Archives for posts with tag: Phnom Phen

Originally published on facebook – February 5, 2011 at 8:36pm ·

Phnom Phen to Sihanoukville  – Day 60 – 65

We leave in the afternoon of the same day that we learn of the bridge tragedy, headed down to Sihanoukville by bus It only takes 1-1/2 more hours then the promised 4, not bad. Sihanoukville is renowned as a touristy, party, beach town, and that’s pretty much what we do there. Frequenting various beaches by day and assorted bars and restaurants at night. There is also a great selection of seafood bbq every night on the beach, cheap and tasty.  The main Sihanoukville beach is extremely crowded, not a spare patch of sand anywhere, everything is covered over by beach chairs which we are welcome to use as long as we purchase something from the restaurants attached. Even before we hit the beach we are swarmed by teenagers trying to sell us various “crafts” (mostly woven bracelets or beads). They won’t take no for an answer which is entertaining at first but quickly becomes straight up harassment. You say “no” they say, “maybe later”, “but no”, “ok but when you buy you make sure you buy only from me ok?”, “but I’m not going to buy anything”, “ok, but buy from me ok?”, “uh…no”, ” ok I’ll come back later”, “no don’t”….but they do anyways and you have to go through the whole dialogue again.

Once you are set up on your (purchased) beach chair and have, temporarily at least, rid yourself of teenaged salespeople, you think you’re in the clear and pull out a book, stare at the waves, shut down the mind for a second, try to get in relax beach mode. Just as you start to get “there” you are approached by people in such dire shape, you must either cry, empty your wallet or harden your heart. People missing arms or both legs or (hardest), watching a 4 year old girl leading her male relative around by a stick, he’s blind and sings for money, as soon as she let’s go of the stick he stops moving and she comes up and oh so softly, shyly asks for money. There are so many, I can’t give to everyone, so I give to no one and feel that tourist guilt. I am a privileged person, no doubt.

On day 64 we book a trip to Bamboo Island. It’s an all day tour with stops at a couple of other islands, snorkeling is the main focus, with opportunities to lay on the beach and/or have a short hike. A lunch of freshly caught bbq fish in baguette sandwich is provided (and really yummy). I try snorkeling for the first time. Having been pretty scared of the ocean up until a few years ago (yet still retaining a very healthy respect for it) this is a big step for me and I’m a bit nervous. Our first stop is offshore of a small island and is in deep water, it’s a bit tricky, the water is a little bumpy and I’m not able to get my mask on without it leaking badly so don’t get to see anything before we move on. The next stop is Bamboo Island, where we actually pull right up on the beach, it’s roasting hot and we’re sweating bullets quickly. I give Julie and Julien a mini yoga lesson because they’ve never done it before and want to try and then we hit the water with our masks. This time I’m able to get the mask fitted properly and get my first glimpses of life underwater. It creeps me out a bit, but actually I’m surprised to learn I like it…albeit cautiously and in water that isn’t over my head when standing. At one point something long and brown floats into my field of vision from the side and completely takes me by surprise, I thrash wildly in the water attempting to escape the mysterious sea creature I’ve encountered, heart pounding…I realize it’s my hair and have to stand up I’m laughing so hard at myself. Once up I realize Julie is right beside me laughing as well, she saw the whole thing. After lunch we take our snorkels over to the other side of the island and explore a little there. There is a tree with a whole bunch of flip flops stapled to its’ trunk, they must be a collection of all the single ones that end up as garbage on the beaches, I like it.

On day 65 after dinner together everyone gets on the bus to head up to Siem Reap. I stay in Sihanoukville as I am going to explore a couple other places on the southern coast before heading that way. I take myself out to a movie (The Social Network) which is playing in a “theater” it is a full size screen in a room that has pappas chairs and couches to lounge in, beer and other beverages and snacks available, and you can order pizza to be delivered, we need a place like this at home.

Sihanoukville to Kampot – day 66

I catch a 8 am minibus to Kampot, I get the very front seat (a first) it’s nice because I can see out the front window and nobody is squished up against me, however I suppose I don’t benefit quite as much much as I could as I sleep pretty much the whole way. In Kampot I have a discussion with a tuk tuk driver about the best way to get to the Phnom Chhnork caves, he swears it’s best to do it by tuk tuk (of course) I’m leaning towards renting a bike but let him talk me into the tuk tuk because I’m lazy. Wrong choice. The first part of the road is paved, no problem, but after that we turn onto a dirt road, very pot-holed, if one wheel doesn’t hit a pothole the other one will. So for an excruciating 30 minutes I am bounced, jostled, slammed and bone-jarred, my spine feels compressed within the first 2 minutes and I’m pissed at the driver for talking me into this mode of transport and at myself for falling for it.

