Sean Pehn

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
March 15th 2016
Published: March 23rd 2016
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Rob writes:

We were now leaving Laos. My experience of Laos was somewhat similar to that of Tina’s, although I feel her words float around the periphery of absolute bluntness, and offensiveness if I’m being honest. I’m offended by them anyway, but sometimes I’m offended just by looking at her.

I cannot think of any particular thing about Laos which captured my interest. I can see why people would like it though, the magnificent countryside views and the general pace of life there seems quite slow, which appeared to be reflected in its capital, Vientiane. If that’s your thing, this is the country to visit. Prior to arriving at Vientiane I felt each place we had visited was a little too similar to the last, so I was a little disappointed when I didn’t see the hustle and bustle of a capital I was expecting. I like just being the tourist, the silent observer just watching how people go about their lives in different cultures/countries, but in Laos, not a lot seemed to be happening. Maybe it’s the places we visited, but I felt that the main focus of each town was tourism, and watching people just cater for people like me made me feel a bit sad.

I do not want this to sound like I am talking about a country based on its entertaining merits. I’m not saying ‘Laos was rubbish because Splash Mountain wasn’t working’, I want to avoid it coming across like that.

On the contrary however, maybe what I’m describing as having ‘missed’ in Laos might be ‘the daily struggle’ that we are oh-so used to. Maybe that’s Laos? Maybe the people there aren’t fighting over each other on a daily basis to buy, to sell or to move around. Maybe the people there have found a harmony in which everyone lives at an equally, seemingly slow pace. If that’s the case then maybe there is something quite important I have indeed missed, something I can take from my experience here. I’m not sure.

So, moving onto Cambodia... What an experience this was.

We booked our flights two days in advance over the internet from our hotel in Vientiane. We received an e-mail with our itinerary as we normal, which we have previously just presented at air the airport and everything has been all fine and dandy. The problem though, was that this e-mail also advised that the booking had not been ticketed. Fortunately though (or so we thought) we found the airline’s headquarters around the corner from our hotel, so we took a short walk around to make sure everything was ok. The chap in the shop couldn’t help us unfortunately. He advised us to e-mail the online helpdesk as this was an online sale. It seems you can’t avoid this nonsense here either. I took a note of the e-mail address and off we went back to the hotel to send an e-mail. With that done we carried on with our stay in Vientiane.

We still hadn’t received a reply to our e-mail by the time we had to leave our hotel, but we still weren’t worried. You assume that the airline is represented at the airport anyway, so what problem can there possibly be? After all, they have taken my £180.

As soon as we arrived at the airport I changed all my Kip into USD for Cambodia before going in search of the airline to make sure everything would be ok. We were directed to go through a fire door to what only can be described as the ‘behind the scenes airport offices’. As we walked through the hallway between the offices with our full packs on we got some confused looks from the locals. It didn’t feel like we were meant to be in there. Eventually someone from a different airline in the office, of which there were many, asked if they could help us and we explained that we needed to speak to Cambodia Ankor Air who we had booked with. They directed us to the check-in desks out the front, which they assured us will soon be open and that they will be able to deal with our problem. As instructed we went back around to the desks and someone shortly appeared at check-in.

I handed over our passports. The chap at check-in seemed to be typing away on his computer for about 5 minutes or so between small talk with his colleagues. Everything seemed to be ok, right until he advised he couldn’t find our booking in the system. No problem right? We have our confirmation of paying and this man is representing the airline so surely he can get it sorted. No he can’t. Turns out he’s Vietnam Airlines and Cambodia Ankor Air only have their own people in three days a week, today isn’t one of them. Further to that Cambodia Ankor Air doesn’t run the flight, Vietnam Airlines do, Cambodia Ankor Air just sell the seats on this particular flight. “What can you do to help?”

This is where the problem started. We were told to move to the next empty counter where I assume a manager was asked to deal with us. At this point it was 9:30am and our flight was at 11:35am, so we had a good amount of time to get this rectified.

