Phnom Penh - a city on the move upwards!

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December 1st 2009
Published: January 9th 2010
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Our first three hours on the slow boat into Cambodia was fun. We motored down a narrow canal and had a fabulous insight into life on the river and in the many villages which edged the banks. The houses were all on stilts, half were constructed from unpainted wooden planks, the rest from palm leaves. The wooden houses had verandas with big fabric curtains hanging from them - for privacy and sun screen reasons. Many of the curtains were patch worked in bright colours. All had boats moored, bullocks in the gardens, tall TV antennas and toilets which comprised of small low boxes at the end of a plank of wood poking out over the water. And hammocks, which we were to see all over Cambodia - under all the houses, in all the restaurants, under market stalls.... We arrived at the Vietnamese border post 3 hours later and all disembarked, handed over our passports for stamping, got them back immediately and were then told to wait as we were to change boats for the remainder of the trip. The boat we were to get into hadn't arrived from the Cambodian side at that stage. Two hours later it eventually turned up, we boarded, to disembark 5 minutes later at the Cambodian border control! Half an hour later we were off again up the Mekong proper. It is a very wide river and we were so far from the banks we couldn't observe anything at all on the edge of the river. Thankfully we were able to soften the wooden seats with the life jackets - I was pleased to see that they actually had them on board The next 4 hours were very long, uncomfortable and noisy! It was late afternoon before the boat stopped and we were told to get off, with our luggage, by boat hopping to the muddy river bank.
We were rushed into two decrepit mini vans for the one hour trip to Phnom Penh (so much for arriving in PP via the river). That one hour turned into two because one of the vans broke down soon after we started and we had to tow it (slowly) all the way to the city.
We had planned on finding a hotel when we arrived at lunchtime via the fast boat but decided to allow the lady on the slow boat to phone ahead and book us a room when we realised that it would be nearly dark when we arrived. It had been dark for a long time by the time we were taken to our hotel that evening - everybody else on the boat had decided to stay at the guest house (owned by the boat company) kilometres from the river. I refused so they took us to a hotel in the centre - the room felt like a prison cell, we hated it on sight and hated it even more next day when we found out we had paid double the going rate for it, thanks to the commission the boat lady charged.! And so ended our introduction to Cambodia - it wasn't one of the better days of the trip...
At least we didn't have far to walk next morning when we moved hotels, one block took us to a lovely room right on the river bank for $3 dollars more then the cell! We soon fell in love with the city though - it had a very unhurried laid back feel. We ended up spending quite a lot of time there and actually made 2 return visits to the same hotel
Fried beetles, snakes and spiders for saleFried beetles, snakes and spiders for saleFried beetles, snakes and spiders for sale

They are our equivalent of potato crisps with a beer!
over the next month. The city is on the cusp of major development and can only get busier over the next few years. Later that morning we visited the National Museum, a beautiful building with an inner courtyard garden. The building houses the world's finest collection of Khmer art, most of which was originally at the Angkor temples. The day we visited it was full of giggling,flirting teenage students. The collection of sculptures was impressive. Later I discovered silk shops near the museum and for the rest of the day was dazzled by the stunning textiles on display and the rainbow of bolts of silk cloth which lined their shelves. Even Jerry was taken by the colourful displays. They seem to specialise in making all styles of silk handbags - the shops were full of every shape and colour at very reasonable prices.
Next morning saw us walking, and trying to ignore persistent tuktuk drivers, towards the Royal Palace complex, the grounds of which held the Silver Pagoda. Part of the palace is still the residence of King Sihamoni so the security was very tight there. We first wandered the immaculate grounds full of fancy light posts and trees pruned into many interesting shapes before visiting the Throne Hall, still used today for some Royal awards ceremonies. We unfortunately were not allowed too close to the enormous golden thrones. In the grounds, looking totally out of place with it's surroundings was a rusty iron house which had been given to the King from Napoleon III. No doubt it had to be seen to be used so as not to upset diplomatic ties at the time. From there we entered the magnificent Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is covered with 5000 tiles, each made from one kilogram of silver (in total 5 tonnes of silver)! Thankfully the Khmer Rouge did not destroy the building, nor loot the silver tiles, though many of the other contents within were destroyed. There still remains the Emerald Buddha (made from crystal) and a golden Buddha - life size and decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats! There was also many other smaller gold and silver Buddhas. Another tuktuk - they are very comfortable here (like armchairs on wheels) then took us to the chaos of the Russian Market. Usual crowds, lots of tourist junk and pressure from stall holders so
Statue in the National MuseumStatue in the National MuseumStatue in the National Museum

