The End of the Holiday in Cambodia

22 12 2010

Regular readers were probably wondering whether they would ever see another installment of Bazza’s travels again and will hopefully be relieved with the news that the itinerant scribe has finally taken time out of his merrymaking in far-off climes to share his escapades with them. My travel companions over the holidays took umbrage with me sitting behind my laptop discussing my past adventures with the world at large and had the tiresome habit of expecting me to spend time with them instead. The same mythical readers may be less impressed with the news that my travels now have a finite end date and, over recent days, I have made the decision to end my travels at the beginning of Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) and my planned adventures in the Antipodes are now consigned to an unknown time in the future. My India trip too is likely to be much, much briefer than originally intended. But let us not dwell too long on the future: for the next few months you can still get your (ir)regular fix of my travelling prose.

 

Sage life advice in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

My last two days in Cambodia included a trip to the National Museum; the Royal Palace; and the old backpacker district in Phnom Penh but not really much else worthy of note. Both attractions failed to excite me on any deep level and I spent most of the morning complaining – particularly about the exorbitant entrance fee for the palace. I think Jo deserves some acclaim for putting up with my constant moaning – although once she pointed out that I could complain about anything, I played up to that role and did my utmost to whinge about everything and nothing. A skill which I feel was probably under-appreciated.

 

The central courtyard of the National Museum

The museum was interesting enough but I failed to learn anything particularly new and there are only so many decapitated Buddha heads from ancient temples that you can look at before feeling the creep of ennui settle upon you. The exhibit that I enjoyed the most was an intricately-carved wooden boat cabin from the 19th century: replete with dragons, birds and elegantly fretted leaves – which probably says as much as you need to know about the museum as a whole. Although it was much better-priced than the museum in Siem Reap and the building it was housed in was absolutely gorgeous; it was quite small in comparison and I’d already learnt as much about Hindu and Buddhist mythology as I’m ever likely to retain.

 

Monks in the Royal Palace complex

The Royal Palace – almost a replica of that found in Bangkok – was an impressive edifice and consisted of many ornate gilded buildings but I spent most of my time there spewing opprobrium about the $12 entrance fee. I did, however, find time out from my tirade to perform a rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot” in front of a suitable topiary hedge. It is little wonder that my sexuality is sometimes called into question.

 

I'm a little teapot

Jo and I then spent most of the afternoon trying to work out what the penultimate line in the rhyme was. After lunch, where a young street urchin nearly assailed me with his basket of bracelets when I failed to buy any of his merchandise, we headed off to meet Huw (who we knew from Kampot) in the old backpacker part of town by the lake. This area has recently been purchased by a property developer and they are in the process of draining the lake. The residents, who arrived there long before property law really existed in Cambodia, are slowly being evicted as they watch their lifelong businesses going the same way as the lake. It’s now a sad and sorry area and apparently a far shadow of what it was just six months ago.

Fine example of New Khmer architecture - no idea what the building is

As we met Huw at his guesthouse we saw a couple of rats chasing each other across the floor. They were the size of cats – ocelots to be more accurate. After a curry in one of the eat-as-much-as-you-like restaurants we sat in one of the deserted bars for a few drinks. Whilst there I saw Dan and Elsa (who I’d met a week or so beforehand on Bamboo island) walking past and they joined us for a bit. Eventually, the quiet bar took its toll on the evening and Jo and I headed back to our hotels. The next day Jo headed off to Siem Reap and I spent most of the day on my computer updating my blog and chatting to the owner of the Europe hotel. I was looking forward to spending Christmas in Vietnam.





Genocidal Tourists

21 12 2010

There are times whilst travelling where you have to go places you know you really don’t want to. Sometimes you need negotiate a dangerous cesspit of a city that you really don’t want to visit in order to get somewhere else (Managua and Tegucigalpa spring to mind) but other times you have to visit a place that will make you feel truly uncomfortable in order to better understand the history of a country.

One of the large torture cells at S-21

Today Jo and I decided to visit Tuol Sleng, better known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), the biggest detention and torture centre of the brief but bloody Khmer Rouge regime. There were more than 300 such places dotted around the country. Around 20,000 people passed through the gates of S-21 – only 7 lived to tell the tale afterwards. Men, women, children, intellectuals, peasants, high-ranking communists, monks: none were immune from the malignant malice of the Khmer Rouge. Even those who had fought for the cause soon found themselves being tortured as a dissident and once one member of your family fell foul of the regime, the rest soon followed.

