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Cambodia Day 4: The Phnom Penh Horror Show

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 15 February 2007 | Views [1542] | Comments [2]

How do I even begin to describe this day?

Ok, from the start: We started the day with breakfast. Our friends were held up for some reason, so Lianyi and I headed off to the Lonely Planet-recommended Sunrise Coffee House without them. We were its first patrons. Doesn't this building rock? It's so lovely.

We asked the waitress how big their pancakes were. She showed us a small circle with her hand. So we each ordered pancakes AND something else. Him a cinnamon bun, me some french toast. Of course, the pancakes turned out to be pretty damn huge. Also very very tasty. We got the café to pack our leftovers.

Our friends joined us halfway through breakfast. After breakfast we checked out of the hostel and took a small van to the bus terminal. The bus to Phnom Penh, thankfully, was air-conditioned. However, it also came with "entertainment". This included:

a) Thai music videos which showed girls dressed in skimpy clothing dancing as if they were in a club -- no choreography here -- against various psychedelic technicolour backgrounds. It was... bizarre. At one point Uma turned around to look at me and we both burst out laughing. Look, I just snorted thinking about it. There were many different songs, but all the music videos were of the exact same style. Different girls and backgrounds though.

b) A Khmer sitcom, which involved people being angry and yelling at each other ALL THE TIME, and men crying in an exaggerated manner. Lianyi pointed out that this was probably why PCK Pte Ltd always wins Best Comedy at the Asian Television Awards. Worse, the volume on the TV was so loud it was ear-piercing.

c) Cambodian music videos, which were the least threatening to my sanity. Slower, gentler music and no dancing -- just local actors playing out some sentimental drama.

I fell asleep for the first part of the ride. After I woke up I borrowed Farah's Lonely Planet and read about Cambodia's history. Then I went back to sleep and Lianyi took over the guide book. He not only read the history of Cambodia, he also put to memory the map of Phnom Penh, picked up tips on how to keep safe from lowly criminals and high-class thugs and categorised the guesthouses recommended by Lonely Planet according to how well-located they were with respect to all the tourist attractions.

The only reason why he did the last thing was because our friends had decided that The Boddhi Tree was too expensive for them. I had booked us rooms at The Boddhi Tree in Phnom Penh before the trip and was actually looking forward to staying there after reading all the reviews. I'd booked two rooms - one for the girls and one for the boys.

But when we had reached Siem Reap that first day, Uma said she would actually prefer having her own room throughout the trip. And rooms at The Boddhi Tree are rather expensive if you're not sharing with someone. So we had to find a cheaper place to stay.

When we reached Phnom Penh, it was utter chaos. I cannot even explain it to you. Could you try to imagine this for me please: Imagine you have just woken up from sleep and your head is still fuzzy. You are separated from some of your friends by the throng of passengers milling about. A policeman is standing next to you, blowing on his whistle and swinging his baton to keep the horde of shouting tuk-tuk drivers at bay. But despite the policeman the drivers keep grabbing your suitcase. You take it back once, twice, they just keep snatching it from your hand again.

Now in the midst of all this, Lianyi and his brain full of knowledge was stuck somewhere at the back of the crowd, too far to take charge of the situation for us. I turned to Uma and asked her whether she had a guesthouse in mind. Unfortunately she hadn't gotten around to looking through the Lonely Planet recommendations.

All this while the tuk-tuk drivers were still yelling at us and shoving advertisements in our faces. They were posters for a guesthouse called The Lakeside, located along the strip of guesthouses and cafés on the bank of the Tonlé Sap. It's kind of the Khao San Road of Phnom Penh, I suppose.

It really was the worst place in the world to hold a discussion. But we had to decide on the spot where to go. I suggested to my friends, why not we go to The Boddhi Tree, sit down at the restaurant and discuss where to stay. For about five seconds that became The Plan. But then someone else said, you know, I really don't mind just going to this Lakeside guesthouse. And everyone else was just like, "Ok yeah whatever let's go." Most of us just wanted to get out of that place.

Of course,  it turned out to be a bad idea. The moment he caught up with me, Lianyi started scolding me about giving in to scammers. And of course I was the only one he yelled at.

We then proceeded to pay too much to the scammer, who dropped us off at a completely different guesthouse. It was located along the Tonlé Sap too, but it was called the Greenlake. When I said to the driver, "This is not the Lakeside Guesthouse!" he pointed at the lake and said, "Yes, that is lake. This is lakeside."

Also one of the men who carried our luggage into the guesthouse tried hugging Farah from the back, which really freaked her out.

Well there was no fucking way we were going to stay at this Greenlake place and earn the scammer-driver some commission, so we ignored the receptionist and the driver and all the other men and sat a table to discuss what to do next. The boys then left to look for the actual Lakeside guesthouse.

They came back with bad news - the Lakeside was full. And so we all decided to go to The Boddhi Tree after all.

The Boddhi Tree was a nice place. A sanctuary, really, from the outside world of dusty, scammy Phnom Penh. The guesthouse is actually a restored colonial house. All the bedrooms and any other available space have been turned into guest rooms. Lianyi and I ended up with the attic. It had no doors, just curtains for cover, but the staff assured us the place was secure. I actually liked it a lot.
After placing our luggage in our room, Lianyi scolded me some more. And then we went to Tuol Sleung. We went without our friends because they wanted to shower first and we didn't.

