Indolent and Neglected City

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Friday, November 25, 2005

Our USD$4 bus tickets from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh are probably the best value transportation we have found on the whole trip so far. For the 300km journey that works out at 1.3 cents per kilometre.

A minibus picks us up at our hotel, transporting us to a medium-sized bus in the centre of town, which in turn drives out of town and drops us by the large-sized bus that will take us to Phnom Penh. Feeling somewhat disorientated, and a little nauseous from the poisonous air conditioning, we thunder along one of the few tarmack roads in Cambodia, beeping loudly at bicyles and carts to get out of the way.

A few kilometers along the road we stop because the lower cargo door is open. This causes a wave of panic amongst the Westerners on board, who all immediately imagine their rucksacks and luggage lying scattered several metres back along the road; their contents being pilfered by hundreds of looting Cambodians. Not true.

En route we stop at a roadside cafe where I spot some banana sticky rice for sale. As I wander over to the stall in a daze, I suddenly become aware that the girl selling the rice has a gigantic black hairy spider crawling on her T-shirt. It is honestly the largest live spider that I have ever seen. As I pay tentatively for the rice packet (1000 Real or 15p) I realise that there is a large bowl full of the same spiders on the ground. In a further revelation I spot a tray of spiders which have been fried in hot chilli sauce. I think about buying one for Rachel but realise that it could end the marriage, so I take a few photos instead. Soon a smiling mother comes along and buys three fried spiders, one for each of her children, who eat them with gusto, biting off the legs first before crunching into the crispy soft centred abdomen.

In Phnom Phen we are welcomed by a barrage of touts who crowd around the bus door making it difficult to get out and retrieve the bags. I spot 'our man in Phnom Penh' with a large sign saying 'Mr John' on it. We arranged a room in advance at 'OK Guesthouse' knowing that there would be a free pick up and hence one less negotiation with a taxi driver to perform. He drives us down the wide streets, past the Royal Palace, into a grubbier looking part of town where we stop outside a run down guesthouse.

Inside, the entry area is full of bored looking Westerners watching TV, and we are shown to a cramped room with no window, which is all that is available. We decide not to take it and get hustled into another guesthouse next door which has an equally small and depressing windowless room on offer. While Rachel waits patiently with the bags I take a walk round the block to see what I can see, but turn up nothing. We meet a couple of Israelis, Mike and Ele, who arrived in the same bus as us, who have come to the same conclusion that OK guesthouse is not OK.

Together we all jump on a tuk-tuk to 'Tat guesthouse'. Mike is surprised to see me bargain hard with the driver to get the trip for USD$1. Around these parts (and I suppose everywhere) Israelis are regarded as the toughest of bargainers, and he laments the weakness of many travelers to bargain. He cites an example of a Dutch girl who got ripped off in Siem Reap for a tuk-tuk ride around the temples, paying USD$17 for a trip that he paid USD$7.50 for. I paid USD$10 for the same so I don't feel too embarassed to admit where I lie in the great chart of negotiating prowess.

Tat is run by a large extended family and is homely, friendly, and clean - the room even has hot water and we agree the place is anything but tat.

That evening we go out with Mike and Ele, who are surprised to find that we have visited their country. We have lots of questions about life and politics in Israel and for us its interesting to hear the Jewish side of the political argument.

Next day Rachel and I walk down to S21 museum, formerly a school, before becoming a prison and interrogation centre during the infamous reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, suspected 'imperialists' were imprisoned here under horrific conditions, enduring a variety of barbarous tortures designed to extract confessions from them. We see thousands of photographs of the prisoners taken when they arrived at the detention centre. In the photos many of the people seem little more than teenagers and occasionally we see a mother and child. A broken look of fear and dread is in their eyes. These are the 'before' photos, we also see a number of 'after' shots where photos of dead victims complete with prominent identification tag are displayed.

They say around 10,000 people were killed in this prison alone, only a handful survived their visit there. It is a very sobering experience to walk around the dingy cells and interrogation rooms and to see some of the old instruments of torture lying around. Thankfully, the Vietnamese (the ones the American's lost against in the Vietnam War) liberated Cambodia in 1979 and put an end to Pol Pot's murderous regime. We are amazed to learn that although Pol Pot died just a few years ago, many of his cronies who masterminded the killings have still not come to trial. The legal preparations are apparently still in progress 25 years down the line. I think this demonstrates clearly lack of interest in Cambodia by the West.

We find S21 so sobering that we decide not to head further out of town to the Killing Fields museum where the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims were found. We read in our guidebook that there are rows and rows of anthropomorphically sorted skulls on display and its enough for us to see this in our minds eye this without visiting.

As we walk back towards Tat, we are feel cloaked in a shroud of depression from what we've seen and what is around us. The city itself seems to be struggling to come to terms with its troubled past. People seem to be more melancholy here than in any other Asian country we have visited.

For a city of 2 million, Phnom Penh is very underdeveloped. Apart from one or two main roads that are tarmacked and a beautiful grand palace, much of the rest is in a shabby unloved state that reminds us strongly of the back streets in a city like Old Dehli.

We find that our Israeli friend Mike has come down with a fever, and so we hope its not something serious - however the folks in Tat take good care of him and take him to visit a doctor (who, to the horror of Ele, promptly insert a drip into his arm - she assures us that the needle was clean). We chat to him in the evening but I can see he's too tired for me to bring up the subject of life in the Israeli army. Maybe another time?

At 7am next morning, from the balcony at Tat, we watch people gathering in a long line, two by two, for a wedding ceremony. They are smartly dressed in cheerful clothes and each guest carries a silver platter with gifts of food and drink. One carries four cans of coke, another a huge mound of rice, and I see one fellow carrying a dogs hind leg, the lower leg and paw visible beneath a brightly embroidered cloth. They say that the Vietnamese, not the Cambodians, are the biggest dog-eaters in the world. We shall soon find out as we're off to Vietnam today.

We wonder if we should stay stay longer in Phnom Phen to uncover more of its character; after about 10s seconds of thinking we agree its time to get out of this indolent and neglected place.
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