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Published: September 1st 2010
I was pretty wrecked as we crossed the border into Cambodia, driving down a pot-holed partially flooded road flanked on both sides by grim looking casinos. Then as the bus stopped for a break the sky was completely filled with colour and I saw one of the best sunsets I’ve seen in my life. You never know what’s literally around the corner when you’re travelling!
We arrived at night and the backpacker district is safe but as seedy as they get. The following conversation played out about a 100 times:
It’s strange how quickly you become desensitised to it. The city does have slightly more to offer though (What more could you want you ask!).Thanks to French Urban planning Phnom Penh has a perfect grid layout and several wide boulevards traversing the city. It’s only the chaotic street numbering that reminds you you’re in Asia.
At the centre of the grid there’s an out of place but impressive Art-Deco canary yellow central market. It’s said to be one of the largest domes in the world and the high ceilings act as a natural air-conditioner.
The nearby Russian Market (named after its popularity among Russian expats during the 1980s) is supposed to be cheaper but it’s the classic dilemma with tourist markets versus legitimate ones. You visit a tourist market and bemoan the crowds and inflated prices, then you visit a local one and realise you really don’t want to buy saucepans, a tonne of rice grain or clothes from the 1980s.
The Royal Palace is similar to Bangkok’s but the buildings are less clustered and there are far less visitors. I actually preferred it to Bangkok in ways. The palace complex is also home to the Silver Pagoda the floor of which is completely covered in silver tiles. It was preserved by the Kymer Rouge as a front to demonstrate to the international community that they were serious about preserving the country’s heritage.
The Toul Sleng Museum is an absolute must visit but it’s definitely one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. Formerly a high school the building was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21. It became the largest centre of torture and detention in the country. Prisoners were repeatedly
tortured and coerced into naming family members and friends, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In a single year over 17000 people were killed. At first most of the victims were from the previous regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. As the Khmer Rouge revolution reached greater and greater heights of insanity the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered The museum contains horrific photos of the torture prisoners endured as well as photos of prisoners before and after torture.
There’s a documentary telling the story of young woman and a regional Khmer Rouge leader who fall in love and are made to pay for this “crime” with imprisonment and execution at S-21. It’s an interesting story but to be honest the film is so badly made I was actually more confused by the end than I was at the start.
In contrast to the painful memories of the recent past Cambodia seems to derive an immense sense of pride from its more ancient
past. Almost everything from the money to the beer to the flag has pictures of the temples at Angkor. The region served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th to 13th centuries. We spent a day there which was enough time to see the main parts of the complex. Like everyone else we started with the sunrise over the temples at Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. From there there’s a 26km loop around the complex passing through Bayon (famous for the 100s of faces carved into the stone), Ta Prohm (temple with trees growing through the walls) as well as dozens of other temples I never have and never will know the names of.
There is a lot off hassle from people selling things at every single temple. It’s about the worst I’ve experienced since Egypt. Even so nothing can really take away from the buildings.
From Angkor we took the bus to Bangkok. The journey was once notorious as one of the most painful in the region. Bangkok airlines maintain a monopoly on the air route and allegedly repeatedly bribed the Cambodian authorities to encourage them
not to upgrade the roads. Things have changed dramatically and the road is more or less perfect. Journey took less than 9 hours including a border crossing and a lunch break. The end of this successful bus journey marks the end of my own journey. In spite of what everyone expected (myself included) I somehow to avoid being mugged, arrested or even being hospitalised. I hope some people enjoyed reading the blog and maybe even picked up some useful info!
I could say it was the trip of a lifetime but it’s definitely just the start. My only question now is where next?
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