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Phnom Penh
By Mikey
Monday, 27th September 2004 12:19

I should clear something up before anyone asks: I haven't had a Lobster dinner here and I think it would cost more than $1 anyway.

The land border between Vietnam and Cambodia is obviously becoming more popular, both countries are constructing new buildings. Until they're finished though, crossing the border will be a very hot affair. Our bus dropped us off on the Vietnamese side and we collected our bags before they were collected for us. We then queued up to get our passports stamped to say that we were leaving Vietnam. This took a while and perhaps we should have taken our bags off our backs but we were hoping to be done quickly. The concept of queuing though seems to be an English one and we eventually just pushed like everyone else.

Once our passports were stamped we headed into no man's land and towards Cambodia. Three Irish girls were sat there waiting for us to catch up and asked us what they should do next. They had been on our bus. I had to refrain from laughing, even though I hadn't been there before the obvious thing to do was keep walking.

We had to wait a while longer for the Cambodians to grant us entry visas and then we went to a café just inside the border to wait for our next bus. It was amazingly hot and we were both exhausted and soaked through after having walked only a few hundred metres.

The bus was actually parked by the café all along but it was about 90 minutes before they came looking for passengers. The bus was comfy enough but the roads in Cambodia were significantly more bumpy than the ones in Vietnam. Not far into our journey the bus stopped to pick up two dozen large fuel barrels. These were loaded onto the seats at the back of the bus and the air conditioning struggled to keep the smell at bay. I distracted myself by falling asleep and looking out of the window - not at the same time though. Even though Cambodia and Vietnam are neighbours there are considerable differences between the two. Their horizons were similar: sparse trees; paddy fields; water buffalo and clouds. The buildings and their arrangement were different though. Most people lived in the humblest of huts right at the side of the road and most of them were at home as we drove through. Apparently as much as 80% of the population have no recognised job. Many of those will probably be working in the fields or perhaps working as motorbike taxi drivers. So many people have very worn and torn clothes and some, the very young, had none at all.

We reached a town after a while where things looked better and we pulled up. For a few seconds it looked like a rest stop but it turned out to be a queue for a ferry to cross a river. Very shortly after we had stopped, our bus was targeted by all sorts of street vendors. People wanting to sell us drinks, bread, fried birds and chewing gum. At first they tried to catch people's eyes through the windows and then they tried calling through the windows and the open door, finally they started banging on the windows trying to catch our attention. They were joined by people begging for money, pens, biscuits, anything we had. It was quite a wait.

Once we had crossed the river it wasn't too far to Phnom Penh. It looked a bit like HCMC but poorer and fortunately less crowded. The number of motorbikes on the roads was low which would make road crossing easier.

The bus dropped us off outside a guesthouse that the bus company was affiliated with. We were thinking of going to find somewhere else as we didn't like the idea of being forced to stay anywhere but it turned out to be a nice place. We decided to stay and chose a room. We popped back downstairs to use the internet and order some supper. I tried some Angkor beer, very nice, not sure what percentage it was though. While we were waiting for our order to come through, one of the men who I think works at the guesthouse offered to take us on his motorbike the following day for a tour of the city. We politely declined as neither of us are fond of the idea of motorbikes. However, another man offered the same thing but in his tuk-tuk and we accepted - three wheels are better than two after all.

The following day we were up in plenty of time and had a cheese sandwich for breakfast. Yummy! We were ready by 9am in time for our tour to begin. Our first stop was Tuol Sleng (or S21), a jail, interrogation and torture centre during the Pol Pot years of 1975 to 1979. During those years 15,000 or more dissenters and people not liked by the regime were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. Only seven of them left alive. The rest were eventually taken to one of Cambodia's killing fields and executed.

Tuol Sleng used to be a school before the Kampuchean civil war and it's split into four buildings. In the first we saw the rooms in which fourteen corpses were found when the facility was abandoned by Pol Pot's men. In the second were the chilling photos that were taken of each prisoner as they arrived and photos of some of them malnourished and beaten. The third building had some of the makeshift cells still in tact and the fourth building had a small theatre and some of the larger cells. The whole place was both chilling and sickening. We saw a short film about a young couple who had ended up in the prison simply because they had written love letters to each other. One of the former guards of the prison made a short appearance in the film and seemed proud that he had only hit five people over the head in one of the killing fields and hadn't cut their throats afterwards. Initially you can't help feeling that he didn't have much to be proud of but then if he hadn't done that he would have been killed himself and someone else would have been more than happy to have killed the five people.