The gentleman representing Vietnam Air advised us that this happens all the time. Camboda Ankor Air has taken payment and the booking, but they haven’t processed the booking to tell Vietnam Airlines that we have bought the seat. Despite our e-receipt, Vietnam Airlines would not use this as confirmation of our place on the flight and required Camboda Ankor Air to send their confirmation, but remember, there’s no one here to do that today. In fairness he offered us a resolution to buy new tickets from him at twice the price and then get a refund from Cambodia Ankor Air. He then rang the Vientiane Camboida Ankor Air HQ for us, but we were put on to the same guy we spoke to two days prior who told us to send an e-mail, who advised that only the Phnom Pehn HQ could help. Great, let’s just fly to Phnom Pehn then! Oh wait.... I suppose we could always ring them? Well, we couldn’t and Vietnam Airlines were unwilling to.

At this point we were getting desperate. The conversation went back and forth for about an hour, so it was now hitting 10:30am. Fortunately in that time though another traveller had turned up with the same problem, a girl from the Netherlands, at least we weren’t on our own. With the remaining kip I had left over I went to buy a drink from a restaurant in order to use their Wi-Fi, in the hope that we had since received the confirmation e-mail we were after.

We hadn’t. When I returned to the counter things had taken a turn for the worst. The Glaswegian was really coming out in Tina and she and the chap were going around in circles. Time was running out. By this point it was almost 10:45.

We were considering swallowing the cost of new tickets. We had no other choice, we had already paid for our three nights in Phnom Pehn and couldn’t get a refund. Fortunately though the Vietnam Airlines representative came through and offered us the tickets for the same price that we had paid to Cambodia Ankor Air, but I would need to pay in cash, which equated about 2,200,000kip. We weren’t quite there yet though. There was 1 ATM in the airport and I was at the mercy of it accepting both my Mastercard and my Visa. Fortunately it did, but unfortunately I could only raise 2,000,000kip. It’s a good job I was carrying enough excess baht which I had previously changed into dollars and used them to foot the rest of the bill. What a pain in the arse.

It was now nearly 11:00 and we had our tickets. We still had to get through security and to our gate before 11:35. We made it in good time. The airport is quite small so we were there for 11:15. Ironically we still almost missed our flight. We never heard that the gate had changed and we sat wondering where everyone was. We then had to run to the correct gate which I’m fairly sure we were the last people through.

That’s enough stress for one day, thanks.

We arrived in Phnom Pehn after about an hour and a half, paid $30 dollars for our visa and we were home free. As per usual we were shafted for a $7 airport transfer but I couldn’t care less. We were soon at our hotel, which to no surprise was very nice. I also bought a SIM card in the airport which allowed me to receive the confirmation of refund from Camboda Ankor Air. Good news.

Having been to Cambodia before (Siem Reap) and now here, it seems you can get some really nice hotels for your dollar. This place was costing £22 a night and was every bit as clean and functional as an international 3* chain like a Holiday Inn, for example.

After we dumped our stuff we went to check out the Russian Market to the south west of Phnom Pehn. We walked there as it was only a few kilometres, but even that was a little tough in the 37 degree heat of the city.

If you want cheap stuff, this is the place to get it. Cambodia’s markets rival any of those I’ve been to in SE Asia. I needed a new day-to-day small backpack as my current one was ripping, so I bought myself a genuine, high quality deffo-no-fakie North Facer for $5. I didn’t even argue with the guy, I just paid his price. Sure it was fake, sure I could have probably got it for $4, but I challenge you to find a backpack of any name/quality for less than £4 at home. It really wasn’t worth the hassle. I mean, for $5 dollars not only did I get a perfectly useable bag, but I also look like a genuine Everest conquering, willy-waving bad ass thanks to its lush branding. People pay as much as £200 over the price of a perfectly usable coat for that privilege back at home. That and my Ray-Dan Wayfergers ensure I look the part on the international jet-set.