This statue was from Angkor Wat
we didn't last long there. A trip to the post office was next - another parcel was sent on it's way!
The next day was very harrowing as we spent it at the Killing Fields Museum. In this field the bodies of 8985 people were exhumed in 1980 - their skulls, most showing evidence of skull fractures, are now housed in a large glass box within a memorial stupa. There are still more bodies buried on the site as 43 mass graves have never been touched. It is thought that over 17000 people were detained and tortured at the Tuol Sleng High School in Phnom Penh before being bought to this orchard site, killed and then buried in mass graves. As you walk the dirt paths around the graves you are standing on fragments of clothes and bones which are constantly coming up to the surface. A very peaceful spot today, but the horrors that the Khmer Rouge forced on their own people are never far from your mind as you wander the site. The Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in 1975 and turned the clocks back to year zero - in the process forcing virtually the entire population of Phnom Penh to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort was met with instant execution. Basically the Khmer Rouge turned the whole of Cambodia into a prison without walls, totally cutting the country off form the rest of the world. During the next 3 years and eight months hundreds of thousands of people were executed by them and as many more died of famine and disease. The memorial included many skulls of tiny children and babies who were ripped from their parents' arms by Khmer Rouge soldiers and killed by having their skulls smashed against a tree. Sadly the tree still stands on the site. During their regime the Khmer Rouge took from their own people everything they held dear to them - family, food, culture and faith. It wasn't until 1978 that the Vietnamese army invaded the country and toppled the Pol Pot government.
Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng prison museum - another hauntingly sad spot. The rooms were left as they were after the closure of the torture prison, barbed wire (to stop the inmates committing suicide via jumping), iron beds with leg irons, and rows of black and white photos of all the inmates - taken before and after torture. Many of the schoolrooms had been bricked into rows of tiny prison cells. It was a very depressing place to visit, but one which everybody who visits this city must see. It's almost incomprehensible that all these horrors were taking place when Jerry and I were enjoying our first years of married life together. That is in our recent history! How a nation of people can recover from this is unbelievable - everything they have now, no matter how small is treasured in this country. They lost a whole generation of people - elderly people are not very common on the streets over here. The Cambodians though have a wonderful spirit - they enjoy life at a relaxed pace and are always smiling!
The other sad fact of life here is seeing all the orphaned children wandering the streets in the evening - selling photocopied books or single flowers. Plus the many maimed land mine victims begging in the streets is hard to see as well. Cambodia certainly has a very tragic history. Prior to the Khmer Rouge era the Americans heavily bombed and land mined the country, from 1969 to 1975, starting in the border areas but gradually covering much of the country. This heavy bombing actually helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive. Today many people still get maimed or killed from unexploded ordinance or land mines in the country, despite UN efforts to demine the country.
Another interesting site we visited was Wat Phnom, set on the only hill (mound - 27 metres high!) in the city. It is an important religious site as the locals come here to pray for good luck. If their prayers are answered they come back to leave large platters of food as thanks. Next day we left for the temples of Angkor at Siam Reap where we spent seven nights.(next blog). We actually returned twice to Phnom Penh before we left the country. Each time we went back to the same hotel where we were warmly greeted by the staff as we arrived. It felt like coming home!
