Sunday, February 23, 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

OMG Cambodia!

Cambodia is amazing.  I know I say that about everywhere I go, but I really enjoyed my stay.  I was nervous coming to Asia.  Asia was one of the places that I had added to my adventure because I had no interest in it at all.  Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were added to my Asia leg as a recommendation of my German friend, Jette.  I was nervous about the food, the culture and the language barrier – none of which were relevant for my trip.

I started my trip in Phnom Penh (pronounced ‘Pe-nom Pen’) and had an outstanding experience in Asia.  My luggage arrived quickly, customs was a breeze and the in-flight magazine was actually a good read. I spent the majority of the flight figuring out what the heck I was going to do in Phnom Penh.  It turns out, there is heaps to do. Furthermore, they deal in a combination of American dollar and Cambodian Riel currencies, which makes everything a little less scary.

Showing off my 10,000 Reil Mani/Pedi…. $2.50.  (Embracing my ghetto fabulousness)

I was greeted at the airport by several men offering, “Lady tuk-tuk?”  I had heard a couple of nightmare rip off stories about Tuk Tuks and the Lonely Planet warned about bag snatchers targeting tourists on Tuk Tuks, but I braced myself and accepted the $7 ride into the city.  I arrived midday and decided to spend the day checking out my ‘hood.

Wat Ounalom
local market


The roads are so chaotic in Phnom Penh.  There are no sidewalks so you pretty much risk your life daily walking down the street and Buddha help you if you need to cross the street!  The motorbike madness is hilarious though. Monks, families, chickens, hay and all of the above combined on one!

Monks on a motorbike
Safety first…put the toddlers in the middle when riding 4 to a bike
hauling hay
Tying up chickens for the ride into the market
Does a pacifier count as a pollution mask?  Glad mom in back is enjoying it!

When in Cambodia…my first motorbike ride! $1

I found this really great park (which is actually a little seedy at night) near Wat Phnom. And then I went for a walk down the river.  There were Xeroxed versions of Lonely Planet for sale for $4 for every country in Asia, and since I already had a Cambodia one (thanks Geoff), I picked one up for Vietnam. 

Wat Phnom

Phnom Penh Riverfront
One major annoyance in Phnom Penh is that there are tons of poor children begging on the street.  They are trying to sell bracelets and give you puppy dog sad faces when you decline.  They even tell you that ‘it’s not fair’ that you’re not buying one.  They are hard to resist and equally hard to ignore.  One persistent salesgirl followed me 4 blocks down the street and stepped on my flip flops with every step then proceeded to pinch the back of my arm when I resisted further.  She then followed me to a restaurant and put her elbows on my table and stared at me while I ate. I asked her if she was hungry and she said no, then proceeded to stare at me for another 10 minutes before she moved on to other potential customers in the bar. 

Mom was no where to be found.  I tucked 500 Riel under his foot and kept going, so sad.

Lucky I stopped there though, because I met my first friend in Cambodia, an Irishman named Stephen.  He was an expat in Vietnam and would soon become my go-to hangout friend in town.  Plus, we got to witness Phnom Penh’s nightly calisthenics phenomenon.  Older locals all gather along the river to do step aerobics at dawn and at dusk.  They provided the perfect (Read: free) entertainment to wash down our beverages.

The following day, I took a solo trip to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum.  Both of which were incredibly sobering.   From 1944 to January 7th 1979, the Khmer Rouge communist group committed genocide on Cambodian scholars, teachers families and even fellow soldiers that were considered opposition or non original followers. During the course of their reign, they murdered nearly 1/3 of the entire Cambodian population, nearly 2 million people.  The Killing Fields were one of the execution sites where the masses were brutally murdered with farming hoes, machetes and palm reeds because bullets were too precious. 

The entry way is beautiful until you find out what's in that structure

Although the buildings had been torn down, mass graves still exist and during the rainy seasons bones and clothing float up to the top and are collected by preservationists.  Tourists somberly hang their own bracelets on the mass graves as a tribute to the fallen.  Its colorful and touching actually. They do not sell these bracelets at the Killing Fields, these are bracelets purchased elsewhere and contributed out of respect after being socked with the sorrow in this tiny historical camp.

Mass grave for 450 bodies.  A canopy was built over it to preserve the site
Mass graves created divots from the gasses and bones lifting during rainy season
Most disturbing, however, was this tree.  The "Killing Tree" where infants and toddlers were bludgeoned against it and tossed carelessly into the mass graves with their mothers bodies, some of whom were still alive.  It was absolutely horrific.

