Cambodia - Pnomh Penh
Trip Start Jul 24, 2006
29Trip End Jan 07, 2011
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Where I stayed
Lakeview Hotel Guesthouse
The last stretch of our journey by river was memorable in that soon after leaving the Vietnam/Cambodian border ominous black clouds began to gather overhead and soon the heavens opened. When the rain started coming in through the side openings, the boat crew helped us lower the canvas sides and also enclosed the front of the boat where the captain was steering. All of a sudden I felt the rain seeping in under the bottom of the canvas and collecting on the benches we were all sitting on, which led to a general reorganisation to try to avoid the wet patches!
Huddling together trying to stay dry did mean that we all talked more to each other than we'd done during most of the trip and Pete had a very long chat with a couple of really nice young Australian girls, while the Japanese boy who was studying architecture told me about where else he'd travelled before this trip. However, it wasn't long before the rain got even worse and the wind picked up so much that the captain was having trouble seeing to steer. It wasn't very reassuring when he sent one of the crew to climb outside to report back on how far from the coast we were, and eventually had to slow the boat right down and hug the shoreline to be sure of where we were. The two girls began to look decidedly nervous, worrying about the possibility of the boat breaking down or us getting lost! Luckily, the worst of the rain only lasted about 30 minutes and soon we were increasing speed again with improved visibility.
We finally arrived mid-afternoon and clambered off the boat with all our luggage, only to find out that the minibuses which were to take us on the 2 hour journey into Pnomh Pehn city had been delayed. We looked rather forlorn, as the rain had started again and we all got soaked just going from the riverside to the back of a house where we waited under a corrugated iron roof until our transport arrived.
What a journey that was! I thought I'd seen some very uncomfortable methods of transport in Vietnam, often seeing 4 or more people squeezed onto the back of a small motor bike, other people transporting huge items like wardrobes in front of them on a bicycle, but obviously this was the main road into the city and thousands of workers were returning after the weekend. There were minibuses and open-backed lorries absolutely packed with passengers and all their belongings. The ones which were actually operating as buses not only had people of all ages packed like sardines inside, but also had some who seemed to be hanging half out of the windows! To make matters even worse in the beating rain and wind, there would be at least another 15 or so clinging onto the top of the roof of the bus! The lorries were just as bad - absolutely jam-packed with people trying in vain to remain relatively dry by huddling under sheets of plastic on the back of the lorries. Occasionally someone would pass us with a load of chickens hanging upside down at the back of their bike or with several pigs whose legs were tied together! I shuddered to think of what would happen if any of the buses or lorries loaded with so many people had overturned or crashed, because in spite of the bad weather no-one seemed to drive any slower or indicate to show which way they were turning, or if they intended to overtake. The only change was the slight decreased in the use of hooters - instead of every car hooting each time it was going to go past a scooter or bicycle in another land, it was only every other one!
It was already dark when we finally arrived at our next Guesthouse - grandly called the Lakeview Hotel. We were concerned to see that it was situated down a tiny alley which was not even tarred, and lined with small businesses on other side sporting all sorts of signs offering tourists everything from mini-tours of the city to massages of all kinds, beers of all descriptions and the best rate of exchange in town! Somehow we hadn't been informed by our guide (who'd left the boat at the border crossing)what the name of our accommodation was, and the minibus driver who'd driven us there didn't seem to have a clue either! But he dropped us off in the covered entrance which also served as a lobby for the Guesthouse, and we were told they were expecting us. Well, it wasn't the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, that was for sure! Our room was just about big enough to hold a double bed and it had air-conditioning and a tiny rather dilapidated shower-room and toilet, and we were so tired that we decided that we'd spend at least that first night there, and then perhaps look for something else the next day.
Our intention was just to spend one day in the city before making our way to Siem Reap to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat temple site. So we decided to take our hotel receptionist up on his offer of an air-conditioned minibus tour of the main tourist sites
the next day (Monday). I think they thought that another 4 English boys would also be coming on the tour, but they decided that as they had to catch a plane later that afternoon they would be too rushed, so in the end we had the bus and the driver all to ourselves.
Our first visit was again a rather sobering experience, as it was to a place called the Killing Fields, situated at about 30 minutes' driver from the city. We learned that this was where the Cambodian Khmer Rouge officials brought the prisoners they had decided to execute - these included men, women and children. It was terrible to see the pits where, after the end of that terrible time, they had discovered the skeletons of so many people. What made it even more real, was that you could actually still see fragments of material from the clothes the victims were wearing when they were buried in the mass graves. The central point of the area is a tall monument where the skulls of the victims are now stored. Visitors can climb some steps up the four sides and view the skulls which are visible through glass doors. Most people stop to light incense sticks at small altars just in front of each door.