Once we reach the cave my driver pays a boy 1,000 riel (about $0.25) to be my guide through the caves. This boy is amazing, his English skills are excellent, he knows some neat facts about the caves and the surrounding area (where he lives) and is super sweet. He looks about 10 but is actually 14, I just want to feed him for the next 5 years and then send him to college, he is so bright. He shows me the caves, pointing out formations of rock that have names. Once we are at the top of the path through the caves he asks me if I want to climb down by a different route, over rocks and such…uh..duh…ya…of course I do! So we set out, rock climbing, steeper and a bit more treacherous then I imagined, me in my running shoes and him in his plastic flip flops. He’s apparently part mountain goat as he hops nimbly from one rock to another, barely using his hands, I on the other hand, feel like an ungainly oaf and sweaty besides, but he is sweet and patient and helpful. Most importantly he gets me through it safely. I give him a dollar tip and my big thanks, he tells me I am a very nice lady and I should come back in 6 years to marry him, lol! I have to brave the spine disintegrating tuk tuk ride back into town, ouch.

For the afternoon and evening I wander around the town, it is built along a river and the riverfront plays a large part in the characteristic of the town. Many of the colonial style buildings have been restored or at least well maintained. This is a quiet little place, there is not much going on but I find a bar for dinner that has a pool table and I hang out there for the evening. On my walk back to my hotel 4 dogs come charging out of a dark alley right towards me, barking furiously, scary! I turn around and threaten them with my, ever present, 1.5 liter water bottle. This causes then to stop their charge but they follow me for a couple blocks barking the whole time, it’s quite unnerving and I’m shaking with adrenaline.

Kampot to Kep to Rabbit Island – day 67

It’s only about an hour bus ride from Kampot to Kep where I buy a boat ticket and hang around the town for an hour or so until the boat is ready to leave. It’s about a 1/2 hour ride in a large longtail on bumpy water to get to Rabbit Island. Rabbit Island is basically for tourists, there are about 6-8 guesthouses along the same stretch of beach, each guesthouse provides 2 types of (quite rustic) bungalows, with bathroom or without, and have a restaurant. There being no real differences between the guesthouses I choose one and spoil myself with the attached bathroom, squat toilet and all. I spend the rest of this day and the next (day 68) chilling on the beach, there is no nightlife on the island and seems to attract mostly couples so it’s a nice opportunity to get some alone time after being with other people so much. Restorative, I like it. I could have happily stayed here another day or 2 but the rest of Cambodia beckons. Onward.

Rabbit Island to Phnom Phen – day 69 / Phnom Phen to Siem Reap- day 70

I leave the island around noon, catch a bus in Kep and am back in Phnom Phen around 6pm. I return to the Okay Guesthouse and run into Julie there, she’s just arrived back from Siem Reap and fills me in about some things there. We spend the night hanging out together, both of us are moving in different directions the next day. I book my bus ticket from PP to Siem Reap leaving at 1:30pm. I plan to spend the morning at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda complex as it was closed when I was in PP previously due to the water festival. The complex is quite near the guesthouse so the next morning I give myself a couple hours to explore.

I enter the Palace area first, the grounds are impeccably manicured, not a leaf out of place. The buildings are beautiful, inside and out, with lovely roof tiles of rich gold, forest green, and royal blue. The main building that we are allowed to see seems to be a formal receiving hall. We are not supposed to take pictures in here but I sneak a few anyways. I love the colour scheme, it is mostly gold tones. The walls are painted a pale blue with a detailed hand-painted repeat pattern of 2 tones of gold, it looks so perfect you would think it’s stenciled but on closer inspection I realize it is not. The window shutters are a (slightly darker then fire hydrant) red tone with another, simpler gold pattern painted on. There are massive chandeliers spaced along the mural ceiling. The floor is made of 6×6 tiles that form a repeating pattern with a French Colonial feel, this pattern is duplicated onto the massive carpet that runs through the center of the room leading down to the receiving area. This area is all golds, throne, couches, chairs, tables and lamps, all gilded and glittering. It all sounds a little gaudy but surprisingly was not, it was quite stunning and lovely, very delicate and fresh, a sumptuous vision.

On my way towards the Silver Pagoda I see a building that is covered in scaffolding and draped in that green mesh fabric (what is that anyways?). Curious, I poke my head inside and see a pretty little building in an obviously French style. Aha, this must be the Napoleon Pavilion. The pavilion was originally erected for Empress Eugenie for the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. Afterwards Emperor Napoleon III presented the building to King Norodom. The building was reassembled at the royal palace in 1876 and is used today as an art gallery. It’s obviously under restoration which is good, it needs it, but is still quite charming. I creep inside the drapery and take photos, I suppose I could have gone inside the actual building, there was no one to stop me, but caution prevented me.