On our way out of the prison, we were approached by several people who were begging for money. My attitude towards begging in England is that it shouldn't be necessary, I pay (or rather paid) taxes in order for the government to look after those less fortunate than me. For those who fall through the cracks in the system, I don't mind giving money to be people who at least try and earn it by playing an instrument, juggling or selling the Big Issue. They're making an effort at least. In Cambodia they don't make an effort but then they don't have any sort of government help to fall back on. I want to help these people but the problem comes when you help one the rest all want something and won't leave you alone until you do help them. As cruel as it is and as much as I want to help them, I can't give money to them. I've made up for it slightly by giving money to the temples, some of which, I believe, goes to the poor. If I were rich enough, I think I'd be happy to give each and every one of them some money but I just can't afford to do that. The richest people in the world could help but I wonder how many of them have been to Cambodia recently.

Our second stop was one of the Killing Fields. To get there our tuk-tuk had to go along a very, very bumpy and worn out road and it turns out that most Cambodian tuk-tuks have no suspension. We had very sore bottoms when we got there.

At the Killing Field there was a memorial to those who were killed there. The memorial contains (and displays) the skulls recovered from the burial sites of over 8,000 people. Those are the ones that they've found so far, nearly half of the Killing Field hasn't been touched yet. The other half has had the skulls recovered both the rest of the bones and the clothes are still partly buried. We walked between the burial pits, each one having up to 100 people in it. One contained the bodies of over 100 women and children, some only a couple of years old, who were beaten to death against nearby trees and left unclothed to rot. The horrible part about that place, apart from the obvious, was that we discovered that we were walking over human bones and buried clothing. Besides being creepy, the whole place really made me feel sad.

Another bumpy journey later and we were on our way back into the city. Our next stop was the Rajana market, a collection of metal sheds selling a variety of food and clothing. We weren't really looking to buy anything so we left quickly and found a café. Imagine our surprise when we found that they had a Ploughman's on their menu. We quickly polished those off and headed back to our waiting tuk-tuk.

Our next stop was the Royal Palace. We've seen a lot of temples and palaces over the last few weeks and this one wasn't a disappointment. We spent a little while wandering around and taking photos before we once again returned to our tuk-tuk.

Our driver asked if we wanted to see the National Museum briefly and we did. Unfortunately, rather than containing a history of Cambodia and its people, it contained museum pieces. Don't get me wrong, they were great pieces but we were after a history of Cambodia really.

Our final stop of the day was the Wat Phnom temple towards the north of the city. It was quite busy, especially with people begging for money. We climbed the steps up to the temple and had a quick look around. It wasn't too much different from any of the other temples that we've seen but we're not tired of them yet. Once again though there were some thoughtless tourists there. One was trying to pose for a photo in front of the Buddhist shrine, a big no-no, and stepped over someone else in order to get into position, also very bad.

That concluded our city tour of the day and it was now just after 5pm. All day the tuk-tuk we were in sounded a little bit like it was on the verge of breaking and it was now that it did. Fortunately we were at the end of the road where our guesthouse was and we helped our driver push his tuk-tuk back up the road.

The following, Sunday, we had very little that we wanted to do. We got up late and after a quick bit of email checking we headed out to the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The FCC in Cambodia is one of the few in the world open to non-members of the Press Corp. During the Cambodian civil war and subsequent years, it was where all the foreign news correspondents spent their time when not reporting or sleeping. We had a very nice lunch there: a nice sandwich; some beer; some spring rolls and a very nice slice of cake.

Subsequently we found a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the French embassy, a significant building in Cambodia's history as many women and children were saved from execution by hiding in there. Unfortunately we couldn't atke any photos or look around as it was an embassy still so we got our tuk-tuk to carry on to a shopping centre we wanted to visit. Unfortunately it wasn't the one that we wanted when we turned up so we ended up getting another tuk-tuk later on. This time we ended up at the Rajana market, not the place we thought we were after. So, we caught another tuk-tuk back to our hostel to check our guide book and in the same tuk-tuk headed out to where we thought we should be again. It was the Rajana market after all and our guide book had mislead us to expect somewhere else. Grrrrr. Nevermind, we had a nice day anyway.

We had to get up very early the next day to catch a boat to Siam Reap. Leaving at 6.30am is not fun, definitely not.

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