Photo of one of the last prisoners

The buildings remain much as discovered by the Vietnamese army in 1979: barbed wire adorns the outer walls; tiny brick or wooden cells are constructed within the old classrooms; and leg irons and blood stains trail across the floor. Some rooms contain rusting iron bed frames with a black and white photograph showing the mutilated body of a prisoner chained to the bed, killed by the fleeing captors before the prison was liberated. Other rooms show the instruments of torture and long galleries of black and white photos stare back at you showing the lives that were lost to this senseless government. One building had paintings showing how the people were tortured. There was also a rather strange sign saying No Smiling as we entered the buildings but I can’t imagine anyone able to smile when you realised the gruesome events that had happened inside these walls. Outside the poorly translated regulations of the prison are written up.

A gallery of lost lives

We were both a bit subdued after walking through the buildings but, like most tourists, we decided to negotiate a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and continue the morbid trail.

Bloodstains on the floor

The Killing Fields didn’t quite have the same emotional impact as S-21: it was hard to imagine soldiers smashing babies’ heads against the “Killing Tree” (when discovered it was coated in brains and blood) before flinging them into a mass grave, or beating people over the head with blunt farm implements before slitting their throats. The park was too quiet and tranquil to really believe that such atrocities could have occurred here. But in the middle a big monument stands within the park: filled with the bones of those disinterred from the mass graves.

 

Choeung Ek Memorial

Whilst it may seem a bit barbaric to have all these bones on display, it is in keeping with the Buddhist culture, and with such a beautiful building to house them in, it somehow seems a fitting tribute to those who died and also a reminder to future generations in the hope that something like it never happens again.

 

 

Skulls of the victims

 

After lunch in the centre we both went back to our hotels and arranged to meet later in the FCC again for drinks. Neither of us felt that hungry afterwards so we decided to carry on drinking. I’d read in the local guide-book that there were a cluster of cool bars on 51st street so we headed away from the quay and found ourselves in a bar called Zeppelin. This was obviously a rock joint with a huge array of old vinyl – not really my cup of tea but Jo loves rock music so we stayed there for one before heading further down the road. There we alighted upon a bar called the Black Cat – which I recalled as being a recommendation from one of my fellow travellers. We were greeted by 12 or so women wearing Santa hats and took a place at the bar. I noticed that there was a section of the menu called Ladies Drinks – although it didn’t actually specify what drinks the ladies would be drinking. All around us we could see ugly old Western guys being entertained by cute young Cambodian girls – it was that type of bar! There was an empty pool table there though so Jo and I decided to hit a few rounds – unfortunately she beat me this time and my strong victory from Kep was consigned to the annals of history.

After Black Cat we came across Heart of Darkness, a nightclub in the area. It looked really cool but it was still relatively early on in the evening and was not yet that busy. The prices were also expensive compared to what we were used to so we only stayed for one drink. At this point I decided I was hungry so we headed back up towards the quayside to get some snacks and, by the time we got kicked out of that bar because it was closing (around 1am I think), we both decided to head back to our hotels rather than carry on partying.





Phnom Penh: Same, Same But Different

20 12 2010

What a difference a day makes! Phnom Penh positively buzzed with energy in the daylight and I liked the constant ducking and diving around speeding motos and rickshaws as I leapfrogged my way between the scant lily pads of pavement. The noise; the drama; the gritty air: this is Asia in all its vitality. The main reason for my renewed enthusiasm for Phnom Penh was probably my change of accommodation. One’s perception of a destination is heavily influenced by who you are with and where you are staying and that morning I’d moved to the Europe Guest House: as recommended by the German and Swiss girls, Irene and Lena. It was exactly the same price as my previous digs at $10 but the room felt brighter; was much cleaner; had piping hot water in the pristine bathroom; the owner was extremely friendly; and, most importantly, I didn’t feel like I was going to be robbed overnight. It definitely makes a high entry in Barry’s recommended accommodation list.