I cross through a gateway to reach the Silver Pagoda side. The gate leads to a courtyard filled with large potted bonsai. There is a small temple that I enter, on the alter is a statue of a goat lying down, first time I’ve seen that, I don’t know the significance but I like it. Around all the edges of the courtyard is a covered walkway the walls of which are covered with what appear to be quite old painting, the are faded and worn away and depict many different types of scenes, from everyday activities to royal processions to religious procedures. There are a couple of large stupas and a big statue of Napoleon of a horse.

Inside the Silver Pagoda (once again photos not allowed, once again I sneak some) it is much like many other pagodas I have visited, with a few exceptions. Firstly the floor is literally made of silver plated tiles (hence the pagodas name) they are quite pretty with delicate etchings of fluer-de-lis but in an unfortunate state of disrepair even though most of the floor is covered over with cheap red carpet. Secondly there is a massive amount of wealth in this room, the main focus in fact is an almost life size Buddha made of solid gold, he weighs in at about 90kgs and is covered in 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats, holy bling! Behind him on a massive gold coloured pedestal is a small (about 16-18″) seated Buddha that is made of Baccarat Crystal, though due to its greenish colour I would have guessed jade. There are cases edging the room filled with various gifts to the pagoda, mostly small statues with various precious adornments.

Back in the courtyard and on my way out of the complex I find a crazy beautiful tree (Shorea Robusta Roxb). It looks like a normal tree but has these amazing flowers growing vine-like out of the trunk. They smell absolutely divine and perhaps they are considered so because at the base of each of the trees there is a Buddha shrine.

I’m out of time so head back to the guesthouse. I’m super glad I took the time to come back to PP and see the Palace and Pagoda, I could have gone straight from Kep to Siem Reap but what I saw today was well worth the stopover. I arrive in Siem Reap and meet up with Marco, Gianni and Aaron all of whom I met on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. We have dinner (“happy” pizza, but it didn’t work) and an early night, heading off to Angkor Archeological Site in the early morning.

Siem Reap (Angkor Archeological Site) – day 71

In the early morning of day 71 I meet up with Marco and Gianni, we rent bikes and are off towards the temple complex. We buy our passes, Marco and I both choose 3 days, Gianni goes for just one day. The first temple we come across is the famous Angkor Wat, it is such a recognizable and iconic vision that there is no mistaking what it is. Marco and I stop to take pictures of it from across the moat and Gianni rides on ahead. We promptly lose him for the rest of the day. It’s a good thing we bought those 3 day passes as we spend over 3 hours inside Angkor Wat alone. Mind you it’s a massive complex, the temple itself is 1km square and then there are all the smaller outlying buildings, bridges and grounds. Because it’s our first temple we probably explore almost every inch, we climb up stairs and down, wander through hallways like mazes, walk along the outside ledges, make prayers to Buddhas (mostly headless thanks to the Khamer Rouge) and donations for the incense provided and of course, we take an absolute ton of photos. You can (and we do) climb on almost everything, anywhere, unless they have closed it due to unsafe conditions. This must increase the rate of erosion, after all it is predominately sandstone which is pretty soft, so I wonder if at some point in the future more rules will come into effect, glad I have visited now when I can reach out and touch the detail of the carvings, run my fingers along the surface and enjoy the experience tactily as well as visually. Marco is super fun to be with and I really enjoy his exuberance and enthusiasm as we explore. I am so pleased to have run into him and his brother again. Both of them are so positive and energetic, it’s really lovely. We climb upstairs to the highest (and most sacred) part of Angkor Wat, they make me cover my shoulders here, the only rules I encounter in all three days of exploration, and the view is amazing, all jungle and trees, dotted here and there you can see bits of other temples.

After Angkor Wat we pedal up the road a couple more kms and pass through the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Leading up to the gate is a bridge with (mostly headless) Buddhas lining it. The top of the Gate is crowned with 4 giant faces, each one pointing in one of the cardinal directions. It is just a taste of what is to come as we approach Bayon. There are 37 towers still standing here, most of them are crowned with the same 4 carved faces. This might sound repetitive but each face is slightly different, the subtleties keep me interested. I think Bayon may have been one of my favorite temples, there is something wonderfully mysterious about it. We can climb right up to the faces and touch them. There is debate about who (either a God or King) the face is meant to represent but whoever he is his face(s) exudes a lovely serenity and strength. I adore this place.

We spend an hour or two at Bayon and then head over to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset (along with hundreds of other people it turns out). On the way we are distracted by a couple of elephants, for $10 each we could get a ride on them but instead we just chose to say hello. I’ve never met an elephant before and am excited but once up close I realize I’m intimidated, they are big. Slowly I am able to get in close and give a snuggle, I also get sneezed on, yuck. Marco is not so shy and gets right in there. We feed them bananas and they get greedy, trunks groping us and searching, reaching until we give them them all. We tear ourselves away and resume our mission to catch the sunset. We leave our bikes at the bottom and hike up the hill and then the many tall yet shallow stairs of the temple to reach the top. We find a spot amongst the crowds and befriend a group of young monks. We chat with them and watch the sun go down, it’s not a fabulous sunset but still a once in a lifetime experience.