After the market we were getting hungry. We caught a tuk tuk back to the hotel which cost $3 and decided to eat there. We headed to the Sky Bar which was on the roof of the hotel to no surprise, and enjoyed our dinner watching the sunset over Phnom Pehn. I had Chilli Chicken Cartilage/Bones with boiled rice, while Tina enjoyed her Ant Infestation Cesar Salad.

The following day we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day ($25) to take us to The Killing Fields - Choeung Ek (Genocide Centre). This is a difficult place to write about and even harder to visit. It was horrific. Even more so (and rightly) in the less censored state of Cambodia. They really do not try to hide anything here. We walked around a well laid out path which weaved through many, many mass graves, some of which hadn’t been exhumed. What brought everything down to earth though was when Tina found a tooth just lying there on the mud path. We had been told that bones were still making their way to the surface all these years later through the natural shifting of soil. Once a month a caretaker goes around the park to check and collect anything that’s found. The bones are then placed in glass boxes around the museum. At the end of the tour you are guided into the large memorial building in the centre of the grounds. Inside is a huge glass box where bones are assorted by types. When you’re presented with as many bones and skulls as this I initially feel unable to comprehend what happened. It isn’t until I end up looking at one and only one, staring, examining in wonder, who was this? What did they look like? Once you realise the significance of that one life that this skull belonged to, just as significant as yours and mine, once you get there, multiply that by many, many thousand. It’s absolutely stomach churning to consider that this happened on our world, little more than 40 years ago.

Entry was $6 and that included headphones with an English audio tour.

After visiting Choeung Ek we jumped back in the tuk tuk and headed for Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) in the centre of Phnom Pehn.

Tuol Sleng (S-21) is the prison where people who were considered a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime, were taken to be interrogated before being transferred to Choeung Ek for execution. Reasons for being captured and sent to Tuol Sleng were quite frankly preposterous. Politicians who didn’t agree with Khmer Rouge terms, intellectuals, foreigners, teachers, people who wore glasses... Anything which generally suggested a person might be capable of having an open mind, a free thinker, no matter how loosely, were reason enough to be sent to Tuol Sleng for interrogation. Only those found guilty of plotting against the Khmer Rouge were sent for execution, but unfortunately, that was almost everyone. Every prisoner was interrogated through brutal torture until they confessed to something which they did not do. In doing so, the torture stopped, but they had condemned themselves to death. There was little escape.

Even for the guards who were instructed to carry out the torture there was little choice. They were young adults in their late teens that were plucked from families in the countryside and manipulated into the Khmer Rouge. If they didn’t carry out their duties they would be made a prisoner. If a prisoner died under interrogation, they would be made prisoner.

Tuol Sleng was even more personal than Choeung Ek. This all happened in the late 70’s, so photography was well established. The Khmer Rouge documented and photographed every prisoner that was processed through S-21. Here we saw boards showing hundreds of photographs of people, real faces to put to the skulls piled on top of one another in the memorial in Choeung Ek.

It was a sombering day.

Entry to S-21 was $9 each, again including an audio tour.

For dinner that evening we went to a restaurant called ‘Friends’. This restaurant was popular for giving opportunities to children from impoverished backgrounds to learn cooking skills. The food there was absolutely amazing. We ordered a few dishes, a beef goulash and a seafood curry along with a couple of sides, hummus and an anchovy and black olive dip, accompanied by fresh breads. The food was so rich and full of flavour. It was supposed to be tapas, but the portions were full size meals! That’s certainly no complaint. It was the best meal I have had in a long time, definitely since leaving the UK. I dare say you would struggle to get that quantity and quality of food for less than a three figure bill back at home. Including a couple of fresh fruit shakes, we paid $35. I wanted to go back the following night!

