S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s premiere interrogation prison, were taken to be killed, and over 15,000 people died here. In the years since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, researchers have exhumed… Over 8,000 skulls and hundreds of other bones are kept in a large memorial. We joined a guided tour of the field, but despite the terrible stories we were told, the dozens of open pits in the ground, and the presence of all the skulls, we knew that we could only dimly grasp the scale of the atrocities at Choeng Ek.

On Thursday, we visited the National Museum, the Russian Market, and the Vietnamese and Laos embassies to get information about visas to both countries. We spent Friday morning researching our travel options. At that point, we kind of stalled out: due to a recent typhoon that flooded large parts of central Vietnam and southern Laos, we weren’t sure what travel conditions were like in those areas. We wanted to head to one of those two countries, but we weren’t sure which. Complicating matters, we needed to obtain our visas for whichever one we chose before we left Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, visas took two days to obtain; it was Friday; and embassies are closed on weekends. Even if we dropped off our passports at either embassy, we couldn’t get them back until Monday. We were stuck. Unable to make further headway with regard to our travel plans, we decided to visit the last item on our list of things to see in Phnom Penh: S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison. Much like Choeng Ek, it was a little surreal to be there; my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the stories and relics of torture, interrogation, starvation, and fear.

On Saturday, we left. We didn’t want to hang out in Phnom Penh for the weekend, waiting for the embassies to open on Monday. Tired of the noise, chaos, and pollution of the city, we decided to take a break. So we took a bus to Kampot, a small town on Cambodia’s southern coast, to relax a bit and figure out our next step.
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