Back on the bikes we head towards town, it gets dark quickly we don’t have lights and there is a lot of traffic. We hitch rides by hanging onto the sides of tuk tuks, it’s easy, there is so much traffic that we are going fairly slow, we let go if they get up too much speed. We make it back to town, finally find Gianni who met a Japanese girl and spent the day exploring with her, we get cleaned up and head out for dinner meeting up with Aaron on the way. We find a group of street stalls near Pub Street and the Old Market area, it super cheap. A couple of young boys come along looking mournful and asking for food. They are sweet when they are asking but after I agree to buy dinner for them and order it they start dishing a bit of attitude, nice. We head to Pub Street and the Angkor What? bar for a few drinks before turning in for an early night, Marco and I are going to see sunrise over Angkor Wat in the morning, taking a tuk tuk this time to be able to cover more ground on our second day.

Siem Reap (Angkor Archeological Site) – day 72

I don’t want to be redundant and bore you with tons of description of temples here so, briefly and in order – sunrise viewed from the grounds of Angkor Wat (unspectacular unfortunately), Banteay Kdei (small, looks like it’s made out of red mud bricks, pretty eroded), Sras Srang (very large water reservoir), Ta Phrom (trees growing out of the stones, another of my favorite places, in the top 4 for sure), Pre Rup, East Mabon, Banteay Samre, Rolous Group (Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei). Once again it’s lovely to explore with Marco, fun, lots of photos taken. But feel pretty “templed out” by the end of it. I decide to take the next day off from temples and explore a bit of Siem Reap.

Back in town that evening we all meet up and head out for a crazy night on Pub Street. We meet tons of people, many buckets are consumed, dancing on tables ensues and it ends at a very late/early hour. Leaving the bar with Aaron, who has kindly offered to walk me home as it’s quite late, we are mobbed by a group of kids. They grab my arms and pin them behind me, at first I don’t realize what’s going on, thinking they are just playing around and then I realize, they are trying to reach inside my bra where I’ve stashed my money for safety, uh no. I feel like the hulk as (with mighty effort) I pull my arms from their grasp and protect my chest. Aaron is distracted as they have stolen a t-shirt he had won at the bar from his pocket and are trying for his wallet next. We escape them but both feel quite unnerved, we can barely process what just happened, disbelieving, were we really just mugged by 8 year olds? Kids don’t seem so sweet now. So glad Aaron was with me for the walk home after that experience.

Siem Reap – day 73

After the late night adventures of the night before I sleep in and then spend much of the remaining day trying to catch up and writing some of these earlier journal entries. In the evening I head out to the night market and find a couple gifts for others and myself. Have a quiet dinner and run into the boys, they are headed out for another night on the town, I’m out, not up for it. Planning on another temple day tomorrow, I’ll be on my own this time.

Siem Reap (Angkor Archeological Site) – day 74

I hire a tuk tuk for the day as my first stop is at Banteay Srei, about 23kms away from the main site. It’s also known as the Citadel of Women, not because women built it but because the carvings are so detailed it was assumed that only someone with small, delicate hands could do such fine work. Returning to the main temple area I visit Ta Som, Neak Pean, and the vast complex of Angkor Thom. I have actually seen part of Angkor Thom before on the first day when I visited Bayon, today I check out everything else. Angkor Thom was a large moated royal city, measuring about three kilometers on a side. Within the complex walls were the royal palace and residences for all the king’s family, generals and priests. these were mostly made of wood so have vanished entirely now. At the very center is the state temple, the enigmatic Bayon. You enter this city through one of five large gates. Each gate is topped with four heads, facing each cardinal direction.

First up I visit Phimeanakas, it is a small temple with an intriguing legend behind it. The legend relates that a nine-headed serpent genie once inhabited the golden pavilion on top of the Phimeanakas. Each night, the king ascended to the top of the temple, where the genie would appear to him disguised as a woman. The king was required to make love to the genie every night before joining his wives and concubines in the palace. If the king missed just one night, it was believed he would die. Uh huh…..sounds like a ‘guy’ story to me.

Baphuon temple was under restoration, and apparently has been, off and on, since the 1960’s. No entry allowed so I walk around the outside of it’s massive perimeter. It’s like a man-made mountain or pyramid made of stone. Apparently it was originally topped by a bronze shrine. It also has a massive reclining Buddha on top, made out of many individual stone blocks, this Buddha is not original to the structure it was built of stones from other fallen areas of Baphuon sometime in the 16th century. It’s almost an optical illusion, it looks like a random pile of stones and I can’t see it at first, but if I stare long enough the Buddha starts to show it’s shape. From here I walk over to the Terrace of the Elephants. The terrace extends for 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from the Baphuon to the Terrace of the Leper King. The terrace is decorated with a row of elephants along its facade. The Terrace of the Leper King lies immediately north of the Elephant Terrace. The name of the terrace comes from a striking statue found on the platform of the terrace. Exactly who the statue represents is something of a mystery. It may be a king, or one of the gods.

