Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Phnom Penh and saying goodbye to Cambodia

The bus down to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was pretty easy going and when we arrived in the city and disembarked we had the usual onslaught of tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for our business. 

As I was still a little fragile after my recent illness, we'd booked ourselves a room in another comfortable-looking hotel and so had the most persuasive/relentless driver take us from the bus station to our new accommodation.

The journey was an interesting introduction to Phnom Penh traffic. We held on tight to our luggage as our driver squeezed between other vehicles, whizzed across roundabouts and dodged precarious pedestrians. 

We distracted ourselves with the incredible sights around us: a man and woman on a moped, the latter of whom was holding over her head the drip belonging to the toddler squeezed between them; the moped with the half-dozen or so plucked chickens strung over the handlebars; the in-tuk-tuk advertisements for trips to such places as the historic 'Killing Fields' and local shooting ranges (illustrated with photos of smiling tourists toting RPGs).

We arrived at the Lucky Star hotel unscathed - always a nice suprise! - and checked into a big double room with all the modcons we needed. 

The next day we ventured out to do a little sightseeing. I was feeling a lot better and although we were still taking things relatively easy, it was great to feel free to explore again.

First stop, after breakfast, was the Independence Monument, which sits in the middle of a busy intersection. It was built in the 1950s to commemorate Cambodia's new freedom from the French and there's not really anything to do there, but the weather was beautiful that day and we spent some time walking in the park near the monument.

We then had a bit of a sweaty walk to find a tuk-tuk (never a difficult task unless you're actually looking for one) to take us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The museum is the latest guise of a group of buildings that during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s was converted from a high school into Security Prison 21 (S-21). During its darkest days it was a place of torture and murder - an estimated 20,000 people died here under horrific conditions - and is now used to educate visitors about the atrocities that the Cambodian people were subjected to. I'm glad we went, as it wouldn't have felt right being in Phnom Penh without learning about what had happened here such a short time ago. We'd spent time among the stunning ancient history of the Khmer people around Angkor, and it was important for us to know about the more recent history that has left just as tangible a legacy on Cambodia as those breathtaking temples. But it wasn't exactly a fun day out for all the family. 

The museum is bleak and stark and terrifying and teaches us about the darkest possibilities of the human condition. There were parts that I wasn't able to stomach, and so I spent a while sitting in the open while Dave continued around the exhibits, but the place is so imbued with the echoes of what went on there, and what I'd already seen had made such a vivid impression, that it wasn't possible to escape the realities just by sitting quietly in the sunshine - rather it gave me time to reflect on how Cambodia has come so far in such a short time after losing so much.

We left emotionally exhausted and decided that that was enough sightseeing for one day. The Killing Fields were another option, but we knew from the guidebooks what it was going to entail and so made the decision that we'd immersed ourselves enough in the country's dark past. 

As we rode back to our hotel in a tuk-tuk we picked up outside the museum the Cambodian traffic craziness struck again and we were involved in our second crash! Not quite as dramatic and life threatening as our last one thank goodness, but our driver wasn't paying enough attention, accelerated too soon at a green light and smashed his wing mirror into the head of an old guy on a motorcycle (fortunately he was wearing a helmet). As our driver and the injured party - along with a little boy who was on the front of his bike - pulled round the nearest corner to discuss the incident, Dave and I gently extricated ourselves from the situation by leaving the tuk-tuk and walking off down the road before jumping into the next one that came along.

That evening, desperately in need of some comfort from the extremities of life 'on the road', we headed to a place called Freebird Bar & Grill. The diner is decked out with plenty of Americana and has a good atmosphere. We drank draft beer and chowed down on the free peanuts and popcorn that the friendly staff kept bringing to our table, not to mention the tasty burger and chili we had. In total our bill came to about US$16 - you always pay more for Western food than you would for eating local dishes but in this instance it was so worth it. We left very full and satisfied.

The next day we headed to the Central Market to do a little shopping. We found a place for some coffee to give us a much-needed morning boost before heading in to tackle the sprawling complex of stalls. Everything from flowers, fresh fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes, homewares, jewellery, souvenirs, toys... you name it! 

There were even women taking advantage of the crowds by carrying round pairs of bathroom scales and charging people to weigh themselves! 

I invested in a pair of 'Ali Baba' pants - baggy, floral, low-crotched trousers that are ubiquitous amongst the backpacker community and more importantly that were long and comfortable enough to cover the still quite angry-looking red marks on the backs of my legs that the shingles had left behind.

One really nice surprise that came about while we were in Phnom Penh was that my cousin, uncle and aunt were coincidentally in town for a wedding. It was really exciting to arrange a meet-up in such an exotic, far-flung place and also really good to see familiar friendly faces after what had already been about two and a half months away from home.

We met up for dinner with Andrea, Trevor and Muriel at a yummy restaurant called Anjali near the riverfront and had a good catch-up over bottles of Anchor lager and plates of stir-fried dishes like chili and lemongrass chicken. Andrea had brought us an incredibly welcome care package comprising a huge box of Nurofen Plus (you can't get codeine in Cambodia!), a squeezy tub of Marmite and a bottle of Doom Bar ale. Oh sweet purveyor of blissful treats, how you spoiled us!

After dinner, us kids split off to a nearby bar for more beers, parent-free chat, and so Dave could watch that evening's Arsenal v QPR match. Such fun, random times! At about 2am we decided a short walk down to the Royal Palace was a good idea, as we weren't able to visit during the days as King Sihanouk was currently lying in state. The grounds were still full of people paying their respects even at that hour. 

Then it was back into another tuk-tuk to take us to our respective hotels. When we'd dropped Andrea off and were barrelling down the near-deserted roads we passed a sight that, like our two RTAs, had seemed kind of unavoidable since we'd first set wheel on a Cambodian road. A man had been knocked off his bike and killed and our tuk-tuk driver thought it appropriate at that moment to slow down as we passed the poor man's body, thereby joining the multitude of people who had paused to take photos on their mobile phones. Eyes shut, I shouted 'Please... GO!' and he stepped on the gas again, my first ever sighting of a dead body seared onto my retinas. 

Phnom Penh was our last stop in Cambodia, a country that has relatively recently undergone horrors that wiped out huge chunks of its population. This isn't the place for an in-depth analysis of a nation's scarred psyche, yet it does seem to have a bizarre disregard for keeping its citizens safe, considering everything they've been through to survive. More than anywhere I've been, Cambodia left me feeling nerve-jangled and harassed. It's a beautiful country, but nowhere else have I ever genuinely feared for my life whenever stepping outside of the safety of my hotel room!

A thriving tourist industry fuelled by stunning ancient temples, cheap entertainment, good weather and a fascinating culture working to reestablish itself in the aftermath of tragedy, isn't showing any signs of slowing and I'm sure the country has a bright future; we had a lot of great experiences in Cambodia and met some truly lovely people, but I do have to admit that I was kind of relieved to say goodbye.

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