It was absolutely horrific 35 years after the fact. I can't imagine being there, living with the fear, the aftermath or the memories. The audio tour contained confessions from former Khmer soldiers and 7 survivors and also included the music that they used to drown out the screams of those being executed. 

These are spirit houses.  Each house in Cambodia has one to house the spirit that watches over the home.  This is the spirit house of the killing fields

The Khmer Rouge hung loud speakers from this tree blaring national anthem-like music to drown out the sounds of victims screaming.  Imagine having the Star Spangled Banner or God Bless America or America the Beautiful repeated on loop for 24 hours prior to your death and then hearing it as you are executed with a farm tool for being too educated
This building housed many of the skulls that have surfaced and are on display and have been preserved and sorted by age, gender and method of death.

Juvenile male skulls bludgeoned to death with a hoe 
 Following the Killing Fields, I went to the Genocide Museum near the Russian Markets where we were able to walk through the Auschwitz-like prison and see the before and after photos of the victims, so many of which were children.  The Khmer Rouge took photos of each “traitor”, forced them to sign a false confession, then carted them to the Killing Fields to be executed.  Some were tortured in the prison if they were thought to have pertinent information about democracy or anti-communist revolutionaries.  This was absolutely horrible.

The Khmer Rouge turned this old school into a prison

holding cell for tortured victims

blood on the floor 35 years later
Worse yet, was that my Tuk Tuk driver asked me if I wanted to go to shoot AK-47’s afterward.  Um…NO.  Perhaps you don’t understand what I have just witnessed.  Apparently, many people go to shoot AK-47 for $1USD per bullet and even shoot live cows with a grenade launcher for $650 USD.  Disgusting.  Instead, I went shopping. I figured retail therapy and contributing to the local economy would make me feel better, which it did.  I went to the Russian Markets first, then the Central Market and feasted on street food… 


and got this amazing manicure for $2USD.

That night, Stephen and I hit the town for a tour of the best burgers in Cambodia with his ex-pat friends and washed them down with a couple of drinks.  Note to future visitors, there really isn’t any such thing as orange juice in a bar….its a weird breakfast juice/Tang blend.

The following day, I finally got to see the royal palace and the National Museum after 2 failed attempts prior.  The first time, a tuk-tuk driver told me it was closed for a royal ceremony and then took me to the Killing Fields instead.  The palace actually closes from 11-2 every day, but they let you in until 10:30. I got there at 10 and I think he tricked me a bit, but whatever.  The second time I tried to go, I got there at 10:30 and the guards wouldn’t let me in because A) it was 10:35 and B) I was wearing a tank top with a scarf and I needed actual sleeves, WTF?  So, third time was a charm.  The grounds were beautiful, but the interiors of the buildings were a little underwhelming.  I guess when someone tells me I can visit a “Silver Pagoda” I picture magnificence and this was just a bunch of slightly tarnished urns, bowls and spoons.  I can spare you all the disappointment since there were no photos allowed.

Band of land mine victims playing tunes at the palace

weaving Cambodian silk scarfs

Even the palace has a spirit house
 Aside from the impeccably manicured grounds, I was most impressed by the samples of the royal attire for the staff.   They were required to wear a different colored uniform each day.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Lastly for the day, I went to the National Museum.  The $5 entry fee was a waste of money.  The grounds were absolutely gorgeous, but the treasures inside were more like crappy trinkets and poorly preserved statues that frankly, you could see replicas of at any Cost Plus World Market.  I did hang out in the garden and read for an hour so that I could feel like I got my money's worth :)

National Museum

The National Museum has a spirit house too!
Another interesting thing about Phnom Penh is that there is marijuana everywhere.  The tuk tuk drivers sell it, they top pizzas with it (“happy pizza”) and you can even buy joints for $1.50 at certain bars.  You can pretty much smoke it anywhere as long as you’re not being an asshole.  I think its illegal, but business owners and police officers generally turn their heads. No biggie. Puff Puff Pass.

All in all, Phnom Penh is a pretty well functioning big city in a rapidly developing country.  Although more than a third of the country is poor, its economic growth has increased 6 percent in the last 10 years thanks to tourism, agriculture and the garment industries.

Next up…I’m headed north to Siem Reap!!!

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