Phnom Penh evoked a mixed but mainly positive first impression on our way in. It seemed better organised and cleaner than Vietnam, but we also saw more seemingly homeless people on the streets.
Our trip there with Giant Ibis was fairly smooth. The only trouble was that Matthias had lost his e-visa paper and the border staff took a long time to process all the passports of our bus group. With the e-visa being last, we had to wait a long time and even entire other groups passed through the gates before us. At least the bus attendent payed the extra money required to process our visa with a digital form instead of the paper one.
The road from Saigon to Phnom Penh is good; just don’t expect great scenery. Most of it is cordoned off from the countryside by houses, shops and workshops on both sides. The air conditioning on the bus worked, but was not strong enough to stop us from roasting (on the sunny side). Therefore we were very happy when we finally arrived in the Cambodian capital.
Half an hour of walking later we arrived in our nice and cool hostel. The staff was great and the offered welcome drink disappeared very quickly. Since it was already late afternoon we could not start the sightseeing until the next day. Instead we explored the local area and bought a SIM-card for when we go out and about with our planned volunteering. The streets around our hostel boasted a big variety of street food places and restaurants so we got our first Cambodian barbeque.
After our first muesli breakfast in a long time we went to the central market to catch a bus go to the immigration office and extend our visa. We could have done this through an agency but we thought it was easier out the middle man (definitely cheaper). The public busses were very new and courtesy of Chinese aid. The aircon was super cold which was a big surprise. Despite almost everybody owning a scooter there were still quite a few people on the bus with us. Roughly 45min later we arrived at the airport (the immigration office is straight across the road). The process was very easy; all we had to do was fill out a form and hand over a passport photo, our passports and $30 each. The only letdown was that they needed to keep our passports for one week and we had to pick them up soon after. They would not keep it for four weeks until we were planning to return to Phnom Penh anyway. We had read before that it would take 2-3 working days so we could have picked them up before leaving the capital, but now we had to do an extra return trip. Oh well…
On the way back our bus became part of an accident. A remork (motorbike with trailer) had pulled away from the curb without looking (very normal in SE Asia) and hit the corner of the bus. Nobody was injured but we had to wait for the police. The situation was vastly improved by a lorry in the left hand lane which was waiting for some new wheels to be fitted. With two of the three lanes blocked, the fast growing queue of vehicles behind us had no choice other than using half the pavement. Stalls were quickly moved to the side to allow for more space.
About half an hour later the police arrived and sorted things out. The remaining passengers including us (who had not yet gotten onto another mode of transport) got into the next bus which had arrived in the meanwhile and continued our journey. After disembarking at the central market, we wandered around exploring the stalls and searching for sports clothes for Zoë. Having found them and some nice lunch, we grabbed the rest of our fitness stuff and went to a gym. It was our new year resolution to become fitter and work out more. Entrance was quite cheap at $4 each and in return we got a well equiped gym with everything we needed. We spent 2 hours running and pumping iron before showering and continuing our sightseeing. Afterwards we felt much better and hope that we can fit in more of this in future.
The tourist sight of the day was not a very nice but an important one. Twenty minutes of walking through the low end of town and along a stinking river we arrived at the toul sleng museum otherwise known as S-21. The building complex used to be a high school until the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian capital. In the four years of Pol Pot’s regime this place was comverted to one of nearly 190 secret prisons all over the country. People who were first taken there were mostly intelectuals and political opposition. Later, more and more people were arrested under more or less invented charges of treason or anti-communist activities. The prisons were run like Nazi concentration camps: just without the gas chambers and the forced day long labour. Inmates were tortured up to three times per day until they confessed what ever they were accused of. Most of them had to write down lists of names of alleged spies and connections to the CIA. Most prisoners had no idea who or what that was but it did not matter. If the staff did not like the confession, the inmate was tortured again. Once the confession was accepted, they were sentenced to death. After all the space within S-21 had been used up, the victims were taken to the killing fields. They were usually clubbed to death in order to save bullets and avoid notifying other people of what was happening.
It was never only one person being picked up by the police: it was entire families because ‘a weed had to be pulled out with all its roots’. The other Khmer Rouge doctrine ‘Better to kill an innocent than letting an enemy get away’ meant that the prisons never got empty.