After dinner we went to have a walk around the Royal Palace, which was only a few minutes’ walk away from the restaurant. The sun had set by this point but it was early evening. The green area in front of the palace was filled with local people socialising, or not. I made note of the large ring of monks in their orange robes all sat in a big circle, there was probably about 10 of them, all face down in their mobile phones, probably checking out the latest monk memes.

When we got back to the hotel we arranged for the same tuk tuk driver to take us to the nearby zoo the following day. This was Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, which was 40km away, so a bit of a journey, especially by tuk tuk.

We were up and away at 8:30am the next day as it took an hour and a half to get to the zoo. The tuk tuk might not have been the most comfortable or quickest method of transport, but the journey flew by. The only issue we found was the dust on some of the rougher roads from cars that were overtaking. Even this wasn’t a problem on this journey though because the driver stopped and bought us some of those paper dust masks to put over their respiratory orifices. The locals wear these all the time, sometimes even when walking through the streets and I can see why, they helped a lot.

We soon arrived at the zoo and paid the $6 entry each. It turns out we needed the tuk tuk to take us around as it wasn’t really possible by foot, the grounds were quite big. On arrival as we pulled up at the first enclosures the tuk tuk was mobbed by people trying to sell us bananas and other things to feed to the animals. We bought $2 worth.

The first enclosures consisted of free roaming monkeys, large bird cages, amongst other enclosures containing squirrels, otters and a few crocodiles. This was a rescue centre, but I did think the cages could have been a little bigger. I later read that the animals in the cages were all rescued from street performers or similarly, crappy lives and quite often were too physically or psychologically injured, and that the cage was the best place for them, despite its questionable outward appearance.

We went on to see numerous bear enclosures and some very entertaining and playful monkeys before finishing the day feeding the elephants. I’m sick of feeding elephants. They’re greedy and seemingly unappreciative buggers. I had barely managed to pay for the bamboo I was going to take pleasure in feeding one when its stupid sneaky trunk came out of nowhere and snatched it out of my hand. Pesky rude elephant bastard! Pretty sure it then gave me the coffee beans with his trunk as it turned its back and walked off.

We were done. We headed back to the tuk tuk and made our way to a local temple ruin before heading back to the hotel.

The visit to the ruin was interesting. There wasn’t anyone else there apart from a very small cold drink vendor. The place seemed to be full of very poor locals, some taking refuge in the ruins. There was lots of begging, which is always hard to see.

There was one girl however who easily took the award for being the most persistent, aggressive and downright cheeky. I’d say she was about 8, her English seemed quite good at first and her accent quite good as well. She was selling incense and kept repeating, “You buy?” “No, thank you,” we replied. “Why? How am I supposed to go to school?” Ahhh, what do you do? We said no, sorry, again but she followed us for about 15 minutes repeating the same thing, almost shouting at us. It was a horribly awkward few moments but this obviously works for her. She was very unhappy with us and eventually got on her bike and left.

We walked around the ruins to have a quick look but left shortly after too.

We arrived back in Phnom Pehn and were dropped off at Burger King. I fancied a burger but wish I hadn’t of bothered. It was that bad I took my double bacon cheese burger back up to the counter to complain I had only got one patty in my burger when it was supposed to be a double. Turns out I did get two patties as was pointed out to me, but they were wafer thin. This was my second fast food experience in Cambodia, the first being a KFC I visited in Siam Reap a few years ago. That visit saw me receive a bucket of bones and batter, very little chicken there at all. Along with my bone and cartilage meal in the hotel a few nights ago, I have come to the conclusion that you really have to pay to get a good portion of meat over here. The large abundance, low price and good quality of meat in the UK are not things to be taken for granted, that’s for sure!

That’s the end of our stay in Phnom Penh. It was a very busy, very dirty, big city, which I somehow felt had a little charm. I should have disliked it more than I did, but I didn’t

We were due to leave the following day so we booked a bus to Kampot, a small town to the south of Phnom Pehn, about 100 miles away. The journey was in a comfortable air conditioned minibus and cost $24 for the both of us.

Next up, Kampot!

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