Published: March 16th 2007December 4th 2006
So it was another early start, up at 7 o'clock so we could get some breakfast at the market and make it back to the hotel in time for the 8:30 speedboat.
We had a 7 hour journey ahead of us but it was pleasant. Going anywhere by boat avoids crazy drivers, bumpy roads and dust.
The border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia was like none we've ever seen before, with lots of boats and coconut trees. It was quite quiet, apart from the hawkers selling snacks, kids wanting to carry our bags for a tip and black marketeers exchanging currency.
There was a guide on the boat who sorted out our Cambodia visas for us for a $2 fee, so they cost $22 altogether. Our first encounter with a Cambodian official was a pleasant one, with the immigration official taking the mickey out of Orla's passport photo! We had to have our bags x-rayed but the whole process only took about 20 minutes then we were back on the speedboat continuing onto Phnom Penh.
We got to PP at 15:00 and haggled with a tuk-tuk driver to take us to Tat Guesthouse. Cam and Sara had
emailed us to say they were staying there, so we hoped we might catch up with them again before they moved on.
Arriving at 'Tat', our road didn't have any tarmac. There is a long way to go with road building in Cambodia. We checked in and managed to get a bargain room. $4 per night instead of $5 as we said we were staying for over a week. The room was basic - 'Tat' is a little bit tatty - with a fan (no air-con) and cold water shower - but it was nice, quiet (which after Ho Chi Minh City was a huge bonus) and the owners were lovely and friendly. It was a really homely place and they made us feel very welcome.
Alas, we had missed Cam and Sara. They had checked out that morning and we had their room!!
By the time we had settled in, it was time to think about finding an ATM and getting some dinner. We went for a walk up the main road near Tat, found a bank and a nice restaurant called 'Phnom Khiev', which the waiter told us meant "blue mountain". The waiter was probably
about 19 or 20, spoke good English and was really sweet, trying to teach us some Khmer phrases. Our pronounciation was definitely a bit dodgy but the phrases came in useful after that!
Tuesday 5th December and we had a lovely lazy day for what felt like the 1st time in ages. After breakfast at Tat, we took a leisurely stroll to Independence Monument, then went to 'Deli Cafe' for a quick drink. The quick drink turned into staying put for a few hours as it started to rain. Cambodia seemed significantly hotter than Vietnam but the rain didn't cool things down. When the sun was splitting the sky again, we spent a while in an internet cafe. Orla had another 'extreme toilet experience' here. The owner showed her where the loo was but she had to climb over a barricade that had been set up to keep their dog out the back of the building. The dog had recently had puppies and was barking wildly to protect them as Orla was negotiating the fencing. It was a bit nerve-wracking but she edged her way along the wall as far away from the dog as possible and escaped
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)
The hollows of mass graves and behind a stupa commemorating all those that died
When we were in Hue in Vietnam, we had met 2 New Zealanders who told us about a fantastic shop in Phnom Penh, 'Beautiful Shoes', where you could get shoes made-to-measure at really cheap prices. So that was our next stop of the day. The shop was really busy when we got there but we spent ages chosing styles and materials, then had our feet measured up and placed our order. Steve ordered 1 black pair and 1 brown pair of shoes (only $45 for both) and Orla ordered some blue-ish coloured court shoes ($16) and some fantastic aubergine coloured boots ($22). They said we could go back to collect them in a week and we couldn't wait (new shoes!!)
After our chilled out day, we decided to go for a curry in a recommended restaurant called 'Royal Indian'. The area seemed a bit dodgy (mainly because there was no street lighting but there were lots of men hanging around) and we felt a bit uncomfortable as we couldn't find the place at first but some guy helped us out and pointed us in the right direction. The food in the restaurant was really nice but while
Killing Fields memorial
Hollow stupa displaying unearthed skulls inside
we were in there, a beggar dragged himself in along the floor, his very skinny looking legs crossed in front of him. He used his arms to lift himself to each table in turn, sitting alongside on the floor with his hands in a prayer position and bowing his head. A woman on the table next to ours gave him some money. It felt so horrible sitting there stuffing our faces with food when the poor man was begging on the floor next to us. But not so horrible that we gave him any money, which we were glad about in the end. After a while he shuffled back out the door on his bum, then he got up and walked off!! A miracle!!
The next day (Wednesday 6th) was an emotional day. We decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the morning. The previous school had been used by Pol Pot's regime to imprison and torture people and it had been preserved in much the same state as it was found when his evil dictatorship finally ended. There were exhibitions showing photos of victims and examples of equipment used for torture, along with skulls containing
Is it a bandit?!
No just Orla protecting herself as the road's a bit dusty!!
bullet holes. They also showed a video where survivors talked of their experiences and we were once again shocked by the cruelty people can inflict on others and how they try to justify their actions. Part of the video included the account of a previous prison warden, explaining that he had only ever belted people on the back of the head, he had never shot anyone - like that was somehow much more acceptable. It was tragic and extremely moving.
In the afternoon, Jack, the tuk-tuk driver from Tat, took us to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. What a journey! The pollution from other road vehicles was poisoning, the road was a bumpy, dusty dirt track and we were being thrown around and coated from head to foot in grime at the same time. But that paled into insignificance when we got to Choeung Ek and saw the mass graves created by Pol Pot's genocide and the monument at the site which contains hundreds of human skulls, some of children. People walked around the site in silence and dismay. We saw a Cambodian man so upset he was physically sick and it made us realise even more how
traumatic it would be to lose family or friends through this horror. Many Cambodians did lose family and friends and still don't know where the remains are.
Back at Tat, the owner, Tol (who is a man in his sixties) told us that, because he was a teacher, he had been arrested by Pol Pot's men and badly beaten. He was only released because the villagers from the school where he worked saved him, telling the guards that he was innocent and hard-working. He said he was thankful that he was a young man at the time, fit and strong, otherwise he doesn't think he would have survived.
We went back to our room and scraped off the grime of the day. We just ate locally that night, mulling over what we'd seen and heard that day and glad that we've never had to witness or suffer such atrocities.
Thursday 7th was a much more pleasant day! We spent the morning in the internet cafe and then visited Wat Phnom temple in the afternoon. It was impressive but there were a lot of beggars around, including some amputees.
Unperturbed we walked to the 'FCC' afterwards,
a famous bar in Phnom Penh and had a couple of happy hour cocktails, looking over the river and watching the traffic go by. Cambodia was a bit different to Vietnam in that, rather than fitting up to 3 people on a motorbike, they frequently had as many as 4 or 5! The most we saw on 1 bike was 6 (4 adults, 2 kids)!! In FCC, they gave us a 10% off voucher for a tapas restaurant down the road so we decided we would head there next. However, we had nearly run out of money so could only afford one drink between us!
On the tuk-tuk home, we got a bit nervous when the driver pulled up, leapt out of the vehicle, disappeared into a building and left us with 3 strangers in a dark road with no lights. We thought we were going to be robbed but then realised it was the petrol station - that is, a table at the side of the road with a few pepsi bottles on top, containing red or amber coloured fluid. Steve joked with the guys about the tuk-tuk taking pepsi and they laughed with - um, at -
Group of men playing keepie uppie
Along the riverfront promenade, this was a popular pastime.
him. Our tuk-tuk driver re-appeared (we still don't know where he went) and we were on our way again.
The next couple of days were very quiet as Steve was poorly and had to stay in bed. He had a horrendously high temperature and Orla was diagnosing either malaria or heat stress. We decided we preferred the heat stress option and after 2 days of drinking bucket-loads of water, cold showers and sleeping under a wet towel, he was up and about again and feeling much brighter.
One of the Tat family had asked us a few days earlier if we would like to visit an orphanage they supported, telling us that visitors usually bring some gifts (food, toilettries, clothes or school equipment) and that the kids like having different people to play with. We wanted to go but felt we couldn't until Steve was fully better. By Monday, Steve felt well so Jack took us in his tuk-tuk to buy a 50kg bag of rice, then to the market where we wanted to buy some books, paper and pens. From there, he drove us onto the Light House orphanage. We had such a lovely time!
As soon as we arrived, some of the kids came to check us out, say hello and ask us where we came from. One little boy, who was only 3 years old, could already speak some English. He looked very mischievous and wanted to look into our bags to see what we had brought. Orla told him he was a cheeky monkey, not sure he'd understand but he said, "No, you're a cheeky monkey!" and they continued to hurl this back and forth at each other for 5 minutes until he finally got the last word.
One of the orphanage workers showed us around and told us about 'Light House'. Not all the children are orphans but some come from poor families where the parents cannot afford to keep them. They currently had children from 18 months old to 17 years. At 18, the children have to leave but the orphanage helps them to find work. They have volunteers, from the local village as well as international visitors, who help out, and they were growing their own vegetables and keeping their own pigs. They had a stand-pump where the kids could wash and the laundry could be done. A
woman from abroad had donated some money which allowed them to build a new toilet block and they were now working on a separate building where the girls could sleep. Currently, all the children are in an open room together, sleeping on bamboo mats. It must be chaos at bedtime!
We got chatting to a Swiss guy called Tom while we were there and he was doing voluntary work for a couple of weeks, just helping out with whatever they asked him to do or playing with the children. Another girl had arrived that day and she was staying for 6 months on a teaching placement (although the kids do also attend the local schools). The kids were all at home that day as it was a national holiday.
Steve and Tom played football with some of the boys, Steve doing a bit of scouting and saying one of the boys, who was only 11, was a really talented player. Meanwhile, Orla was dragged up to learn some traditional dances with some of the girls. The girls were in fits of laughter watching Orla trying to copy their moves (they were tricky!!) and one particularly bossy little girl
made Orla giggle as she finished every dance abruptly, shouting "Finis" and taking a grand bow. With all the noise going on, Steve, the lads he had played football with and another couple who had just arrived at the orphanage came to watch the show. Within minutes, the girl was dragged up to join in, then it wasn't long before the boys were forced into it too! Just like young lads anywhere in the world, the footballers weren't keen on dancing and went all shy, but they found Steve's dancing very amusing!! By this time, we were doing all sorts of funny moves and having a wail of a time. The kids could have kept going for hours but we explained we were old and exhausted and, having made our excuses, found Jack and our chariot and headed back into town.
Today was the day we had to collect our beautiful shoes. Steve's had turned out perfectly, as had Orla's shoes, but her boots were too tight across her instep. We had to leave them there overnight so they could try and stretch the leather.
Tuesday 12th and we went back to the shoe shop in the
morning. The boots still weren't quite right but we were leaving the next day so there was no time to make another pair. Lots more stretching of leather and Orla decided they weren't perfect but they looked fantastic, so she'd take them anyway! They looked so good that another woman who came into the shop said she wanted an identical pair.
We got a motorbike taxi to the Post Office to send our shoes home. While we were in there, an English bloke came in and started mouthing off to the staff, complaining that he had sent 2 parcels to England on 1st December by airmail, costing him $250, and they hadn't arrived. He was really rude to the woman behind the counter and went mad when she told him she only had a record that they had been sent, that once they left her office she couldn't track them. He stomped out and all the staff were a bit rattled. We told the girl serving us that it was peak time for Christmas post in England and that 10 days for post to arrive from a foreign country really wasn't that long. She told us that he was
The hostel was down a dusty dirt road
posting cigarettes (which are really cheap in Cambodia so he was probably selling them on for a profit) and that customs in England would have stopped them as he wasn't paying the duty on them. We weren't surprised! Cigarettes are so light, we were wondering how many packets he must be sending for the postage to cost $250!!
We went for a drink in a place called 'Green Vespa', where a tuk-tuk driver was touting for business. We told him we were walking and he said he would starve without the money! Orla pointed at his slightly rotund tummy and said, "Looks like it!" He laughed and retorted that he was living off pigs' food, then continued to chat away merrily for the next 10 minutes! The people in Cambodia were much more jovial than the majority of the Vietnamese sellers we met, who just got narky if you didn't want to buy from them.
We went to a great restaurant for lunch, called 'Friends'. It's a project raising money for street kids but also gives the kids the opportunity to learn the skills of working in a restaurant. The food was delicious and the young waiters and
waitresses excellent. We were really impressed. They gave us a card for another restaurant they run, serving Cambodian food only, and we resolved to go there before we left Phnom Penh. Alongside 'Friends', they also had a shop, a barbers and various other schemes. Steve was going to get his haircut but unfortunately there was no-one around to do it at the time.
After lunch, we went to the National Museum. There were some beautiful monuments from the Angkor Temples but we spent the majority of the time dodging flower sellers! They push the flowers into your hands so that you can put them in front of the various Buddha statues, but of course they expect a donation for the flowers. The first time was ok but by the fifth, and having them following you around the museum got a bit waring. Even telling them we weren't Buddhists didn't seem to work so we got fed up being tailed in the end and decided to leave!
We walked onto the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. They had such a strict dress code!! No knees or shoulder exposure allowed. We had anticipated this so, whilst Orla had a vest-top
on, she'd brought a shawl. This wasn't good enough and the lady on the ticket counter pointed to a sign banning shawls!! They made Orla hire a t-shirt. It just seemed like a money-making scam. We wished we had known before we got there but none of the guide books mentioned it.
The Palace was lovely, although much of it was out-of-bounds. The Silver Pagoda, so-called because the floor is tiled with silver, was very impressive, though unfortunately a lot of it was covered with a rug so you couldn't really get the full impact. A clear covering would have been better! Housed in the pagoda was an amazing emerald Buddha and another golden Buddha with something like 2600 diamonds. It was quite stunning.
As we left the Palace grounds, we bumped into our pig-swill eating tuk-tuk driver again. We decided to have a drink at the FCC and arranged with him to meet us later to take us back to Tat. The pigs would be able to eat their own food that evening!!
Tonight was our last night in Phnom Penh so we made our way to 'Romdeng' for dinner - the other restaurant run for
street kids. It was absolutely lovely. Our meal was fantastic and the staff so sweet and attentive. The building and menu all looked really posh (especially for backpackers!!) but the prices were reasonable and we left feeling absolutely full to bursting! We'd had a really lovely night out and it was a good way to finish off our sojourn in PP.
There are more photos below