Unfortunately I have caught a sickness of some sort and throughout the day I feel progressively crappier. Halfway through the day and I’m sweaty and my nose is running and my brain is in a fog and achy. I fight through the day but some of what I see is vague and by the time I’m at Baphuon I’m exhausted. I make it back to my guesthouse by mid afternoon and collapse into bed for some sleep, I don’t leave until the next day when I feel much, much better.

Siem Reap – day 75

I spend the day buying gifts in the markets and wandering around the town. I buy a bus ticket to Thailand for the next day, my time in SE Asia is almost up.

Siem Reap to Thailand (Ko Tao, Ko Phangan, Bangkok) – day 76 to day 90

The bus from Cambodia to Thailand is no problem, it’s just the border crossing that takes forever, 3 hours waiting around in the sun. Sucked. I get into Bangkok with about 1 hour before my bus leaves to take me overnight down south where I’ll be able to catch a ferry to Ko Tao the next day. All goes according to plan and I arrive on Ko Tao fairly early in the morning. Unfortunately it’s been raining a lot here and my choice of beaches is limited as many roads are inaccessible. The only beaches I can get to aren’t really beaches at all because the water is so high. Not really what I’m looking for for my last couple weeks, I just want to chill. I think about it for a while, and the processing is pretty slow as I have been traveling by bus and boat for about 24 hours at this point, and decide to head over to Ko Phangan. I’ve been there before and went to Ko Tao to try some thing a little different but it seems fate has brought me back.

Arriving on Ko Phanghan is great, it’s like coming home, I know where everything is and how much a moto taxi should cost me to do what I want and I want to go to Bottle Beach. My moto taxi takes me to Chalok Lam where I know I can get a longtail boat to get me to BB, but I am out of luck, no boats and I am told that BB is not open for the season yet. Hell, I’m feeling pretty frustrated at this point, it’s been a disappointing day, nothing has gone to plan. I take a few deep breaths, suck it up and decide to let whatever will happen, happen. I ask the driver to take me somewhere on the west side of the island, I tell him how much I would like to pay for a room and he (wonderful man) delivers me to a guesthouse, with bungalows and a lovely slice of beach. I’m on Haad Chao Phao. I spend a few days here getting in some beach time and get in touch with Jason, a BB institution (he lives there practically year round) who I met when I visited before. Jason lets me know that BB will be open within a couple days and offers to pick me up on his way there. Everything goes to plan this time (yay) and I get to spend my last few days back in the bosom of my BB family. Wonderful to see the boys who work there again, I am remembered and life is sweet. Am sad to leave when I do, BB has a way of making you lose track of time and allows you just to be in the moment it’s easy to get lost here, but I have to get up to Bangkok for my flight home.

I take the ferry to get me back to the mainland, then to the train station where my train is delayed by 2 hours. In addition to the 4 hours that I spent waiting because I was very early I spend 6 hours hanging out in the station. Before I knew the train was delayed I had some dinner and a beer, and then another. Once I knew of the delay I was bored to tears and bought another beer at the stall in the station, this led to a few more and I met a bunch of people who were all waiting (and drinking) as well. We all hang out, someone brings out and ipod with speakers and we have a party right there beside the tracks, what else could we do? Finally on the train in my bunk for the overnight trip to BKK I sleep very well. I arrive in BKK in the morning and head to Soi Rambuttri (right near Kho San Road) and find a room for my last night, I spend the rest of my day (my last day in SE Asia) buying a few more gifts, getting massages (note the plural) and a pedicure. Perfect.

Originally published on facebook – January 10, 2011 at 11:59pm ·

Ok, ok, so I am home, but I never posted all this, it’s exists only in my journal so I’m sharing now. There is yet still more to come after this, read or not at your pleasure….

Vietnam (Chau Doc) to Cambodia (Phnom Phen) – Day 54

I’m crossing into Cambodia today, Phnom Phen via a long slow boat ride along the Mekong River. It should take about 8 hours including a little break at the border for lunch and to get our passports stamped. The journey is pretty uneventful, I see lots more of what life is like for people who live along the Mekong River. The river is used as a bath, a kitchen sink, a garbage can and, appallingly, as a bathroom. I can’t image it’s very healthy to be washing your dishes (or yourself) 3 meters away from someone going to the bathroom, but it is what it is. Kids swim and play in the water, duck farms with hundreds of then packed into a very small area, water buffalo bathing. I’m tired from my lack of sleep last night (the rainy bed, the morning socialist shout out over the loudspeaker) and am hoping to nap but no such luck, in the first boat the seats are just hard chairs not even attached to the floor. At the border where we break for lunch I make friends with Julie and Martin from Denmark and Christian from Italy. We realize we’re all planning to stay at the same guesthouse in Phnom Phen and start to hit it off.

