Hello All! We are currently in Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital) and have been here for two days. We have just indulged in the luxury of a cappucino and fruit juice mainly because the cafe offers free internet access to all customers! (But to note...the fruit juice was very yummy!)
We left Siem Reap and the Temple madness for a little town on the south coast called Sihankoville. Here we lazed about on some nice beaches and travelled across to some outlyning islands for some snorkling and deserted beaches....deserted apart from all the rest of the tourists who'd come across for the same experience. Nevertheless it was good and we enjoyed a bbq of grilled baracuda for lunch.
Following Sihankoville we headed across to Kampot, another small town with lovely old French architecture, near the south coast famous for Kampot pepper and well not a lot else really!! However, just outside Kampot town is Bokor National Park. The promise of wild bears and tigers got us well excited for an adventurous trek, however it was sadly not to be. At the top of Bokor is an eerie old French hill station and some old 'holiday homes' of the King. The French hill station was built, by the French (obviously) back in the early 1920s as a holiday settlement for French people living in Cambodia and consists of a post office, church, water tower and massive hotel. They have all since been abandoned and partly destroyed during the time when Khmer Rouge forces were fighting for independence (early 1970s) and as such shot the hell out of the buildings and subsequently any one in there. The hotel now stands derilect and you are able to walk around these eerie buildings which was a little spooky, lookimg through bullet holes etc. Anyway a new hotel company has now bought the site and plan to build a brand new hotel/casino complex worthy of Vagas near to the oldstuff and so the road leading up to the station is being rebuilt. As such all treks have been abandoned and instead we were driven to the top in the back of a truck.....thinking back not such a bad thing...that would have been a long walk!
On leaving Kampot (and our lovely guesthouse where beer was cheaper than water and the resident dogs stole my heart) we headed for Phnom Penh and found a great hostel right near to the Royal Palace. Arriving in Phnom Penh was madness!! Not becasue PP is an overly busy city but because we arrived on the final day of the annual water festival held on the Mekong River, running through the centre of town. During this three day festival the population of the city swells by 2 million as people from the rural provinces of Cambodia come to the city to compete in dragon boat races on the river, with the honour of winning their races and racing in front of the King. We heard about the festival back in Siem Reap and almost everyone we had met in the run up had told us about it and how excited they were about attending. It's a massive thing for Cambodians and a brilliant festival to watch.
We headed down to the river and felt a little uncomfortable as we were pulled into a 'Tourist Only' tent and giving complementary headphones to hear the results of the races, while hundreds and thousands of Cambodians piled onto the banks of the river to catch a glimpse of their local boat teams. The view however was fantastic! Right near the finish line, the only one with a better view was the King who was in the next tent along from us! In today's newspaper it was reported 391 boats were competing with over 20,000 racers. Each boat had about 50 people, all dressed in matching colours representing their province. Some races were close to call, others were not but all the boats crossing the line turned to row back up the river to dock and subsequently pass the crowds. There was much cheering, dancing and singing on board each boat, and not neccessarily just from the winners, everyone was enjoying themselves and the crowd was forced to join in too!! It was great fun! The day was drawing to a close when we experience another Cambodian first...a monsoon-style downpour! Despite trying to hide in our tourist only tent it was soon apparent that we were getting drenched and our tent was slowly being destroyed! At one point a boat crew came out of their boat to hang on to the tent structure to prevent it flying off!! Unfortunalty this spoiled the last part of the festival when all the boats rowed up to the line, pass the King and we think fireworks were meant to go off....the never did, by now it was hard to even see the river! We tried to get back to the hostel quickly but was first held up by the King returning to his palace to which me and Dan agreed he was a throughly nice bloke. Even though it was belting it down and I mean really REALLY raining at this point, he stood up out of his car to wave to all the people who were stood in the rain trying to catch a glimpse of him. Cant imagine our 'Lizzy doing the same. We then got a bit stuck as we didint really know the streets of PP yet and somehow they had all become rivers themselves by the time we tried to navigate our way back, in the dark!! Ha! We got back eventually!
The past two days we have done some sight seeing around the city which is has a lovely calm atmosphere (now all the water festival madness has moved on). Yesterday we visited the Royal Palace which includes a silver Pagoda, named so because the floor is made completely of silver tiles (7 tonnes so I heard a tour guide say!). We also went to see a few markets and wandered the streets, constantly refusing the offer of 'tuk tuk' and/or 'you want massage?'.
Today we visited probably the most harrowing place I have ever been...the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Without describing the whole history of Cambodia, basically these places are the two sites of torture and excecution created by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1978 under Pol Pot's so called 'Revolution'. It was a horrendous time for Cambodia, nearly everyone was persicuted against for reasons such as just being educated. The once Tuol Svay Prey high school was taken over and converted into a prision known as S-21. Here classrooms were converted into either cells (0.8m x 2m) or torture rooms and it is recorded that more than 17,000 people were taken here for torture, forced to confess to complete lies before being taken to the Killing Fields for execution. Its a hard place to visit. I like the fact that it has been kept very much the same as it was found, held secret by the Khmer Rouge untill 1978 when they were overturned. However, when Dan asked 'Are those stains on the floor what I think they are?' unfortunately the answer was 'Yes'. A stomach-churning experience that puts everything into perspective, especially given the fact it only occured less than 35 years ago. The Killing fields were not, as you can imagine, more cheery. Over 129 mass graves were found here and 43 have been left untouched. The remains of 8985 people: men, women, children, have been found here and honoured by being placed in a Memorial Stupa where you can go and pay your respects to the dead. Or do as I did and say thankyou for the life I have.
On a more happy note, I'm going to finish this blog!! I've written loads havent I?! Thats partly because I've given up on writing my journal (pathetic I know after only 4 weeks!) and I feel the need to get more information down (plus it puts Dan's blog to shame!) Ha! Oh also, we have seen an elephant walking the streets of PP in shoes...its very odd, we have seen him twice now but unfortunately didnt get photo proof!
So from here we are heading north up to a little place called Kratie tomorrow. We will keep you posted on the experiences and keep up our message board-we love reading it when we log on!
Lots of Love Rhan xxx