Phnom Penh Friday 19- Tuesday 23 September 2008
PP the capital of Cambodia is a busy and chaotic City, combining beautiful architecture and excess (5 star restaurants, international hotels) with extreme poverty. It was a full on vibrant City and we both loved it. After an initial visit we doubled back on the way up north to do the bits we missed so as at 2nd October we are once more here- update to follow below.
We went on an extended walking tour round the City. The streets were really interesting to see, the usual mish mash of traders and tuk tuks jostling for space. The Central market - or Psar Thmei - was an imposing looking building the huge dome (a bit reminiscent of Kota Baru in north Malaysia) keeps it nice and cool and it is a fascinating market full of food/clothes/watches (and deep fried crickets ..yum yum!)
After lunch at at a little café and a browse through the art shops and past the sculptors who just use the pavement as their studio we headed on to the Independence Monument. This is modeled on the central tower of Angkor Wat and was built in 1958 to celebrate independence from the French which happened 5 years earlier. Wreaths are also laid here to commemorate the war dead - of which sadly there are plenty here!
Next stop was the impressive Royal Palace an absolutely beautiful structure set on the river in a very elegant part of town. The building is very similar to the Royal Palace we visited in Bangkok.
You are only allowed in the Silver Pagoda and Compound but the bit we did see was very imposing. The present King still lives here and indeed the flag flying indicated he was in when we visited though he didn't appear! The Silver Pagoda was very impressive. It is named after the 5000 silver tiles each weighing 1kg which cover the floor. Again like the palace in Thailand this Pagoda houses an Emerald Buddha- which is actually made of jade. The interior was very ornate though you aren't allowed to take cameras in. Unlike many of Cambodia's cultural riches the Silver Pagoda was preserved by the KR (Khmer Rouge) and though many of the contents were looted in Pol Pot's time what remains is still stunning. Leading up from the Italian marble staircase the Emerald Buddha itself is set on high and fronted by a life size gold Buddha covered in almost 10,000 diamonds. Again like in Thailand the ancient stories -it even looked like the same ones - are depicted in gorgeous hand painted murals. It was an impressive display and made you realize (like Angkor did) how phenomenal the Khmer empire once was.
After this beautiful display of the best of Khmer history we steeled ourselves for a glimpse of the worst. Tuol Sleng School in a quiet suburb of PP became the notorious torture centre and prison under the KR. Known as S21 it is now open as the Tuol Sleng museum and believe us it is extremely harrowing. Between 1975 and 1979 almost 20,000 people- men women and children - were murdered here or taken to the infamous killing fields. Other than 7 men all those who passed through were killed. The KR meticulously photographed every prisoner as they arrived (and sometimes after torturing them) and there are rooms full of these heart wrenching pictures. As paranoia grew they turned on themselves and many of those working here- of which a high number were brain washed children - were ultimately killed. The 7 who survived were artists who were called upon to paint and sculpt flattering pictures of Pol Pot, and some of them were instrumental in setting up the museum. As you may know the war crimes trial of the KR has just commenced with many KR (including Pol Pot the evil Brother number 1) long since dead. We met a teacher and she told us that many of her young trainees - born after 1979- can't believe it really happened as it is not really talked about. There are contradictory views on whether it is something to remember and understandably all of those who lived through it really don't like to dwell - but we felt that as depressing as the whole thing was it was definitely something we should remember, and hopefully learn from. Grim!
After this we felt very ready for a drink and headed down to the Mekong River which PP is set on although the riverfront area was very much "under construction." We enjoyed a drink at the Foreign Correspondent's Club a real ex-pat hang out and watched the sun set over the water, but it will no doubt look better in a few years when it's not such a construction site!
We really enjoyed getting around PP, though it was sometimes a bit of a white knuckle ride weaving through the traffic! There is always something interesting to look at in the City - people selling snails sprinkled with chili on a tray, 101 tuk tuk/cyclo drivers touting for business, women everywhere in their PJs!
