MATT: Phnom Penh - Sunday 30th November...day 23 of our tour. We have another early start, which isn't a problem - as I have woken up covered in insect bites (bed bugs) so I am pretty happy to get up. 7.30 am we jump in cyclos with our luggage for a 2min ride to the bus station - which is really just the area on a central street where buses choose to stop. Today we are travelling by a Limousine Bus. This is a big coach, and the first piece of overground transport which isn't just for our group. It is also the best piece of transport so far. Clean, spacious, comfortable, fast and they feed and water us on route - they even take care of our border crossing into Cambodia...we just give the coach man our passports, visa fees and departure and arrival cards - so he does all the queuing and waiting for us at the border...sweet.
Crossing to Cambodia is another culture shock. We thought Vietnam was a developing country - it has nothing on Cambodia. Strangely the first thing you encounter on crossing the border is a run of big Vegas style casinos - even with strip style signage and gardens. The second thing you encounter is poor looking people riding in the back of cattle trucks etc, filthy children begging and women selling weird foodstuffs from baskets carried on thier heads. The food is definitely not to western taste - deep fried tarantulas, crickets, cockroaches etc...yum yum.
A pretty painless bus ride follows into the heart of Phnom Penh, where we transfer to a small tour bus which delivers us to our hotel - The Indocine 2 - which is just of the river and is a really nice place. Probably the nicest, cleanest room we have had so far. Also, it is becoming apparent that Cambodian people are unbelievably friendly and funny. We know thay are taking the piss out of us as we pass by - but it is all in tremendously good humour...which is all the more surprising as we learn more about the recent history of the country.
I knew about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge before we arrived in Cambodia, but as we start to learn about it over the next couple of days from the people who lived through it, I am more and more amazed by the peoples optimism and good humour. When Pol Pot (Brother No 1) played tyrant in Cambodia through the late '60s and early '70s a third of the population (2 million out of 7 million) were murdered or died of desease and starvation. The country was essentially returned to the stone age - no money, no education, no healthcare, no industry, no commerce - peasantry and poverty. What seems to make it worse is that Pot had no goal to all of this. His only end was to make all men equal, and his route to this was to make them all animals. He did not even amass a fortune of his own - no Hitler or Ceausescu for Cambodia...just a paranoid mad man with no purpose.
What makes this even more difficult is that we are getting told these stories by the people who lived through it. These are people not much older than me, but watched as there families were taken to death camps, they or their friends were recruited as child soldiers into the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese Army that liberated/invaded them. Our trip to the S21 Death Camp and the Killing Field where some 8000 bodies have so far been recovered (they have opened 88 of 124 mass graves) was the most depressing, sad, confusing but educational day of the whole tour. Our guide, Mr. Hong, told us the stories how is family escaped the death camps three times, while his uncles, aunts and cousins were murdered.
Phnom Penh - a city of some 2 million people - was completely deserted through Pol Pots time, which helps explain why it feels like a city recovering from conflict. Although it has a pretty healthy tourist industry with plenty nice bars and restaurants, it has limited infrastructure, and has a real issue with street children and homeless families. There are apparently 20,000 street kids in Cambodia - begging, starving and being forced into prostitution....very difficult to reconcile this when you are sitting down to a meal that would pay for a kid to eat for a week.
So - too much doom and gloom? In actual fact Phnom Penh is really great, one of the friendliest places we have visited. Kel and I went, with Sam, on our first night to watch some local boxing (we are later informed that this is Khmer boxing and was adopted by the Thais) which was a blast. 750 riel to get in (about 60p) and we got to see 4 seperate bouts of Cambodian youths knocking crap out of each other...the first bout even ended in an, against the run of play, knock out.
After boxing - dollar beers and our first chance to experience some local cuisine...namely deep fried cricket. Kel swallowed hers whole, I chewed too much, which released the horrendous flavour - so I had to spit. The tarantula legs the following night were much better...
We were also lucky enough to visit a local family - a friend of our group leader (Erin) whose family made us a fantastic meal...Chicken Curry, Fish Amok (a coconut, baked stew served in a bannana leaf) Beef Ribs and much more (the tarantula was the after dinner treat)...the best meal of the trip - which also celebrated Pip's birthday.
We also visited the families kids who were downstairs in their nightly English class. A really important opportunity for them to grab to help their families gain more of the tourist dollar in the future. They relished the chance to practice on a bunch of pasty foreigners. It was an absolute honour and a massive, massive higlight for us on our trip.
So all in all two nights in Phnom Penh were a real highlight in the trip...both happy and sad...but a great introduction to Cambodia and it's people.
The next day...another early start and 6hrs on the bus to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor.