Saturday, April 22, 2017

Life in the Cambodian Capital

While I'm sure their advice was well-intentioned, I'm very glad I didn't listen to the friend who told me to skip Cambodia. I've had some Capital-A Adventures in Phnom Penh! I only spent two full days in the city, but it feels like I was there for a week.

The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City was much more pleasant than I expected. I sat next to a friendly German named Malte, and the Mekong Express employees provided us with water and snacks. I even got some work done on my novel. The only downside: there was a small child with a blue plastic fish toy that for some reason played "Let It Go" from Frozen. But only one line: "Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door." And sometimes when he pressed the button, it would play the lyric eerily off-key, and slower. Lleettt itt ggooo, lleettt itt ggooo. Over and over again.

Good thing he was adorable.

The border crossing was an interesting process. Again, Mekong Express did a great job with this; the employee on our bus handed out visa paperwork that we filled in at the beginning of the ride, and when we got near the border, he collected all our paperwork and passports, along with the visa fees. We had to get off the bus in this dusty, cobwebby warehouse at the edge of Vietnam to have our passports stamped for exit. Then we piled back on the bus, and got off a few minutes later at the much more aesthetically pleasing Cambodian entry facility. But the bus employee got all our visas settled for us and handed our passports back. We simply had to walk through the gate and get stamped. And electronically fingerprinted! Never had to do that before.

I wonder if gambling is illegal in Vietnam, because just over the border in Cambodia there are dozens of shabby casinos. It reminded me a lot of the California-Nevada border for that reason.

I got to my hostel late, but I'm glad I stayed where I did. If you're ever in Phnom Penh, give Feliz Hostel & Cafe a try. Apparently it has one of the best breakfasts in the city? Didn't know that when I booked the bed. Pretty sure it's Khmer-owned, too, which is great. I'd rather give my money to Cambodians than to foreigners exploiting Cambodians, if I can help it.

It turns out that one of my friends from grad school, Rosemary, is teaching English in Phnom Penh at the moment. So she and I had lunch and caught up on my first full day in the city. Then I took a tuk-tuk to the royal palace for a very gilded afternoon. For those not in the know, tuk-tuks are those three-wheeled carriages attached to motorbikes, which serve as taxis in Cambodia. When it comes to monetary interactions with tourists, at least, Cambodians prefer to use U.S. dollars as their currency. While it's nice to not have to exchange currencies, it's also more important to barter to make sure you're not getting overcharged. I mean, either way, you're going to get overcharged. But it's a question of being reasonably overcharged versus unreasonably overcharged. I hate bartering, so settling on prices with the tuk-tuk drivers was probably my least favorite aspect of the trip.

The royal palace is a must-see, in my opinion. The grounds are gigantic, planted with bright green shrubs and flowering trees. And the architecture is unbelievable, of course. The buildings are in the traditional style, where...okay, here's where I'm going to screw this up. At the tops of many of the columns are these bird-human hybrids, but I forget their name. And then on the rooftops there are these mythical serpents--whose name I also forget. Historically these creatures are enemies, so when they're represented together in architecture, it symbolizes peace.

There's your shamefully bad Khmer architecture lesson for the day.

It was hot outside, so wandering the palace grounds was sometimes overwhelming. But there weren't too many people there, so there were plenty of places for me to sit and rest in the shade. Pro tip: you have to cover your shoulders and knees at the palace, just like you would at a temple. I was glad I brought a scarf with me--though it wasn't quite wide enough to tie at my waist, so I had to awkwardly tie it beneath my butt. Super classy, Robison.

Remember Malte, the German guy from the bus? That night he and I had dinner at FCC, which is, according to Rosemary, a must for tourists, as its multiple patios overlook the river. It was good, but you definitely pay extra for the scenic vista. There was a cute cat who kept begging for my food. No, kitty. Human food.

Day 2 was somewhat brutal--although not in the morning. I hopped in another tuk-tuk and went to Central Market, which is famous for its pre-war, Art Deco architecture. I bought a hat, because I cleverly left mine on the bus from HCMC. Wonder how many times that's going to happen over the next few months?

Afterwards I headed to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is housed inside S-21, one of the most notorious prisons from the Khmer Rouge period. It was, perhaps, one of the most horrific things I have ever witnessed. They tried to leave many things as they found them--so you might just walk into a stuffy room, where you find a solitary metal bedframe with leg irons attached. As your eyes adjust to the lower light, you might notice a picture on the wall, of the prisoner they found bludgeoned to death on that bed when the Vietnamese liberated the city. You might notice bloodstains on the yellow and white tile floor. The floor where you're walking.

