Journey to Cambodia's Capital

Trip Start Feb 04, 2010
Trip End Feb 12, 2011

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Where I stayed
Noura Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Leaving the flock of tourists in Siem Reap, we headed west towards the rice capital of Cambodia, Battambang, a subdued French colonial style city.  Our two-level bus provided the customary bus entertainment that we have grown to tolerate - deafening Khmer music videos with the repetitive themes of love, jealousy and betrayal, followed by Cambodian variety show style comedy skits and then finally, a surprising screening of Rambo III dubbed in Khmer.  Each show was played at such an excruciatingly high volume that it could easily be heard through any earplugs or MP3 player.  Upon arriving in Battambang's town center, we were promptly serenaded by a host of tuk-tuk drivers and hotel touts waving laminated hotel advertisements, swarming us with countless propositions for a 'cheap room, come with me'.  With visions of Siem Reap fresh in our mind, we quickly strapped on our packs and walked away from the blitz in search of a hotel on our own.

Battambang was relatively uneventful and uninspiring, with the only noteworthy occurrence being the daily afternoon thunder storms with their vibrant lightening bolts lighting up the entire city sky and leaving the intersection in front of our hotel flooded for a couple hours afterwards.  While there were a few temples outside of the city and the nearby "Bamboo Railway" a popular day trip, the heat diminished our desire to see the latter leading us to a hasty departure towards Phnom Penh, the bus once again providing similar ear-piercing videos of the ever popular Khmer love ballads.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city, is a sprawling city along the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers with a population of approximately two million people.  In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's radical communistic policies, took control of the city, sending most of its two million citizens, including children and elderly folk, to work twelve hour days on rural farms.  In return, these people only received two bowls of rice a day.  Schools in the capital were turned into prisons where various means of torture were used and 1.7 million people are believed to have been killed during the Khmer Rouge reign through execution, starvation or forced labour.  If a family was the victim of one of the many Khmer Rouge raids, people could be imprisoned or killed for merely storing food in their homes.  It was the Vietnamese army that eventually overthrew the Khmer Rouge dictatorship in 1979 but sectors of the group persisted in parts of Cambodia well into the 1990s.  Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998, before being extradited and put on trial for his crimes against humanity.

Today, Phnom Penh hosts foreign expats, usually with humanitarian NGOs, as well as tourists enjoying a chauffeured cyclo or remork cruise - cyclo being essentially a covered rolling chair pushed by a bicycle and a remork uses a motorbike to pull a trailer.  Phnom Penh is an easily navigable series of lively back streets that include hoards of anxious tuk-tuk drivers, numerous restaurants, bars and cafes, and the busy street lanes full of never-ending traffic.  A favourite sundowner stop was the Foreign Correspondents Club, set in an old French colonial building with an immense second floor veranda overlooking the Tonle Sap River.  With the cooler, cloudy weather accompanied by a slight breeze, one carafe of wine effortlessly transposed itself into two, while we were fixated on the slow waters flowing by, contemplating our onward journey.

After a few days of exploring the streets, visiting the impressive national museum containing many relics from the Angkor sites we had visited in the north and sampling the dark, black liquid from various overpriced cafes around the centre, we opted to continue onwards to little visited areas of southwestern Cambodia.  Bus prices varied considerably from company to company, as we found one company to be double the price of another, with the only explanation being that they provided a bottle of water for the ride.
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