Dark City. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
There are three ways of travelling to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap- by road, by barge, or by air. This morning we toured Chong Kneas, a floating village in the Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater body of water in South East Asia, where we jetted past a number of floating shops, houses, churches, schools, restaurants and basketball courts, and the very dingy and claustrophobic-looking narrow-roofed barge that apparently transports you between the two cities. I felt somewhat relieved that I was arriving by giant (although still cramped) air-conditioned coach. In my head, I still have the images of the small child on a tiny motorboat who stealthily jumped on board our isolated cruise vessel to try to sell us some cheap softdrink, as well as the little boy who wore a pet snake around his neck for a cheap photo opportunity. I wonder how people survive under the constant threat of electrocution from the water (surprisingly most floating houses still have TV’s and basic electricity) and crocodile attack (a rarity, as there are only freshwater crocodiles here, and yet one boy was apparently taken by a crocodile in the late 90s).
As I gaze out the window at the late afternoon sun beating down upon the rice fields wet from the warm downpour we have just had, I realise just how flat the countryside is. This must be one of the flattest parts of the world here, and as I learn later, during flooding seasons this seemingly infinite palm-cluster and straw stilt-house studded desert expanse of rice crops is apparently completely underwater. During the wet season, the barge may be your better option, as I’d imagine this would not be a great place to skid or get bogged. There are only small towns that dot the roadside between Siem Reap and the capital. The highway is narrow with a single lane in either direction, and there are no lights or reflectors on either side of the road. It’s way past sunset, and the person sitting next to me claims to have seen a roadsign saying 75 km to Phnom Penh. We have been travelling for well over 5 hours, and I can feel the cramps building up in my feet, which are weary and blistered from temple fatigue. Is this the beginning of a DVT I wonder, and quickly wriggle my legs to reactivate my calf muscles. This was supposed to have been a four-and-a-half hour trip. It’s starting to get well beyond six, and I’m starting to doubt whether the capital is really any closer. I keep looking out the window for a light haze on the horizon or any other sign of life. But all I can see is palm trees and the reflection of the moon in vast expanses of water by the roadside.
Another couple of hours later, and without much of a drumroll, we arrive in one of the most poorly-lit cities of the trip. Numerous people gather outside their front walls here, watching the traffic go by. Most of the houses here have seem to have large stone walls and massive gates, rather than fences. There’s the occasional market, and as the streets start to become busier, they become dominated by Tuk Tuks and motorbikes. Finally, on arriving at the bus stop, a friendly Tuk Tuk driver with a bus company shirt offers to transfer us to our hotel for a couple of US dollars. Sitting in a Tuk Tuk in 32 degree humidity is actually one of the easiest ways of getting some shade and moving air on your face, especially during the middle of the day. The streets are only lined with occasional trees, and the sun can be quite ferocious, bearing in mind that it doesn’t get much cooler in the evening here either. We drive past the night markets, some working girls staking out a busy intersection, a few street stalls, cheap bars and restaurants, and finally pull up in a dingy isolated back street, where our Australian-owned hotel with the 24-hour swimming pool, the Billabong, is apparently situated. Breakfast here is served all day, and there is a decent menu and range of ice cold refreshing drinks. Most of which are delightful, although I wasn’t such a fan of the cashew nut smoothie. (It’s surprisingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, nutty!)
There is a permanent guard who sits out the front, but he is usually asleep in his Tuk Tuk. Many of the moderately finer properties in Phnom Penh are under 24-hour guard. This is a reasonably well-serviced city with a population of 2 million, but local unemployment is a problem, and your Lonely Planet guide will warn you against roaming the streets at night, although probably the same could be said of Ballarat, St Kilda, or anywhere in the world that has a lot of people and cheap beer. So after fighting temple fatigue, I decide to brave the nocturnal heat and face the “horror” of the streets, in this hexagonal grid-like city where all the streets are conveniently numberered, and yet sometimes the street numbering is profoundly erratic. (Some numbers are repeated twice, some numbers start all over again, have inappropriate numbers randomly thrown in, or are deleted altogether.)
I stumble upon The Heart of Darkness, which is only a block or so away from our hotel, on an odd numbered street, therefore running north-south). This is a nightclub filled with heavy disco music, and beats out a number of traditional Khmer classics like ‘Lady Gaga, Telephone’. Angkor beer is on tap here, the scene is fairly dark with eerie red lighting, and is the venue is occasionally decorated with brightly-lit replicas of temple relics. This is clearly the hippest nightclub in Street 51, the night-club district, where young, well dressed, and educated Cambodian women parade with their Western trophy boys on their sleeve. Outside the motorcycles are piled up in rows. There is no door charge, but expect to be body pat-searched by one of a dozen burly security guards on entry. Nevertheless, they are quite friendly here, although I am too tired to stay for more than a softdrink, and make my way back to the hotel.
