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Fast Boat to Phnom Penh

CAMBODIA | Friday, 6 December 2013 | Views [811]

Royal palace

Royal palace

It's another early morning start as, after much deliberation, I have decided to take the speed boat to Phnom Penh (pronounced Pnom Pen). It was going to be an early start regardless as yesterday a wedding ceremony got underway two doors down. A marquee was erected and at some time before 7am the two loudspeakers rudely crackled into life. Right up until 6pm they blared out local music, occasionally interspersed with prayer chanting and some sort of sermon. One loudspeaker was practically outside my window and given how loud it was, the only means of escape meant leaving the area completely. Wedding ceremonies vary in length according to status and financial means. At 6am this morning when the loudspeakers spluttered into life again, so loud that the sound was distorted, I was pleased to be downstairs and waiting to leave. Eventually the decrepit mini bus arrives a good hour late and the driver is hustling me in like I have kept him waiting! 

Along the road to the port we pass houses that range from being modern brick, to the more traditional wooden structures raised on concrete pillars, high up enough for the downstairs are to be used as a garage or a shop. Those less financially fortunate have homes built from sheets of woven bamboo. Windows are small squares of woven bamboo propped open with a stick. Finally there are homes made either entirely from or from a mix of rusting corrugated steel and battered bamboo sheets. Almost every house has a balcony where laundry can be seen hanging out to dry. Large mats are rolled up, released to provide shade or some protection from rain. Dogs lie in the dirt yards, looking rather mangy in many cases. Coming from a nation of animal lovers, it is hard to see many of the animals here. However, how do you judge people who struggle to feed themselves? Everything is functional when you are living without what most would consider to be essential. It's easy to see how people can lose everything when freak weather affects a poor area. When even the most basic necessity of a home, is only a tenacious stand against the elements.

The boat, talking of basics, is fine but a long way from the relative luxury of those going to the Gili Islands from Bali. Most of us opt to sit on the 'roof' which is just metal with a small rail around the edges. The motor sparks into life and as I am sitting nearer the back than the front, it is clear that conversation is going to be limited. We speed by floating villages where life is conducted almost entirely on the water. Fisherman spend much of their time out casting their nets. It is not unusual to see them accompanied by their sons, as young as about five years old, learning their trade. This service runs once a day from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and vice versa but still children wave enthusiastically as we pass by. Sometime after noon I head down into the cabin to escape the strengthening sun. We have been fortunate with cloud cover for much of the trip so far. it takes us six hours to traverse Lake Tonle Sap, a huge body of inland water supporting the lives of many Cambodians. At $37, it is almost double the price of the bus, but I figure we will not encounter potholes or traffic jams, and busses are next on the agenda anyway. 

Eventually the river becomes narrower and the banks are filled with shacks as people have been drawn to the big city lights in the hope of a better life. The port, such as it is, is a frenzy of activity as we pull up. Taxi drivers and tour guides jostle for business no sooner than you have reclaimed your bags. Having established that my hotel is only a short hop away, I take a tuk-tuk for $2 along the waterfront. The Khmeroyal doesn't look terribly royal at all and when I am shown to my room, which is clearly occupied (by a chambermaid having used it for a nap I suspect) my opinion plummets even further. My river view room in fact faces a brick wall on the other side of the hotel, but by now I really can't be bothered to argue! It's ok as a base as the location is excellent. Choosing hotels on Booking.com is still a hit and miss affair, even though I double check against Trip Advisor reviews. It is an incredibly lengthy, and sometimes disappointing exercise!

Sunset approaches and I find myself walking further and further along the river bank which is festooned with international flags and street vendors. To be honest I don't have a clue where I'm heading but I'm hardly likely to get lost! I have noticed a lot of NGO (non government organisation) workers in Phnom Penh. They can be seen happily pedalling their bikes in the total chaos of the traffic. They dress differently too. None of the uniform minuscule shorts & baggy t-shirts of the holidaying youth. Hippie pants are definitely as much 'in' here as in Thailand. It's hard to believe now how long it took me to find my first pair! Suzie in South Africa told me I would grow to love them and now I can't imagine life without them. They are perfect for travelling.

Having walked quite a distance I have been unable to find the sort of city I had expected to find. I was looking for a sort of centre, high rises clumped together somewhere, but without success. I do make two important discoveries. The first is that the Royal Palace is literally paces away from the hotel. The second is a Costa Coffee, always my favourite in the UK. Sadly their iced cappucino is an expensive disappointment. Central market is a collection of large shacks selling just about everything. I love the newspaper vendor who has stuck sheets of newspaper to his yellow umbrella, just so you know! The Olympic Stadium built in the 60's is today enjoyed by locals having been redeveloped by Taiwan around 10 years ago. Ronan Keating performed here.

The next afternoon, suitably attired, I pay $25 to visit the palace. I would like to think that money is used for the benefit of the general population. There is plenty to see and no shortage of people there doing exactly that. The Killing Fields is a tough visit but I'm told that in order to understand Cambodia, you must first understand her past. A respectful tribute with audio guide takes you back to the terrible years of Pol Pot. I can barely find the words to describe the impact of this visit. How to comprehend that out of a total population of eight million people, three million were murdered in less than four years by their own countrymen. Take a look around a busy room, one person out of less than every three in there would disappear....!

Thirty four years later things have changed. Memories too terrible to forget but put aside to build a future for all the people of this country. My tuk-tuk driver is swerving dangerously to avoid potholes as we pass the construction site of a flyover. A few high rise buildings are under construction, children smile and wave, tour guides speak different international languages and in the supermarket Christmas songs are playing.


Tags: cambodia, central market, fast boat, killing fields, olympic stadium, phnom penh, royal palace, wedding party

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