On our first return visit we applied for visas from the Laos Embassy and made another visit to the post office. Our first parcel had only taken a few days to arrive in Australia - posted late Thursday afternoon, received in Toowoomba Tuesday morning! Great service - however the second parcel 'went missing' at the back of the post office. Phone calls from Laos eventually got it moving and it has since been received intact in Australia. We wandered whether it had been put aside and held until we chased it - had we not inquired it may well have gone out the back door of the post office. We also visited the immense Central Market, with everything imaginable on sale in a bright yellow art deco building, currently being renovated by the French Government. I was very impressed with the jewelery stores there - dozens of gold stands - all with glass cases full of gold and cash (they all act as money changers as well). There were also many armed guards around the stalls - the first time that we have noticed that at a marketplace. There is a lot of financial and professional help from various world governments and hundreds of NGO's in the city. Some Cambodians we spoke to felt there was too much aid on offer now - they felt that it was time for the Cambodians to start doing things for themselves. They felt a 'Give more thank you' attitude was developing, particularly in the rural areas. Certainly you do wander how much of the money goes to the right places - there were a lot of expensive black Government cars driving around and a lot of Lexus 4WD with NGO stickers on the doors. Most of the shops, particularly the silk and handicraft ones have signs over the door with a NGO name on it.
The following day was spent in a tuktuk visiting some of the surrounding countryside. We drove about 100 kilometers in it which is a lot of traveling in such a small machine. A great way though to become immersed in the smells and sounds of the area you travel through. Our first stop was in a small silver smithing village where we watched them beat out copper plates, betel nut boxes (in the shape of animals) and large temple fittings. One the pattern had been cut and hammered into the copper they were dipped in molten silver. Very interesting. The village was on the shores of the Mekong and most of the villagers lived in houses made from palm leaves. Houses in Cambodia are all on stilts as most are at some stage sitting on marshy land. They are constructed from palm leaves or unpainted timber. The unpainted ones have large verandahs - many of the verandahs are covered in silk flowers, family photos or magazine pages. All have hammocks and curtains as well.
We were headed to Udong, which had been the ancient capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866. The remains are set on two small hills 40 kilometres from the city. One of the temples at the site fascinated Jerry as it held a Buddha dressed in complete military uniform, complete with sword and medals. We had a fabulous 360* of the surrounding countryside from the steps of the stupas on top of the hills. The stupas all had faces on each of their four sides - one was prettily decorated with old china plates. On the way back to the city we spent some time in a very poor fishing village full of curious grubby smiling kids. Jerry had fun making whistles for them while all the men tried to encourage me to join them for rice wine!
We left Phnom Penh yet again for the beach area of Kep
Sugar cane for sale near our hotelSugar cane for sale near our hotelSugar cane for sale near our hotel

Note the birdcage - the man is off to the temple to sell them as offerings. They are trained to fly back to the cage after sale.
but were to return on Christmas Eve where we found a Christmas tree gaily decorated in the foyer of the hotel and all the tuktuk drivers calling out 'Merry Christmas' before they pressured us by asking where they could take us! We didn't move too far though - and spent Christmas Day quietly. Lots of phone calls home - pity the lines were crap - and a burger and salad for lunch. I think there were a few alcoholic drinks consumed as well..... Next day we left Phnom Penh for the last time - it is now one of our favourite cities! Still relaxed, great food, happy people, wonderful shops and the sunsets were pretty good too!

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


Photos of  some of the victims at the Tuol Sleng MuseumPhotos of  some of the victims at the Tuol Sleng Museum
Photos of some of the victims at the Tuol Sleng Museum

By the numbers these people were wearing they were amongst the first of thousands killed by Pol Pot's security forces
Verandah of school used as Tuol Sleng torture prisonVerandah of school used as Tuol Sleng torture prison
Verandah of school used as Tuol Sleng torture prison

The wire was to prevent people jumping to their death.

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