Why have I come here to the ends of the Earth? I ponder as I lie in my hotel room, with the fan on full blast and the air conditioner set to sixteen degrees (although I rarely achieve a temperature lower than 25). Who goes on holiday to Phnom Penh? I realise I’m spending 48 hours in a city that has Lonely Planet warnings, and that no one I know has ever visited. I later discovered that bats fly around the pool at night, which really didn’t bother me at the time anyway, as I thought they were giant dragonflies. Also, a hallmark of every hotel you will visit in Cambodia, are the geckos. They love the underside of sheltered second and third storey ceilings, and are fortunately very socially conscious and tend to remain outside your room, perhaps because they are smart enough to realise that this would potentially involve using the floor. They eat geckos in parts of Cambodia, as well as snakes. Their curries are often like a disappointing twist on Thai curries, and use a lot of fish paste. There are lots of mosquitoes in Cambodia, which seemed to bother me less than the blowflies back in Australia when I returned, despite the billboards outside the children’s hospital in Siem Reap that you pass on the way to the temples, pleading for blood donations as there’s a current outbreak of haemorrhagic dengue fever. Tarantulas are also considered a delicacy by some, although I honestly never saw a stall selling fried tarantulas like the one in the Lonely Planet guide.
I’ve spent the last three nights in Siem Reap, a comparative paradise whose economy thrives on tourist pleasures of all kinds. For those who like temple trekking, it is hard to believe these ancient Buddhist/Hindu ruins are only 1000 years old. These national symbols of the Cambodian people demonstrate a legacy of a proud thriving ancient empire, an ancestry of remarkable aesthetics and industry. You can definitely get temple fatigue wandering around the ruins all day in the blistering heat of the afternoon. This is somewhere where you could spend a few weeks visiting temples in the early morning, and in the late afternoon/evening, and meanwhile relax in the pool, and receive professional foot massages during the day, or wander down to the market to buy an oil painting, some Cambodian silk, or get your weary feet nibbled on by minaiture fish in a tank, for a nominal price. Fish reflexology seems to be a widespread phenomenon in South East Asia, from Thailand, to Singapore, to Cambodia. If you want the experience, be mindful that at Underwater World in Singapore it will cost you $38 for the privilege. So if you’re keen, Siem Reap is probably a good place to get acquainted with the experience. The town has about the same population as Geelong, but the main tourist area is fairly small and easy to navigate around. Pub Street is easily accessible, sporting a number of restaurants selling really decent Khmer food. Can I recommend the Beef Lok Lak over one of their curries or soups, which some may find a little bit lacking on the taste buds. Seafood here is massive, although in the dry season a lot of the fish are fairly miniature.
Occasionally you will be shocked by: a young Cambodian man approaching you on a motorcycle offering to take you for “lady massage… with happy ending”; a well nourished Cambodian child approaching you in desperation for cash for food; a lady using her bottle fed baby as a prop to explain that she needs financial assistance. The amputees, some with quite extraordinary handcarved wooden crutches, tend to gather around tourist areas mainly during the day. When you leave any of the temples around the Angkor region, you will be swarmed by a pack of at least half a dozen working Cambodian children under 10, demanding insistently that you buy 10 postcards for less than a dollar, and getting quite indignant when “you no buy!” Everyone who comes here has to question their own intrinsic level of cultural naievety and judgmentalism, and decide whether it is right or wrong to support these people.
If you are feeling a sense of moral awkwardness after ignoring 100 little children, and even feeling the need to run away from them, please consider a visit to the Landmine Museum, which can be combined with a trip to the spectacular Banteay Srei women’s temple and Kbal Spean carvings in the waterfalls. Tourists can no longer drive in Siem Reap, but hiring a Tuk Tuk or car with a driver for the day is relatively cheap. If you want a tour guide, you can pay for him separately. Most speak great English, and they are all registered. Beware of anyone who offers to drive you to the temples AND show you around them. The two professions are legislatively separated in Cambodia.
The Landmine museum contains information about Canadian NGO-sponsored detection and deactivation of unexploded mines. The children they support, mainly amputees and burns victims, are clearly protected and partitioned from the museum. You can learn about local heroes here, helping communities rebuild after only just more than a decade of peacetime. These are the sorts of people who really need yourhelp, and you can give organisations money which directly goes towards their aid. The other thing you might want to consider, while in Cambodia, if you want to help the local community, is giving blood. Don’t feel sorry for wiley old below-knee amputees wielding their expensive crutches, who magically transport themselves to hard-to-find tourist hangouts, and gesture to their leg with an an open hat for donations. They get plenty of money already, and know how to get more.