After the border we’re on a different boat, this one has two slatted wooden benches running along the sides, even more uncomfortable then the first boat, if that was possible, I bear it for half an hour or so and then make my way towards the back of the boat where the engine cover (and my backpack) is. It’s noisy but I lay down on my bag and promptly pass out for a couple hours. You know that feeling when you wake up really suddenly, startling yourself? I do that, catching myself just before falling off my bag. It’s around 4pm by now and I keep thinking we must almost be there but no, it’s another 3 hours before we get off the boat. Along the way we watch river life, it’s around the time of day when everyone comes down to the river to bathe. I see a very old woman, naked from the waist up she stares right back at us, not shy. I see a young probably newly married couple, he’s in shorts and she’s in a sarong, they’re both wet from their bath and are sitting cross legged, knees to knees, staring into each others eyes, looking very much in love. Sweet. Lots of kids and adults too, waving and shouting hello, it never gets tired.

Off the boat we get into a minibus for an hours drive into Phnom Phen city. Delivered directly to our guesthouse I opt for a “prison cell” room, no windows. It’s pitch black all night and very quiet, I expect to sleep well and do, yay.

Phnom Phen – day 55

I sleep in, enjoying the darkness of my “cell”. Explore a bit of the city, seeing the Vietnam-Cambodia friendship monument the Independence Monument and a Wat with lots of stupas. I want to head to the Silver Palace & Royal Pagoda complex but run into Julie, Martin and Christian from the day before and they (easily) talk me into going to the Russian Market with them. We spend a few hours there and I introduce Martin to the joys of the Vietnamese pancake (different name here but same same). The market is incredible, clothes, antiques, jewelery, food, paper, opium pipes, Buddha statues, paintings, lamps, etc, etc. We all buy something and then head back to the hotel.

We shower and have dinner and then head to a bar that Christian met the owner of somewhere. It’s more a pub really, with drink specials, so we play pool and imbibe. A guy that the Denmarkians had met in Vietnam (Marcus) joins us and we end up at a club on the riverfront. Not a place I would usually go but hey, it was there. Unfortunately it’s filled with “pros” and Martin (who is quite shy) attracts a hanger on. He tells her I’m his girlfriend, which doesn’t seem to make a difference to her at all and he’s really uncomfortable so I decide to help him out a bit and drag him onto the dance floor. Mistake. For my trouble I end up getting shoved a couple times from behind and my hair gets pulled. I’m not pleased but she has quite a few friends and I’m a peaceful type so I ignore it and pray I am not about to be knifed. I make it out alive thank goodness, not even a bald spot.

Phnom Phen – day 56

In the morning we met a guy named Julien from France, we all liked him right away and invited him to come with us to the Killing Fields for the day. We rent 3 motorbikes, Martin and Marcus share one, Julie and Christian on another and Julien and I share the third. Martin and Christian get a map and directions, Julien and I figure to follow them so we don’t pay much attention. It’s a pity really because we lose them within the first block. Do we do the smart thing and backtrack, no, we keep going. We end up having a lovely tour of the countryside and drive (circuitously) about 70 kms to get to the Fields. Once there we run into everyone else and shockingly seem to have arrived about 5 minutes after them, they went about 20 kms in the same time it took us to do 70. I’m not sure how that works.

At the Fields (Choeung Ek) we check out the small museum first and watch a short video, it’s really informative, almost 9,000 bodies were discovered in just this one area and not even all the mass graves were unearthed. There are other Killing Fields scattered all over the country, millions died. It’s terrifying. In Buddhist cultures a stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased, especially the remains of greatly revered individuals. The construction of a stupa is a significant activity that produces merit for the living and encourages the remembrance of the dead. In 1989 the Stupa at Choeung Ek was completed to house the over 8,000 skulls and many other bones and clothing remnants found at this site. Prior to 1989 the bones were stored on open wooden shelves, the stupa seems a more fitting memorial. Most of these bones were found in mass graves within the first couple of years after the Khmer Regime ended. During heavy rain bones and clothing pieces still rise up to the surface today, there are many bodies still buried here. The field that holds the graves that have been dug up looks like a wavy sea, grass grows in the holes, yet it is still obvious what was there. They are however much smaller then I imagined, and so I am uncomfortably reminded how closely packed in the average grave of  200 or so people were. In one mass grave every single body found was headless and wearing a uniform (army fatigues), in another it was only women and children. Right next to this grave was a large tree, apparently the tree was used to smash children’s heads against to kill them before tossing them into the neighboring open grave all in the interest of conserving ammunition. It was actually common for adults to be killed by other methods then bullets as well. Ammunition was rare and expensive, people were bludgeoned with axes, picks, rocks, canes etc and stabbed with bamboo stakes or whatever else may have been available and common and lethal.




