Published: April 29th 2008February 20th 2008
We arrived late in the afternoon on Valentine's Day and once we had checked into our old French colonial inn, we set out on foot to explore the downtown area followed by a lovely walk along the Mekong esplanade. Enjoyed a great Valentine's Day dinner in the Freebird Bar. Without a doubt the best chili con carne in SE Asia and super fun waitresses. The ladies in the restaurant were each given a red rose and chocolate (thereby taking Matthew off the hook!).
This is an incredibly dynamic city that feels like it's just exploding with life, despite all the suffering it's endured. Stores, restaurants, repair shops, whatever.... tumble out of artillery shelled and bullet-scarred buildings and take over the street. The whole city feels like its on a roller coaster. Scooter traffic, interspersed with ox carts and wheelbarrows of produce, is crazy. Just how crazy it is we found out one morning when we did a bicycle trip with Grasshopper Tours, the same folks with whom we had night cycled in Bangkok.
Our guide Smey and his buddy Lean showed up with the bikes at our hotel at 8:00 in the morning. The 4-hour bicycle ride is billed as a "Slow Ride in Phnom Penh Suburbs," but what they failed to mention was the 9 kilometre ride to the "suburbs" through PP rush hour traffic. Once we checked out our bicycles the four of us cycled out into the rush-hour traffic at 8 a.m. Abso-freaking insane traffic, to quote my dear husband ....3 lanes each way, but clearly no need to go just in one direction as diesel-belching buses race wrong way toward you, or scooters come screaming out of side streets, off sidewalks, from behind trees, all with horns blasting.... the roundabouts were indescribable and I don't know how we survived.
Matthew was laughing maniacally going through the 6-lane Independence Roundabout as scooters and SUVs raced at us from all directions. (My suspicions about his sanity are confirmed.) I had the good sense to be terrified. My hands were white from gripping the handle-bars in what I was sure were my final moments on this earth. And my heart was pounding so wildly that I thought I would faint, right there in the middle of the traffic. We determined later that rush hour traffic must have been choreographed by someone on crack.
Once out of the roundabout, the driving, in theory, is on the right-hand side, except for outside lanes, where trucks, buses, scooters and all other vehicles go in whatever direction they please. After about 1/2 hour of inner city mayhem, we reached a small ferry that transported us and our bicycles to a farming island in the Mekong where cars are prohibited. Stress level dropped radically at this point. We rode another 30 kilometers on dusty red roads and by the end of it our teeth were pretty gritty.
We discovered that Lean is a member of the Cambodian National Bicycle team and most recently cycled on his mountain bike to Vietnam, and then competed in an international time trial on the same bike! Due to other priorities (lining of pockets for the most part), the Cambodian government provides zero funding to the national cycling team. During our ride together, we conversed with Lean about funding of atheletes in Canada and suggested he solicit corporate sponsorship as a possible source of money. Also brought up the idea of a bicycle courier business for Phnom Penh though crazed drivers could quickly flatten this type of business.
Another highlight of our time in Phnom Penh proved to be an all-day Khmer cooking course on the bank of the Mekong River which was lots of fun. We began our day by walking to a local market to choose ingredients and then made spring rolls, a green and red curry from scratch with mortar and pestle, a spicy pork soup, steamed fish "amok" (cooked in coconut milk) and a typical desert involving lentils and palm sugar. Needless to say, we wolfed everything down and were too stuffed for supper.
Instead, a group from the cooking course came to our inn and we had a few drinks in our garden oasis. Lots of laughs and everyone expressed envy at the tranquility and lovely pool as outside the high walls it is quite noisy and dirty. Really hit it off with an eye doctor from Seattle who has been coming to Cambodia for 1 month for each of past 5 years. He volunteers his services at Takeo hospital where he undertakes surgery and training of Cambodian doctors. He is now determined to book room here at the Pavilion Inn next year when he comes back again.
Prior to leaving Phnom Penh we decided to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum located on the site of the infamous S-21 prison, which is a former high school. An incredibly sad place where some 17,000 people were tortured and killed. Difficult to walk around the place, but, like most tourists who come here, we felt that this was something we had to do. There were 10 commandments that the prisoners had to follow and the most memorbale to us was #6, "While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all". Incredible what pain and misery we humans can inflict upon each other and it never seems to end. A very grim day, made more so by seeing a few adolescents sniffing gas from little plastic bags as they walked around the town. There is some great work being done with street kids at a restaurant call Friends, which trains street kids to cook and work in restaurants. The food and service here is wonderful. And the young fellow who taught our cooking class was a graduate of this restaurant school. His bare arms were covered with scars and tatoos looked like they had been self-applied, certainly not the snazzy professional ones that are popular today. I'm sure he had had a pretty hard life. But when we were at our class, he was happily telling us about the English courses he is taking, practising his vocabulary to get ready for an upcoming test, and taking about his dream of owning his own cooking school one day. So, if anyone reading this is planning to visit Phnom Penh, have a meal at Friends. You'll be doing the kids there a favour and enjoying a great meal. Bye for now.