It is true that while you could spend weeks exploring the hundreds of temple ruins in the Siem Reap province, you can visit most of the national landmarks of Phnom Penh in half a day. Nevertheless, here is some of the most beautiful architecture, the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum (all within walking distance), Sisowath Quay where you must have lunch at the FCC restaurant, which has the tastiest food, and cheap Western and vegetarian options you will die for after eating 3 days of fish paste curry. It also sports a balcony with a view over the Tonle Sap river as it begins to drain into the Mekong. It’s only a short walk up from here along the Quay to Wat Phnom, the Buddist temple on the hill, and you’re done. Two dollar Tuk Tuk ride back to the hotel for a snooze, a dip in the pool, or a cold watermelon shake. The real reason you are here in this lesser known city of Asia has yet to become transparent. You really haven’t seen anything yet.
It was our last day in Phnom Penh and our tour guide arrives at the Billabong Hotel. Do you have a Christopher staying here? He presents the ticket to one of the reception staff. “No, definitely no one staying here with that name” reply the reception staff. Had we not been checking our bags out simultaneously, we may have missed out on a fascinating and life-changing historical journey. There was only us two, the driver, and the tour guide in the car. We booked lucky, and had the tour guide all to ourselves. He spoke spectacular English, gave a knowledgeable and complex political history of Cambodia from the prosperous years after their independence from France, prior to the war which spilled over from Vietnam, and the succession of the very unpopular US-backed military government by the Khmer Rouge communist regime, who declared an immediate end to the war before staging the evacuation of millions of educated, professional people from the capital to work on the rice fields, to achieve Pol Pot’s unfulfilled aim of supplying other communist nations with the world’s biggest production of rice. Those who didn’t agree with the Khmer Rouge, or comply with their domination, were imprisoned in one of three main prisons, tortured, had digits removed, were forced to lick faeces, were beaten and starved. And those enemies of Pol Pot, who opposed the year zero social experiments, and survived the prisons, were forced to walk or were driven in trucks to the Killing Fields, where you can visit the main shrine in Choeng Ek containing thousands of skulls. More than 8000 skulls were found here in mass graves, where children were beaten to death against trees, and few people died from gunshot, mostly by brutal beatings and knifings. Associated with the prison are a few of its 12 survivors, who still spend most of their day at one of the prisons, which has been converted into a Genocide Museum. Mug shots of the prisoners were discovered in Pol Pot and Duch’s offices inside the prison, which the Khmer Rouge had converted from an old school, after the facility was quickly evacuated when the South Vietnamese took Phnom Penh in 1979. It is said that a couple of Vietnamese soldiers walked past the prison, smelt rotting flesh and uncovered 12 dead bodies. Pol Pot was exiled but ruled the outlying jungle areas, which he had already controlled prior to taking the capital in 1975. Many of the prisoners had the same identification number, illustrating the mass number of prisoners who died here. The electrified barbed wire on the second storey was constructed to prevent intentional suicide, and the classrooms were partitioned into about 8 brick units each, which operated as cells. You can visit both of these places in half a day, but unless you have done your reading on Cambodian history, it is definitely worth the expense of a professional tour guide, as this is a story that needs to be heard as much as it needs to be told.
They now have political stability in Cambodia, with the same prime minister for 30 years, who almost always wins elections, but prioritises the stability of his continued rule over the election result. Considering the Khmer Rouge were so widely cheered and celebrated when they took power in 1975, having an extremely popular leader isn’t necessarily the greatest advantage to the average Cambodian anyway, in a country where stability is of the utmost importance, with UN brokered peacetime having existed only since the late 1990s, to end the killings between the military groups led by the widely Popular Prince who abdicated the throne as King during the prosperous years of Cambodia to lead his country in the elections, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party, and the current administration that was installed by the South Vietnamese. Pol Pot was put under house arrest by his own party, before dying in comfort in 1998, unpunished for his crimes. Duch, who ran the prison S-21 with Pol Pot, which is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, changed his identity to eventually become a popular lay catholic priest in rural Cambodia, before some of the 12 survivors and a reporter finally caught up with him. He has now confessed and has been sentenced by the International Criminal Court, and will be released at the age of 87. This is the true history of Cambodia. It is a dreadful one, and totally unique. That one man can manipulate a whole army into committing mass genocide of their own people under a banner of communist atheist domination. If anything about Cambodian life is difficult for you to understand, remember that a fifth of the population was wiped out during the four years of Pol Pot’s reign. This is a population that is used to being desperate, and is still left relatively without the wealth, services and infrastructure it needs, despite having spent years before wartime with no reliance on international aid.
A journey out to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields is definitely a must if you are visiting Cambodia. There’s probably no other great reason to spend more than 24 hours in this fascinating dark city. And for god’s sake, if you are travelling from Siem Reap take a taxi, it’s almost as cheap and a lot faster and less cramped than the bus, which rarely goes faster than 80kph. Visiting Phnom Penh is definitely a life changing experience, and a chilling and humbling informer of the recent tragic history of Cambodia, after being overwhelmed by the spectacular ruins and remants of an ancient once-thriving and advanced civilisation of the ages.