This was an incredibly somber visit however I didn’t feel the same heaviness that I have felt at other memorial sites, I can’t put my finger on why. Don’t get me wrong it was very affecting but, I don’t know…perhaps I thought it would actually be worse then it was? I certainly thought the graves and the site would be larger, cover more territory then it did. That sounds terrible, like I didn’t feel, I did believe me just not as harshly as I anticipated I might.

The next place we headed to changed all that, S-21 Prison aka: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. To workers assigned by the Khmer Rouge to the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” – “the place where people go in but never come out.” Tuol Sleng’s reputation was brutally accurate: the sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek. Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.

S-21 was originally a school, there are still monkey bars in the courtyard, right next to a wooden structure that was constructed as a gallows for the hanging and torture of prisoners. From the moment you arrived as a prisoner at S-21, your rights and responsibilities were made painfully clear by a large sign showing a set of ten standing orders. These rules dictated how you acted, how you responded to questioning, and how you had no choice but to accept the fact that you were a traitor and would be treated as such.


As we head towards the first building (A) there is an area in the courtyard with 14 tombs. These tombs hold the bodies of the last 14 people (one of whom is a woman) who were killed by the Khmer Rouge just moments before they fled from the prison. Building A has large rooms with yellowish walls and black and white checkered floors. Most of the rooms still contain a single metal bed frame, sometimes there is a metal box on the bed-springs, it looks like the type of rectangular box that would hold ammunition, in fact it was used as a toilet and is labeled “case for excrement”. In other rooms there are old metal implements, tools like a pick or axe or shovel, on the bed. These are the actual tools that were used to kill and torture people here. Each room looks exactly the same except for these small differences, with one exception, on one wall there is a large black and white photo of a dead prisoner, each photo, each death, is different, unique, bloody, horrific and appalling.


Each of the four buildings is of the same exterior design, 3 levels with open covered porch/walkways lining the front, along which doors lead into the various rooms. Building B is covered in barbed wire, so that prisoners could not jump from the balconies to escape the confinement, torture and painful death that awaited them inside. These rooms have been re-purposed into small cells made of either brick or wood. Each cell is about 3′ wide and 5 or 6′ long. There are no beds, there are many “cases for excrement”. Because the building wasn’t originally constructed as a jail there are big windows (now covered in bars) I suppose if you were “lucky” you got a cell with natural light, if you were in a corner cell you must have been in pitch blackness 24/7.

Building C is dedicated to showing some of the implements and devices of torture .Also to many, many photographs of the thousands of people who were housed here. This is incredibly difficult, there are pictures of men and women, but impossibly also of children. Children who were killed solely so that they could not come seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and/or other family members. Some of the photos look like mugshots, some are much more explicit, showing cuts, bruises, black-eyes, ropes tied around necks and worse. This is the hardest for me, the mass quantity of images is overwhelming, I feel very affected and stricken numb or dumb. The faces show the terror, fear, shock and helplessness that these people must have felt. Actually how they must have felt is unknowable for me, I have nothing even remotely close in my personal experience to relate to this, I can only imagine and empathize, empathy in this case is painful, I feel indescribable, I’m shut down, I can’t look anymore, my heart and mind has overloaded. I can only look and experience the smallest portion of what these people must have gone through. There is still one more building to see and I can barely face it.


Building D, there are more photos of prisoners. Some skulls are on display, you can see the bullet holes. A small Buddhist shrine has been set up to offer prayers and remembrance and perhaps some sort of personal solace. There is a photograph on one wall of a map of Cambodia, made up of human skulls, a chilling and powerful image. In following rooms there are stories of people who worked (or were assigned) at the prison. Many of these people were coerced in some way into complying and I want to read but I am exhausted emotionally and cannot focus my eyes or brain, I’m done. I head outside into the sunshine (which feels good yet incongruous) and sit on a bench in the courtyard to wait for the others.  It’s been a day of harsh experience, I sit back, close my eyes and breathe. reflecting on what I’ve seen today I’m glad to have done it and felt the feelings I felt, but I don’t want to dwell here, feeling all heavy and shitty. If there is something I have learned from this country and its people is that they don’t wallow in self pity and feelings of victimization, they get on with life, so that’s what I do. I am joined by the others and we all feel similarly, we talk about it and come to much the same conclusions, we experienced it, and it was really heavy and harsh but it’s time to let that go and enjoy life in the present.