This latter phenomenon is something we've experienced to a lesser extent in both Thailand and Vietnam but it is everywhere in Cambodia. In Vietnam/Thailand you tend to see ladies in silky pjs in the evening but here in Cambodia it is in epidemic proportions everyone seems to get around in cotton pajamas all day long. I guess why not, they are a practical comfortable outfit that suits the climate just it is odd to see before you get accustomed. The silk pj and stiletto look out for dinner is a particularly interesting variation!
Everyone told us the beggars in PP would be overwhelming. Maybe I worked myself up to expect a total nightmare, and due to this it didn't as bad as I'd feared. There are a lot of beggars - mainly kids, disabled people and amputees - and in a country where there is no social security and an appalling revolution just 30 years ago there are some heart breaking cases. It is hard to give to everyone and there are other ways to help. There are many restaurants in the City run by aid organizations in order to fund various projects. A lot of these take street kids and train them to be chefs and generally work in the hospitality industry. Some of them go on to work in top hotels occasionally even overseas so they are definitely a great idea. We buy bits and pieces from the street kids and keep on with the exercise books and pens, and buy them food from street stalls. It isn't really enough though. It is great to see that so many aid organizations from so many countries do have ongoing projects here. Cambodia certainly needs a helping hand.
After a couple of days we had really only scratched the surface of PP's attractions but we decided to keep moving. We'll be passing back through PP on the way back up north to Laos so the attractions we've left unseen - particularly the National Museum - we'll cover on the way back. Meanwhile as at Tuesday 23 September 2008 it's off to the seaside - particularly the coastal town of Sihanoukville for us.
And now as if by magic it's Thursday the 2nd October and we're back for a couple of days in PP! Update to follow with pictures hopefully ..at present they are refusing to load ..maybe due to the poor connections in Cambodia..will keep trying but no colour at present sorry!!
Return to Phnom Penh Wednesday 1 October - Saturday 4 October 2008
It was nice to return to PP again. We had to return via the City as this was the best way for road condition (a big consideration here in Cambodia!) and also we had a couple of sights we really wanted to see but didn't manage the first time around.
The first of these was the National Museum. This was an impressive building in a traditional design with a beautiful courtyard garden. It was built in the early 20th century so amazingly managed to escape the ravages of the civil war. It was full of beautiful sculptures some from the pre-Angkor era, many rescued from Angkor Watt and hidden during the war years. It was forbidden to take photographs inside the museum but we got a few of the courtyards. Again like Angkor Wat it made you realize quite how impressive this empire once was.
We also made it to Wat Phnom, a temple set on top of a 27 metre high hill (in fact PP's only hill) in the centre of the City. The initial temple dated from the 14th century and it is very well patronized -apparently particularly by students at exam time as it is supposedly lucky for exam and business success! There are plenty of beggars and vendors here some of which were selling the birds to release for luck again. Again we missed the photo opportunity...it is very hard to hold a squirming bird in your hand! Apparently the birds you release are trained to "home" every night so I might well have released the same one as before!! It was an interesting temple...we particularly liked the flashing lights "disco Buddha"!
Finally, whilst a bit depressing to say the least we felt we should see the famous Killing Fields of Choeung. This is only one of a great many killing fields in Cambodia but has been preserved as a museum to the 17, 000 plus who were killed here. It really is amazingly grim; at the entrance is a memorial with over 8,000 skulls displayed in groupings of age and sex. Several of the mass graves were left untouched and as you walk around you see everywhere bone and cloth fragments littering the pathways. We have both read a lot around this topic whilst here and are probably ready for a break from it but as a last vision it was chilling. It is really shocking particularly when you think how recent it all is, our guide- a lady of around my age - said quite matter of factly that her parents both died of malnutrition in the Pol Pot years, and her brother of 9 years old was clubbed to death for stealing a banana. Wherever you go you hear stories like this, it really was an unbelievably black period of history.
We had a last look at the bright lights of PP - and took in the markets - live peeled frogs anyone?- before finally heading off. So, on Saturday the 4th of October we finally left PP for the last time and headed NE to the jungle province of Mondulkiri.