After loading our bus in Ho Chi Minh, I found myself saddened to leave Vietnam so quickly. I lacked excitement for Phnom Penh, and had few expectations for the capital city. Part of me was already looking ahead to Angkor Wat.
Nearing the Vietnam-Cambodia border, the landscape had started to change. The land was desert-like - dry, tan sand and cracked, barren fields plowed much the way rice fields are in Thailand but the earth around us in Thailand has an iron-rich red to it.
We saw ground level buildings with dirt floors (cement floors are especially important for health). We travelled through small towns on the “highway” - a 2-lane blacktop road. We would travel through towns and occasionally see signs for “economic areas.” Gated roads leading to fenced in complexes of barracks style homes and steel warehouses many times larger than any village or town we crossed through. The poverty in Cambodia was already clear.
We arrived at Phnom Penh, grabbed our backpacks, and were off in a flash to find our hotel. It was late afternoon and we were ready to explore after being cooped up in the bus. We easily found the SLA hostel, and were very pleased with our accommodations. Aaron and I grabbed a happy hour $0.75 beer (with a pull-tab) while we unloaded, showered, and prepared to find some dinner.
We walked to the main area of town to stroll along the riverfront, and stopped at a Foreign Correspondents Club with a view - it had allegedly been a haunt of Hemingway. We enjoyed some light conversation of topics like how best to survive a fall from our 3rd floor location (spawned by a cat precariously navigating a precipice) and then digressed into the difference between a democracy and a republic, and somehow what the Bronze age is. Susan and Heather kindly tolerated us as always or corrected us as necessary..
We left and strolled past the lighted Royal Palace being outfitted for Cambodia’s SongKran festival, and then Aaron kicked a ball with some Cambodia boys on the street. After - and by now starving - we happened along a restaurant that A+H had read about. We stopped in and Aaron was the winner when he chose the local dish - Fish Amok a type of curry dish that is cooked in banana leaf. It was amazing. Susan and I missed the mark with our meal choices, but we were satiated nonetheless. We were all humbled when we asked the desk attendant if he enjoyed Fish Amok and smiled and said he loved it but can rarely afford it.
Everyone up and moving by 6:30, after a light breakfast of fruit and toast we were off. People marveled at the crazy westerners who continue to walk everywhere in the heat. We started out at the Royal Palace and home of the Silver Pagoda. A beautiful place with lots of intricate buildings to look at, wall painting, jade Buddha’s and other precious items collected by Cambodian Royalty. We walked on to the liberation monument, and were tailed by the soccer-playing boys from the night before. Not a lot to see at liberation monument, so Aaron negotiated us a TukTuk to the Russian Market.
We kind of split up as we walked into the Russian Market. We stopped and looked at trinkets, but any interest drew the shop owner and immediate offers for sale. The location was giant with narrow isles through endless vendors. At one point we were stopped and talking about something we liked, and another man walked up selling cards printed by disabled people. The stress was enough to crack me. I stepped outside to breathe and cry for a second. After composing myself I told Susan that she could shop or not, but I could not. It is just clear that items are marked up a lot, but also people are desperate for a sale as prices would go from $4 - $2 - $1 with each step.
We all had a nice lunch inside the Russian market, sitting at a counter inside the dark building surrounded my the smells of all the food cooking and the hot, musty smell of a building with sweaty bodies and wares being sold. Part of the market was even like a hardware store - they had almost everything.
Later I devised my own bartering method - if I like something, I first decide what it is worth to me and then I offer to pay that. If I overpay, maybe it’s because I overvalue the item, but I am not just trying to get a better price from someone who likely needs the money more than me. No judgment on other people’s bargaining/bartering, this is just what works for my conscience and temperament.
After lunch, we all headed over to Tuol Sleng - a school that was converted to a haven of torture within the walls of the city. It was emotionally challenging, but one of those historic landmarks and culturally significant places to visit as a world citizen. We learned:
- Pol Pot drove millions of people from the city, telling them Americans were coming to bomb the city again.
- The people left by foot and then were taken to work camps where a communistic utopia was to exist as everyone worked the fields together.
- In truth, people starved and literally worked until they were dead. Pol Pot even commanded that machines not be used, so tractors sat idle as people manually plowed the fields.
- The site was used to torture anyone seen as a threat or dissenter. Children, women, and even his former advisers were tortured here before being sent to the killing fields.
We left Tuol Sleng quiet, but reflective and glad we had visited. We then headed to:
- the central market to see one of the world’s 10 largest domes
- The Elephant Bar for a fancy cocktail
- a sunset boat cruise for $7 each.
- It was a beautiful way to see the city skyline
- We also saw some fishing communities up close. They live on the banks of the river, juxtaposed strikingly against a mega-hotel.
Not to spoil the remainder of the trip, but Phnom Penh was a clear highlight. I would love to return and explore more of the secrets that this city holds.