We walked around the museum with one of their audio guides and totally recommend getting one. There are almost no signs with explanations so in order to actually understand the place some guide is necessary. There are many signs with drawings or photos; the most disturbing ones are photos of hundreds of victims. They were taken upon arrival in the prison when the arrested were stripped of their clothes and given a number. We were shocked so see that despite all the promises made after concentration camps at the end if WWII the same thing happened again only 30 years later.
When we left S-21 we were totally depressed by what we had seen and learned. We tried to get our mood up by geting ourselves a good streetfood dinner before heading back to the hostel.
Our second day in Phnom Penh was our big sightseeing day. We started it off with the grand royal palace. This giant walled square was close to the river and included a small park. It was separated into two parts: one seemingly representational with the palace and another with the silver pagoda and other temples. We arrived fairly early in the morning before the tour groups started pouring in and just as it was getting hot. Which was not so great because it got hot fast and there was no shade outside the buildings. The palace was off-limits with a red carpet out the front door but it was still a grand sight to behold. Its sweeping.and colourful roof looked great in the sun. The more religious part of the complex was also impressive. The walls all around the courtyard were painted, and told some story; sadly without any explanation. Some sections looked like they had been recently restored but most of it looked worn. It was still impressive though. Around the yard lay a few temples and pagodas. The most noteworthy and famous is the silver pagoda which draws its name from the silver floor tiles. They can only be seen in a few parts with most of them covered with rugs and runners. The interior was elaborately decorated and housed a great number of budda statues in various positions, sizes and made of everything from wood to gold. Lit up by candles, the created a serene atmosphere.
The other pagodas were less than half the size of their famous sibbling but nice and worth a visit nonetheless. On our way out we found a small exhibition of royal elephant saddles and thrones. We felt like we missed out on information and could have learned more about it with a guide but they wanted $10 (basically another entrance ticket) which was too steep for us and we actually enjoyed just wondering around looking.
Our next sight we wanted to see was literally just around to corner. The national museum showcased a range of historic artefacts in a red brick building around a nice green courtyard. The selection was very one sided though with the majority of the exhibits being (parts of) statues of various deities, stone plates with carved text and reliefs from temples around the country. The most interesting fact we learned from the stone section was that the Khmer knew about and used the ‘0’ 300 to 400 years before us! It was both shocking and sad that quite a lot of the temple carving exhibited had been taken off smugglers or traders who broke them out of walls in Angkor temples and other famous and protected temple complexes. At least the Cambodian police seemed to be doing something about it… Sadly other types of exhibits fall short of the stone section and we found them somewhat underwhelming. Overall we enjoyed the visit but think going in once is enough.
All this walking around had made us fairly hungry and so we headed two streets up to what our hostel recommended as a good food street. Most of them were geared towards tourists and served western cuisine mixed with some khmer dishes. We were thankful when we found some street food stalls. One of them served yummy fruit smoothies which were very welcome in the midday heat. We were joined by an Englishman who had been travelling and living in southeast asia for many years who told us some very interesting stories about how thing had changed in recent times.
To get back to our hostel we chose the scenic route along the river promenade. After fending off all the sunset cruise touts, we got to the nicer part starting at the night market. Along the river we encountered food stalls, an outdoor gym dog walkers and some homeless children playing in puddles. After four and a half weeks on southeast asia they were the the first homeless people we saw (supposedly homeless people in Vietnam are pushed into the coutryside).
Our target of the walk was Wat Botum park tight next to the royal palace. In the afternoon and evening it is full of people doing all sorts of fitness activities. We saw a few groups of men playing keepy-uppy and a big mixed group in a lead cardio-dancing workout. We had good fun watching them until it got dark and we headed to the other side of the park for some street barbeque dinner.
Our last morning was also our most relaxed. All we did was getting breakfast from a local bakery before getting a tuk-tuk to the mini bus station to get to the pepperfarm. The owner of the farm has given us the phone number of a guy who ran a minibus service between Kep, her farm and Phnom Penh. The bus wasn’t as comfortable as a big bus but it was direct (not going through Kampot) and much cheaper.