The next stop was a former school building which became infamous as an interrogation and torture cent re for the Khmer Rouge. The school had been subdivided into different types of cells on each floor, and now contains examples of the instruments they used to torture the victims and many, many photos. One of the strange things about the Khmer regime was that everything was very carefully documented, so there are photos and records of most of the prisoners and victims. Apparently, the cent re employees and guards were mostly soldiers who had no choice but to obey the orders they received from the officers in charge. However, there have been many instances where they have been tried and sentenced to prison themselves since that terrible time. On the walls you can read statements made by the relatives of both victims and the people who worked there, which are very moving.
By the time we left there, we were in need of something to lighten our mood as once again I began to despair of the human race ever learning anything from the past. Our driver suggested that we might like to have lunch near the central market and it proved to be a very good idea as the food was both good and cheap, and as the rain poured down again, we were at least undercover.
One of the things that surprised me about Pnomh Penh was that it seemed a lot more modern and westernized than any of the cities we'd visited in Vietnam. Perhaps that's because the troubles there were a lot more recent, whilst Vietnam's started a lot earlier in the mid fifties and then worsened once the US became involved. The following years under communist rule and economic sanctions have resulted in a country which has quite a bit of catching up to do. Although of course it is changing rapidly and is currently undergoing huge economic developments and benefiting from increasing foreign investment from neighbouring countries such as China and Australia, which are keen to tap into Vietnam's natural resources and cheap labour market. In Pnomh Penh the shops and signs, width of the main streets are reminiscent of European and western towns and cities, and the young population are very keen to take advantage of technology.
Once the rain had stopped, we decided that we'd visit the Golden Palace, which was very similar to the Royal Palace in Bangkok, in that it contained many different buddhist temples as well as ceremonial halls where the King received visitors or held meetings. Outside there were beautiful trees and miniature gardens, which often contained large interestingly-shaped rocks and unusual plants - some of these also served as shrines.
We spent another night at our Lakeview Guesthouse, as it seemed easier than trying to change. We had tried to obtain a better room, but in fact the one we had was already one of the better ones! The best part of the evening was when Pete decided to give his mobile phone to our minibus driver, Haiv. Being alone with him for most of the day, we'd managed to find out quite a lot about his situation - he had to work really hard to support his wife and three children, leaving home at about 4.30 a.m. each day to get from his village to the Guesthouse. There he served as a driver if needed, or just did odd jobs until 19:30 - unless there was no work and then he didn't get paid at all! He also had to pay to rent a motor bike as the new one he'd saved up for had been stolen by corrupt police a few months beforehand.
Anyway, Haiv was absolutely delighted to receive the phone, although it was only a plain Nokia one which I'd used before getting my Tri-Band one last year. At first I asked Pete why he'd given Haiv the phone in front of his manager, who immediately came up to find out what was happening, and was soon followed by the other hotel staff. But as Pete said, he wanted to avoid the possibility of them thinking Haiv might have stolen it if he'd suddenly appeared with it out of the blue. He immediately asked one of the other employees if he could try his sim card in it and came back to thank us 2 or 3 times, still smiling broadly. He asked us for our email address so that he could find out how we were getting on once we left the hotel and then Cambodia.
The next morning we took the local bus for Siem Reap. It was due to leave at 1030 and arrive at approx 1530, and we'd been told we'd be picked up from our hotel. Finally, after waiting impatiently, a minibus turned up at 1025 and proceeded to take us to the Central Market Bus station area, through dense rush hour traffic! I was sure we were going to miss it and would have to wait until the next day, but we were only 2 or 3 minutes late and the bus was still loading up. In fact, the bus was still there 15 minutes later! I think that either it waited until every passenger arrived, or until it was full. We were slightly concerned when it finally left that we were the only non-Cambodian passengers but soon settled in. A German man got in as we were leaving the city and that's when we realised that what we'd been told was a non-stop express bus was not really either non-stop or express!
In fact we had several stops, where everybody bundled off the bus to use the toilets, order a rushed bowl of noodles or buy fresh fruit. Pete bought us some fresh pineapple and bananas, which were delicious. Using the roadside loo was not quite such an enjoyable experience, but at least there was a lockable door - I just tried hard not to look too hard into the pitch black corners of the garden shed-like building it was housed in!