Back on the bikes we are making our way to the guesthouse when we are stopped by the cops. They demand $10 from each of us for some imagined traffic infraction. They tell us that if we don’t pay it now we must come to the station where the fine will be $100. I’m all for trying to talk the price down but everyone else is all nervous and they pay up so I am forced to do the same. This is a super common scam, I’ve heard of it before and since and it IS actually possible to talk them down to $1 or $2, but you have to try! My hands were tied, I went along with the group, one of the pitfalls of traveling as part of a crowd.

Phnom Phen – Day 57

I spend the day checking out some of the Water Festival activities. This is a big deal here, it celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong. This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment. Actually there’s not much to see. The boat races along the river are confusing, I can’t really make heads or tails of whats going on and while there are a TON of people watching, nobody seems very excited, not cheering, encouraging or even booing the teams, strange. We don’t a see any actual parades, I miss the fireworks because I heard they were at a different time then they actually were. And the “general merriment” ended up basically being very large crowds wandering the streets randomly, many many food and snack stalls, and some concerts. Still, interesting to see how this event is celebrated by the Cambodians.

That night we head out to celebrate my birthday, it’s a little weird for me to not have my friends and family around, instead I’m hanging out with people I’ve only know a few days, it’s not bad and I have a great time (maybe too great) but I miss everyone at home. We stay out dancing until almost dawn and finally tuk tuk back to the guesthouse and fall (literally) into bed.

Phnom Phen – Day 58

Let’s call this day a write off and leave it at that, except for these words of advice….. 39 year olds should exercise caution when partying with young 20-somethings, ouch.

One other thing….I read today that Confucius wrote that lucidity begins at 40, I can’t wait.

Phnom Phen – Day 59

I sleep late, possibly still recovering. I head to the Soraya mall, it’s a modern mall, with 6 tiers of escalators. On the top floor is an indoor rollerblading/skating rink, lots of teens in skinny jeans and big hair. Cambodian hipsters. The escalators must be a new-ish thing here in Cambodia, it appears that some people have never used them before and view them somewhat distrustfully, though many people are entirely comfortable of course. Perhaps it’s people from rural areas who have come into town for the festivities who are new to escalators, I don’t know, but it’s funny. Gripping one side of the railing with both hands before stepping gingerly onto the step, and keeping their hands there throughout the entire journey, I can see the mental preparation on faces as they near the bottom and realize they are going to have to step off this thing.The shoulders tense, the eyes focus, the hands grip a smidgen tighter and finally the step and the relief that they’ve made it. Only have 5 more to go to get to the ground floor. One kids freaks right out at the top, blocks the entrance and refuses to get on, his mother bustles him off to walk down the many flights of stairs instead.

After the mall I walk to the nearby Central Market. It’s a cool art deco style domed building built in 1937. Apparently it just underwent a renovation so perhaps it wasn’t up to full steam yet because it seemed low key to me, compared to the many other markets I’ve experienced. Maybe it needs a bit more time to get filled to the rafters again. In any case it houses an impressive number of jewelry counters in the central domed area and the wings are jammed with clothing, and art stalls. More interesting are the many stalls under the eaves on the outside of the building, various local crafts, fabrics etc. echoing with the familiar calls of “buy from me”, “hey madam” and my favorite “special best price just for you”. Uh huh.

From the market I take a tuk tuk to Wat Phnom, or “Hill Temple” it’s built on Phnom Phen’s only hill, an apparently artificial one about 100′ high and is the tallest religious structure in the city. Built by a wealthy widow (Daun Chi Penh) after a great flood washed statues of Buddhas downstream it is here that the city of Phnom Penh (“Penh’s Hill”) was founded in 1373. Shrines and other buildings have been put up and restored several times since then, the last major restoration taking place in 1926. Today it’s super crowded due to the water festival, everyone in the country appears to be on holiday, music is blasting from a temporary stage set up on the lower grounds. Didn’t really expect that, kind of thought I might find an oasis of calm amongst the crowds here but no such luck, oh well, go with it. Families camped out on blankets and bamboo mats, unsupervised kids everywhere, food stalls, balloon vendors, beggars, monks, you name it, packed. In the temple money is tucked into every possible crevice of the many Buddha statues, he’s hauling it in today. I explore the entire hill and then sit and people watch for a while, free entertainment.


I meet up with the others later at the hotel and we head out for a dinner of street food and then just wander around aimlessly with all the crowds, We can’t figure out where everyone is headed to, there aren’t any events going on as far as we can figure. we head back to the hotel for an early night, we are heading to Sihanoukville tomorrow.

Overnight the bridge tragedy occurs, see the link.

We read about it in the morning English language papers and are stunned, over 340 people died, many more were wounded. It’s appalling to see the footage on local television, the information we get is unclear, various different stories about what caused it, details are vague,, theories abound. What is clear is that hundreds of people died not five minutes away from where we were safely sleeping in bed. Unsettling.