Streets of Phnom Penh

I still had 4 full days to kill in Phnom Penh so I didn’t feel any need to rush my way through the attractions and decided on a relaxing day updating my blog. I camped out in a restaurant for the early afternoon until my laptop’s battery finally gave up the ghost and then decided to do something radical. My beard, which had recently assumed David Bellamy proportions and was storing so much food that I was considering hibernating for the winter, had to go. I even decided to dispense with the traditional goatee and go for the clean shaven look. I found a hairdressers along the main quay and opted for a shampoo and cut too. The shampooing was a unique experience: I lay down on a flat bed and received what felt like an hour-long head massage as the bed pulsed randomly below me.

Newly shorn of beard and neat of hair, I headed back to the guest house. Room 302, I said. The owner looked quite puzzled. “302, 302, three hundred and two… Oh my God! You look so different! You lost your beard!” At least he did recognise me in the end and I was able to get my key. In the afternoon I heard that Jo was now coming to Phnom Penh. She’d stayed in Sihanoukville less than 24 hours and decided that she didn’t like it: although since she doesn’t like beaches and heavy drinking; I can’t say I’m surprised. I arranged to meet her in the FCC – the Foreign Correspondents Cambodia boutique hotel – for happy hour on the roof terrace. This offers great views across the Mekong river and the quay area and is a very popular destination for visiting tourists. I had a few cocktails and beers there and then we went to Friends restaurant. It was so popular that we had to wait half an hour for a table but man was the wait worth it!

I probably had the best food I ever ate in Cambodia that night; and although I spent much more than my backpacker budget normally allows for it was well worth it. And besides, since the restaurant is run by former street kids and their teachers and the profits go towards this worthwhile cause I didn’t mind paying a bit more. I was particularly impressed with the pineapple and chilli margarita and if they’d been less than $4 each would happily have had a few of them!

Pineapple and chilli margarita

After dinner we had a few more drinks along the quayside but there really didn’t seem to be a lot going on so we decided to head back to our respective hotels for the night.





Arriving in Phnom Penh

19 12 2010

After breakfast, Jo and I went our separate ways: she left for Sihanoukville and I headed off to Phnom Penh. My bus went through Kep where we’d been the previous day and I panicked as I saw my bag offloaded. There followed a few tense moments where I wondered if it would ever be put back on the bus. Louise was also on the bus, heading to her aunt’s in Phnom Penh for Christmas, and although the bus was empty when we first got on, it soon filled up and eventually we lost our individual seats and they sat us together. I finished watching Entourage season 7 on the bus and then realised that I’d have to wait until the final truncated season next year before I could get my next fix. It was a sad moment.

In Phnom Penh I was going to walk to the hostel but a tuk-tuk driver offered to take me there for $1: I decided to take him up on it. Unfortunately, the hostel that I’d chosen, based on the mediocre review on Hostelworld — Rory’s Pub & Guest House — only had expensive double rooms with air-conditioning left so I was left at the mercy of the tuk-tuk driver for a place to stay. He took me to Kings Guesthouse and for my $10 I got a dark room with no windows, a cold water shower and a door that looked like it could easily be broken down. It didn’t seem that great to me but, with the old backpacker district in a gradual state of demolition, there is a dearth of decent budget accommodation in the city.

After locking all my valuable possessions in my rucksack I set off out for the evening. At every corner I was assailed by the habitual Cambodian greeting of “Tuk-tuk? Moto? Drugs? Skunk? Marijuana?” If you’re lucky you even get the extended greeting of “Girls?” and, if you look particularly seedy, apparently you get the salutation “Boys?”. Rumours abound that there are pavements somewhere in Phnom Penh but, if they do exist, they are hidden beneath vendors’ wares and restaurant tables. The gutter is also a no walking zone: filled with tuk-tuks and motorbikes, so the only option for any pedestrian is the middle of the street. Fortunately the moto drivers seem to recognise this and give you a hair-width berth as they speed around you.

I’d been talking to Louise about a restaurant called Friends on the bus. Not only was it great food but it was for a good cause too. I decided to check that out for dinner but it turned out that they were shut on Sundays so I wandered back along the main quay. As I ambled I chanced upon Irene and Lena in a restaurant and had a quick beer with them. They were off early the next day so they headed off back to their guesthouse and I walked further down the street looking for an eatery.

I eventually decided on the Irish pub Paddy Rice Sports Bar where I had a Cambodian delicacy known as Shepherd’s Pie – I truly can be a cultural heathen at times. There didn’t seem to be much going on in the bar and most of the other pubs that I’d walked past didn’t seem to be bumping with life so, feeling a tired and a bit depressed, I headed back to my guest house for an early night.