Tuol Sleung, also known as S21, was where enemies of the revolution were kept, tortured and mostly killed. Before entering the building proper, there is a board where you can read a brief history and description of the place. And just outside the classrooms (Tuol Sleung was a school before it was turned into a concentration camp) is a big board which shows the list of rules that the prisoners of Tuol Sleung had to abide by. Fucking crazy rules like "You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect". These helped place my mind in the proper context, so to speak.

The first classroom I walked into was honestly oppressive. I'd always thought it was a meaningless cliché when people described a certain place as having "an oppressive air" but seriously, the air in the classroom was heavy. I could barely walk. The first classroom held a metal bed frame and a picture on the wall of a tortured inmate, only recognisable as a human being because of his shape.The second classroom held the same exhibits and was equally stifling.

But the third classroom. The third room had row after row of boards holding photos of the people who had been  incarcerated in Tuol Sleung. Thousands of people -- people who looked like me and my family and my friends, to boot.

I cry as much as the next person over Holocaust films, but the truth is there is nothing that aids empathy more than the superficial.

And then, in one corner, was a cabinet filled with the clothes of these people, folded, in a fucking cabinet. Like they were waiting to be worn again. That was where I lost it.

I didn't just cry, I sobbed. I was a fucking mess. I ran out of the room and sat on a bench and cried and cried and cried.

After cleaning myself up we walked on.

Halfway through our tour our friends arrived, and we arranged to meet at the entrance at 5.30. By the time Lianyi and I finished our tour, we had a lot of time to spare. I decided to buy my own copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia because I had a feeling I would need it. I turned out to be right.

When our friends were done, we minus Uma went for dinner at Comme à La Maison. It was a pleasant interlude from the trying day. Haute cuisine at fast food prices! The food was excellent. Lianyi's fish carpaccio was especially uplifting. If you go to Phnom Penh, you must eat there.

After dinner Farah and Soo Hian went to explore the city. Lianyi and I went looking for a place to get a foot massage. But we didn't find any so we just walked back to our guesthouse.

It turned out to be quite fortunate that we couldn't find a massage parlour, and this was also where my newly-acquired Lonely Planet came in handy: We had a fucking hell of a lot of things to arrange and very little time to do it.

Here was the problem:

Originally, we had planned to stay Friday night in Phnom Penh, then take a bus to Kampot and stay there overnight, then return to Phnom Penh on Sunday, so I had not booked a room for us in Phnom Penh for Saturday.

But we now had that new plan of cutting out Kampot completely and taking a day trip to Kirirom National Park on Saturday instead. So we needed to find shelter in Phnom Penh for Saturday night.

So, we thought, maybe we could just extend our stay at The Boddhi Tree for one night.

But, when Lianyi and I got back to the guesthouse after dinner, we found out that they had no rooms for Saturday. We also overheard a couple of other guests asking to extend their stay.

So then there was a mad scramble to look for another place to stay. I figured our best bet was the Sunday Guesthouse, where I had booked us rooms for, coincidentally, Sunday.

In the meantime, Lianyi and I also had to arrange for transportation to take us to Kirirom the next morning.

While juggling several phone calls at the same time, we got to talking to the waiter/manager at the Boddhi Tree. His name was Sak, and he was a 23-year-old Cambodian who had just graduated from university, where he had studied economics and informatics. Sighing the universal lament of the graduate, he said the jobs he had now were of no relevance to his studies.

Yes, jobS. He worked in marketing by day, at the Boddhi Tree by night. He was the sole breadwinner of his family now, since his father passed away last year. But since he started both jobs he hasn't even made enough to send any money to his family. He earns just enough to cover his own food and petrol (they always call it "gasoline" in Cambodia) costs. His family lived in a different province, near the border with Vietnam.

We asked if he was not tired working two jobs daily. He said, "Yes, sometimes I think, why is my life like this? But you know, I am so happy to come to work. Because here we are like a family."

He just reminded me so much of Xai, which made me feel like doing to him what I often did to Xai -- give him money. I didn't, however. Though I really wish I had, because he was the one who got us the driver to Kirirom, through a friend of him whose work it seemed was to arrange drivers for every need.

Back to the accommodation dilemma: the Sunday guesthouse got back to me and said they did have rooms for Saturday, but I had to confirm quick. Yet my friends were taking very long to reply to my SMSes and for some stupid reason I didn't want to make a decision without their approval.

But finally, Farah and Soo Hian came back and said yes to the Sunday guesthouse. By that time my eyes were already half-closed and I was super cranky. I made a final call to the Sunday Guesthouse and went straight to sleep.

Tags: bus ride, cambodia, comme à la maison, phnom penh, s21, the boddhi tree, tuol sleung



Exceptional post! I've bookmarked your website as well due to the fact I discovered it is seriously educational and I enjoyed reading your posts.

  Karachi University Sep 27, 2010 7:09 PM


Thank you very much! Hope my crazy experiences can help you avoid some of the mistakes I made :)

  cisoux Sep 27, 2010 7:18 PM

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