And that's just the interrogation building.

Other buildings contain further horrors: cramped cells, torture devices, and thousands of photos of the prisoners themselves, most of whom ended up in the killing fields. Their captors were meticulous record-keepers. The audio tour was incredible, full of detailed information and narrated by a man who lost family members in the prison.

There's a question of ethics when it comes to turning genocide into a tourist attraction. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable--but I think that's a good thing. Everybody ought to see stuff like this, and be made to feel uncomfortable or worse, as it serves as a deterrent for similar atrocities in the future. But then I'd see people taking selfies, and that just made me sick. What kind of person thinks it's okay to treat such a sensitive, heartbreaking subject with such callousness? How do they have the audacity to make themselves the center of such an experience? I honestly don't know.

Because I apparently hadn't witnessed enough abject human suffering yet, I paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me out to the Choeung Ek killing fields. They're about 15 kilometers outside the city, and my driver definitely took the scenic route. I was worried at first that he was going to take me to the middle of nowhere and rob me (these thoughts inevitably cross my mind when traveling alone, as unfounded as they might be), but once I checked the map to see we were heading in the right direction, I calmed down and enjoyed the bumpy ride through unpaved neighborhoods.

Based on what little I saw, it seems like things are changing very fast in Cambodia. Some of the houses were hardly more than metal shacks, while others were tall, concrete structures with glass windows, locked tight behind high gates--all right next to each other. Some people have cars, but most have motorbikes, assuming they have any transportation. When we got near to Choeung Ek, we had to chase some white cows off the road.

Here's the thing about the killing fields: they are objectively beautiful.

They don't mow the grass--for obvious reasons--so the ground is covered with vines and wildflowers, along with large birds pecking at the earth below. There air is teeming with butterflies. A row of yellow flowering trees marks where the fields begin, and behind the fields, there's a pond. In front of it all rises a gigantic traditional stupa, where thousands of victims' skulls are on display.

Again, the audio tour was worth it. Not only does it provide information about what you're seeing--the mass graves, the trees where they strung speakers to blare revolutionary songs that would drown out the screaming--but it also shares stories from family members of the dead, and from young guards who worked there. It plays music composed specifically to commemorate the tragic events. It warns you to watch your step, as small pieces of bone and clothing are still washing up in the rain, all these years later.

On the tuk-tuk ride back to the city, my driver--who had waited for me while I was touring Choeung Ek--got a flat tire. He was extremely apologetic, showing me the nail to prove that it had really happened--I think he was afraid I wouldn't pay him. I tried to reassure him the best I could, and while he had it repaired at a small, roadside tire shop, I got to play with the owner's baby, who was almost impossibly cute. (Only after his mother indicated it was okay, of course.) He had this expression of perpetual surprise on his face, eyes wide and mouth open. It was nice to encounter some sweet innocence after all that trauma.

After getting some work done at the hostel, I met Rosemary for a drink at Red Bar, which is on a street full of bars where expats like to go, rather than tourists. We ended up at another place that was hosting a Khmer hip hop night. Good beats, and everyone seemed genuinely joyful. It was delightful. I'm glad Rosemary was able to show me some places I never would have found on my own.

After one more little bar and a quick visit to Rosemary's place to see her killer terrace, I had to go back to my hostel--which was close by, for the record. One problem: I could find no tuk-tuk, and I didn't really want to walk there. It is not advised to walk alone at night in Phnom Penh, especially if you're a tourist. Finally this guy offered me a moto ride, so I hopped on, and it was totally fine--until I got off at the hostel and he offered me...well, he either offered me sex or drugs. It was unclear. He didn't threaten me or anything--the situation just made me uncomfortable. Fortunately, he didn't seem to get angry when I handed him his two dollars and ran inside as fast as I could.

Like I said, Capital-A Adventures. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

(Note to parents: I'm fine. Don't worry.)

Now I'm on a bus to Siem Reap, the gateway city to Angkor Wat. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the best. Can't wait to see temples and temples and temples and temples...


edit: I made it to Siem Reap safely. Couldn't post the blog entry on the bus, as the wifi cut out. Must go to sleep now--sunrise tour of Angkor Wat in the morning!


  1. I have heard about so many exciting things to do and places to visit in Cambodia. Can't wait to visit Phnom Penh one day. Thanks to the author for sharing this article!


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