Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Another World, Phnom Penh: Cambodia

Accommodation: Top Banana Guesthouse, $6 a night single room, www.topbanana.biz/
Bus: Capitol Tours, $7 from HCMC, Phnom Penh-->Siem Reap-->Phnom Penh, 7 hours

Places to See: Royal Palace, Tuol Sleng Museum S21, Killing Fields, National Museum, Wat Phnom

So Cambodia, was a mixture to say the least; consisting of the lazy walkarounds of Laos and Vietnam's crazy history...interesting was an understatement. So here goes.

I waved goodbye to Saigon's motorcycles and humdrum life to venture to my next destination- Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The bus journey was the one of the shortest ones I encountered so far- a mere 7 hours, piece of cake I thought. That was until the woman next to me started eating (which was about 5 minutes into the journey). An hour later I must have been covered in crumbs and orange peel, not to mention her legs as she sprawled across both seats thinking I was also a part of the upholstery. On the upside, she gave me food- it was payment for being her foot stool.

Now if you remember the China/ Laos border crossing affair, running around thinking I was stuck between the borders and the bus had left me...so dreading the Vietnam/ Cambodia border was a definite. But on the contrary, it was the exact opposite. The coach conductor took full charge of the paperwork, all we had to do is pay money and smile at a camera-and bob's your uncle, we were in Cambodia!

Being greeted, rather hounded by Tuk tuk drivers asking either of the following options: stay at their 'friend's' guesthouse, be taken on a tour or hand in marriage, simultaneously meant my blood pressure started rising. A simple no should have sufficed, but when I was sat down in a Tuk tuk, surrounded by 10 drivers asking me for 10 minutes of my time, I grabbed my bag and nudged my way out of their dominion. Finally I made it to the next party central hostel- but this was no SpicyLaos or Drift Backpackers...it was more like a hippy opium den. Hmmm, this could go either way I thought.

In Top Banana guesthouse there seemed to be the following two types of characters. One was the lost student/ graduate refusing to find a job, two was the older mid and quarter life crisis men, who had basically lived in the guesthouse for 2/3 years at a time. Being a solo girl, I didn't quite fit into either (thankfully) but I had many nightly conversations with both over some Angkor or Anchor beer;Thai and Cambodian beer that seemed to taste exactly the same.
Thankfully there was one relatively normal Korean American guy who also didn't fit into the status quo and so we journeyed around Phnom Penh by foot and Tuk tuk for 3 days. As soon as I landed we started walking around the city, this taking 6 hours without even realising it. Within the 6 hours, there was coconut drinking, trigger happy photo taking, bar hopping and occasionally running into a 'lady of the night.' See this would not be the end of it which I never realised at the time.

The next day was going to be a depressing one. I thought it would be best to get all of the historical rather horrific sights out the way- so here goes...(feel free not read this if you have a weak disposition) First stop was Choeng Ek Killing Fields. That is exactly what it was. So to welcome us into the large grassland with a giant memorial, a 5 storey high building; filled with skulls. About twenty thousand was the figure. Now I am not sure if you are aware that during 1976-1979, the Khmer Rouge (so-called Communist) government controlled Cambodia. The dictator Pol Pot, within this time went on a killing spree, consisting of murdering anyone who seemed to be elitist. Now he wasn't too specific on what elite was, aka even people with glasses was murdered as well as their wives and children.
In three years, three million people were killed in mass graves such as Choeng Ek. Yep, told you it would be depressing. All establishments that seemed of a upper class nature were either destroyed or converted into prisons- that would be my next stop.

The fields were surprisingly calm despite all of the history that stained the earth. There were huge craters, some with descriptions on how the people met their ends. The few that struck me was one grave that had '160 bodies with no heads,' in a space that was big enough to fit a bathroom in. Even more so was the tree, where babies heads were smashed against, eek. There were even still traces of clothing and bones around the fields.

So after that 'delightful' visit, we headed to the next site; Tuol Sleng (S21). It was originally a school that had been reconstructed as a prison of torture. The prisoners were usually sent to the Killing Fields after they were sufficiently beaten in confinement. There was something even more eerie about the prison. It was quiet, deafeningly silent. Each classroom consisted of just one bed in the middle, a metallic contraption with various other torture devices on top of it, and then a large photograph of one of the 14 victims found dead within the place, in the actual state they were in.
Building B had thousands of pictures lining up across the rooms. Each victim held a number plate, with a solemn countenance, as if they were already dead. Some just barely hit 12 years old, and even babes with their mothers had a shot taken of them. The last room was pictures of their fate. Building C and D were small 'solitary' prisons, no windows, just a brick box to live their last days in.

Okay, so after that, being sufficiently depressed was a guarantee. Drowning our sorrows seemed to be the apt thing to do, but a quiet night in was also appropriate. The next day brought more cheery moments for sure.

The National Museum was a glorious architectural structure with all sorts of ancient artefacts preserved within it, to present Cambodia's vast cultural history. This being Hindu and Buddhist statues that had been unearthed from some of their magnificent temples. It was a lazy day in all, but it did not prepare me for the night ahead.
The first bar was a swanky highrise place, that of course consisted of kareoke. The second was a claustophobic nightclub, enough to fit about 10 people in, yet had hundreds. This is where I happened to be approached by a female prostiture. Yep, thanks I thought in a complete sarcastic way. Then came the madness. Being trapped in a Tuk tuk with one of the quarter life crisis men, his name being Rudie but he prefered to be called the Dalai Lama (exactly) was a rather insane experience.

In a small dark alleyway, we stopped in time for him to get into another random car, drive off for 20 minutes and then return with drugs. I was ready to jump out. This guy was crazier than I thought, to give you an example: he took your hand from time to time, then would have a seizure telling you he can see your future.

Yep. I had landed in an asylum. The next place epitomised him, it was basically a brothel. There were hundreds of old foreign men with a young Cambodian nymph on the end of their arm. I hid against the bar being the only foreign girl there, creepy...

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