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Welcome to Cambodia - Phnom Penh

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 14 May 2009 | Views [1391]

The storm had blown itself out by dawn and we left Don Det, as we had arrived, on a long tail. The holidays were over and the aftermath of the rains were very much in evidence in Nakasang on the mainland. The dusty street had turned into a mudbath and it looked (and smelt) suspiciously as if the sewage was flowing unfettered down to the river. The rainy season must be pretty tough here.

After a bit of a wait we got onto a minibus to the Cambodian border. I had been looking forward to another border crossing after the fun and games entering Laos. It was chaotic again but in a more ordered fashion. We were left off at a road block to perform the Laos exit formalities, where we were charged a dollar. Then a 100m walk across no-man's land to the Cambodian side where things got complicated. A visa application form to be filled in duplicate and then another medical form. Take the medical form to the “doctor” - everyone paid him a dollar but on production of our vaccination certificates he didn't charge for the leaflet warning you that you might get sick in Cambodia (!!). Then take the leaflet and the visa form to another room. Give them $20 for the visa and then a dollar for .... something else. Oh and if you don't have a passport photo for the visa then it's another $2. Finally bring everything to another room where they charge you another dollar for checking that you've paid up everywhere else and give you a departure form.

Once again I found my source of entertainment in looking at people dealing, or failing to deal with the process. Some people hadn't brought any cash (in any currency!) as they had been told there was an ATM. In the middle of the jungle! Others were insisting that they had read on the internet they could pay by credit card. By far the most entertaining bit was the collective realisation that we all had to, somehow or another, fit onto the battered bus waiting just past the official barrier. Rucksacks were piled high onto the back seats and the 30 or so if us rammed on. We just about managed to get the last seats before a few more punters were pushed on. Plastic stools were produced and those without seats grudgingly took them and sat down in the aisle. We were away.

At first impressions Cambodia was similar to the other SE Asian countries we had visited so far. Bamboo houses and huts, mopeds swerving around water buffalo and goats on the roads. After a few hours on the bus it became apparent that the nation's poverty was, if not more pronounced, certainly more visible – open sewers, heaps of rubbish on the road, pockmarked with potholes and the signs of decay. Not that we hand't seen these things in Thailand or Laos, or South America for that matter – but there are more than just pockets in Cambodia.

After a lunch of bony undercooked chicken there was a bit of consternation on the bus. Two Asian women had got on and were innocently sitting in an American couple's seats. On noticing them the guy rudely gestured at them to get out with a torrent of abuse and appeals to fairness and the fact that he was there first. There was a bit of a stand-off as one of the Asian women stood her ground for a while and then just simply asked him to be polite – a physical impossibility for the man (it was he who had to borrow money from the bus conductor to get through the border). His bad manners won in the end but he was rewarded with having his new Asian lady friend glower at him from her stool beside him for the rest of the journey.

It took about 12 hours all told to get to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Just as the bus approached the city it stopped to pick up a man who got on and made a speech about Lakeside no. 10 Guest House. It wasn't a very good speech but it worked as most of the passengers followed him up the dingy street, weary after the journey. After about a week since our last hot shower that was all we really wanted. No such luck though – the highly complicated and fancy electric shower in the room was broken. Cold was fine though. And there was a fan and 24 hour electricity – we had indeed returned to luxury!

Phnom Pehn had not been held up as a place in which to lose yourself for weeks by anyone we met who had been. We decided to wait until we had spent one day before deciding how long to stay. One of the guide books describes the SE Asian national psyches in terms of tuk tuk drivers: In Thailand they will take you to a gem store on the way. In Laos you'll have to wake him up to bring you anywhere. In Vietnam they'll run you over for your business. Well in Cambodia they'll ask you “where you go now?” and no matter what you say they'll take it as a yes. After declining yet another, one offered marijuana, mushrooms and opium in quick succession before asking if we wanted a girl. Tours are offered to shooting ranges where you can fire AK47s and rocket propelled grenades into targets, or for an extra few dollars, live targets - chickens or cows. One rumour spoke of actually being able to fire a weapon at a person for enough dollars. Sickening, even as a myth - I hope it's not true. Very obvious though, that the Cambodians work those tourists a lot harder than in Laos and without the finesse and style that the Thais do.

Most people know something about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and his genocidal regime that killed millions of ethnic Kampucheans between 1975 and 1979. We knew very little and were keen to understand more. We took a moto. yet another variation on the theme of the tuk tuk, the moto in Cambodia is a motorbike with a trailer attached. Sometimes it's a nice fancy trailer with comfy seats and wooden handles, others more basic. No more MOTs for tuk tuk sub species I'm afraid – standards to maintain!

The killing fields themselves are an immensely peaceful wooded area in the country side a few km to the south of the city. It's dominated by a tall hollow stupa which, you only begin to comprehend as you get closer, is filled with shelf after shelf of jawless human skulls. Thousands of linguists, the educated, anyone perceived to be a threat to the regime – even people who were known to possess spectacles – were brutally murdered in the area after being transported from S21, the infamous prison.

The remains in the stupa came from the mass graves in the immediate area that had been unearthed – about half. The others remain as a reminder to the country and to the world of what can happen. We walked somberly about the site, finding a bone ominously jutting from the soil and clothes of the victims poking out from behind bushes in the ground underneath bushes. There wasn't a huge amount of historical information available – I wish I had done some more research beforehand so I could better interpret what I was seeing.

On the way back we asked to be dropped off at the Russian Market. During more desperate times this was the place where you could get Russian military hardware straight off the back of a lorry. Those days are now gone, leaving the run of the place to the myriad of shops selling everything from moped spare parts to pirate DVDs to bottles containing a snake and scorpion locked in eternal formaldehyde battle.

Our next planned trip was to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda but we couldn't get in due to Claire's shoulders being on display. We went around the corner to the National Museum instead where it seemed all the Western girls in strappy tops who couldn't get into the palace were too. The museum had many beautiful Buddhist and Hindu statues and artefacts but again was a bit short on information to explain why they were significant. Where can you get World religions for dummies when you need it.

We took a stroll along the river front and tired of the persistence of the moto drivers, ducked in to a place for a pizza and a beer. Deciding to walk back to the GH seemed a great idea at the time but when the rain started to lash down we about-faced and succumbed.

After our day of immersion we decided to truck on up to Siam Reap rather than stick around. We booked a bus from the GH, hoping that it would be an improvement on the manner of arrival. As I was checking my email the 3 dutch guys from the slow boat walked past and said hello – small world. We caught up on the news of what we had all been up to. Poor guys had to spend 6 nights Pakse because Vincent had a mosquito bite which got infected. We played cards late into the night.

Tags: border, history, museum, storm


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