29 October 2011

Bone Pagoda [Phnom Penh, Cambodia]

I'm wondering how best to describe Phnom Penh, but only one word comes to mind; chaos! But a cool, friendly kind of chaos. It has a rich history and culture that covers the city in almost every direction you look. It is full of smiling faces and friendly people. Street markets and old woman with small stalls fill the side-streets; the smells and sounds of locals going about their daily lives fills the streets.

Cambodia is an intense country. Within a couple of hours of crossing the border we had to take a ferry across the Mekong. A small van pulled up beside us at the ferry port and was immediately swamped by people selling all kinds of food. I'm talking twenty or more people shoving bulging plastic bags and bunches of fruit through every available window. I think the only reason we didn't receive the same treatment was that we were sitting high up in a bus with windows that didn't open. Soon afterward there were three or four kids swimming in the ferry port (Health and Safety FTW!) completely naked. One jumps out and starts peeing everywhere. Nice.

The Lonely Planet says there is a 'backpacker' area in Phnom Penh near a large lake not far from the center of town. It is a little run down, but the lake is nice, and most importantly; it's cheap! It filled two of those conditions - it was run down, and it was the cheapest accommodation I have found to date at US$2/night. But the lake is being 'rebuilt' or something, so is just a pile of dirt. Oh well, at least it is cheap!

Cambodians seem really friendly, always going out of their way to say hello. There are even more motorbike drivers in Phnom Penh than in Saigon, plus a whole bunch of tuk-tuks too, so you are constantly having to say no. But at least they listen to you when you say no and leave you alone. There seem to be more beggars here, which is not so nice. But generally the people are laid back and friendly. Maybe a little too laid back; one of the first things the guy at the hotel asked me is if I liked to 'smoke'. Ten minutes later when we decided to take the room, he just blatantly asked if I wanted to buy some weed. And he was not alone; during the two days there I was offered it at least five or six times.

The first day in Phnom Penh we met up with Simon and Yona for the Rugby World Cup final - New Zealand vs France. Simon and I had talked about how perfect it would be if it was a All Blacks v France final (Simon is French) so we had been planning this for a while. It was a nail-biting, too close for comfort game, but thankfully the kiwis came out on top (I never had any doubt).

The following day we all met up again to visit the Royal Palace, only to find it was closed for the majority of the day! Instead we visited Wat Ounalom, an impressive temple near to the river, then made for the central market. The market is a huge, bustling maze of stalls, mainly selling tourist crap (certainly not one for the locals), but we picked up a couple of bits and pieces, including a couple of t-shirts for US$1.50.

A few hours later we successfully visited the Royal Palace, luckily getting in as the girls had shawls covering their solders, and apparently shawls are not allowed. Maybe shawls and/or naked shoulders offend the non-existant royalty? As we didn't seem to have any problems at the other temples? The girls threw on the t-shirts I had bought earlier at the market and we were good to go.


To be honest the Palace was a little disappointing. I expected more for the US$6 entrance fee! There were some very nice buildings, but they had restricted access so much that you are only allowed to visit a few buildings in one small area. Externally the decoration is amazing. The interior is underwhelming. Especially the Silver Pagoda, which is meant to be the highlight of the Palace. There are silver tiles on the floor, which you can only see in one small corner where they have lifted the carpet.

That afternoon Julia and I bargained hard and got ourselves a tuk-tuk driver for a few hours. It cost us US$8 to have him take us to a couple of spots, then return to the hotel at about 7pm. Our first stop was Tuol Sleng, or S-21 prison museum. This was once a school that the Khumer Rouge took over and turned into a prison, where they committed some horrible acts. We had watched a video about S-21 the previous day which was good as it gave the prison some context. It showed how the Khumer Rouge would force confessions from the prisoners by any means possible (horrendous torture methods), then punish the prisoners and send them to their death at Choeung Ek (more on that in a bit). Wandering around, seeing the tiny cells, barbed wire, instruments of torture, photos of the victims and information about their treatment was an intense experience. Especially in the last building where they have the remains of some victims on display in glass cases.

In one room there is information provided on the Khumer Rouge and how they have (or have not) been bought to justice. I think that is actually the saddest part - that it has taken so long to bring these people to justice, and that they were allowed to continue their lives for so many years. Many of the photos of the Khumer Rouge have been graffitied; a small sign of the hate felt for these people.

15kms out of the city lies Choeung Ek, or the 'killing fields'. As the name suggests, this is where the Khumer Rouge bought their victims to be killed. It is now a peaceful place, full of tall trees, ponds and small animals; a huge contrast to its former purpose. There is a massive pagoda, the 'Bone Pagoda' filled with the remains of some the victims. The whole area is now covered in large holes where they have excavated thousands of bodies from mass graves. The information provided is factual and blunt. It tells of how the victims were often beaten to death to save bullets, how the Khumer killed babies by throwing them against a tree. It showed the site where hundreds of headless corpses were buried. Over 8,000 bodies have been recovered so far, and there are still large parts of the area that have not been excavated.

One thing that really bugged me is that apparently S-21 and Choeung Ek have been leased or sold to a Japanese businessmen. Basically meaning that someone is profiting from the suffering of so many. Besides that, advertising has crept its way in. At both sites I saw park benches 'sponsored' by companies, with their name and web address. I think this is totally inappropriate. If you want to donate a park bench, then great! But to have a company name and web address is just wrong. There was also a store outside S-21 which you can see beyond the barbed wire, with a huge sign saying something like 'After your visit to the prison don't forget to come here and spend your money!'

The following day we grabbed a bus to Sihanoukville. I am much more aware of time now, and if I am going to make it down to Indonesia in time for my flight, I need to hustle.

Random observations from the first few days in Cambodia:
- Everything in USD here! Prices in shops and for accommodation, transport, food, everything! And they actually use USD. When you take money from an ATM it spits out US currency.
- Accommodation is cheap! (in Phnom Pehn anyway)
- Food more expensive than Vietnam, but the portions are bigger (thankfully, as they are pretty disappointing in Vietnam). It is possible to find cheaper, more local food, but it is much harder.
- Generally beer is about the same, if not slightly more expensive (between US$0.75 and $1.50), but I have not yet managed to find a cheap place like in Vietnam, where they had draft beer for US$0.30! The best I have found so far is $0.50. I will continue to search.
- There are a huge number of tuk-tuks here, but they aren't the purpose built vehicle you find in some other countries. They have basically just whacked a trailer on the back of their scooter.
- While the exterior of the temples are beautiful, the interiors aren't quite at the same level. Bland and quite uninteresting to be totally honest! Maybe I just had high expectations after the amazing exterior decoration.
- Hot water is a bit of a luxury here. Most places we have stayed in have only had cold showers :/
- And most toilets do not have a flush, just a big bucket of water for you to throw some in when you are done.

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