Cambodia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 265 (75)

Phnom Penh

Sunday 28th November

Every now and then, we find ourselves in the unfamiliar situation of having no pressing agenda for the day ahead and the result is always the same. We sleep in for several hours and allow our bodies to recuperate from the tiresome business of constantly being on the move. Such was the case this morning and I opened my eyes to find that it was almost noon already. Sandy tends to fall asleep well before I and even though she too enjoyed some extra time in bed this morning, she was already up and about. Even when there is nothing planned for a given day, there is nearly always something that needs tending to and today it was the growing pile of laundry that needed to be washed. With such a late start to the day, however, the best the guest-house staff could arrange was the laundry run for the tomorrow with our laundered and dried clothes being returned to us by that evening. Our plans for our time here in Phnom Penh are pretty much non-existent and I was eager to try to get the washing done before then just in case we decided to up and leave town. At the reception desk’s suggestion, we tried a laundry outfit across the street but all we could get out of them was ‘You give today, back tomorrow evening.’ Since we were stuck in a corner, we handed in our soiled clothes to our guest-house staff after all.

There aren’t too many things to do and see here in Phnom Penh. Actually that’s probably not particularly fair. There are things to see and do, just not quite as many as in some other larger countries. We were debating to partake in a massage at one of the Seeing Hands parlours, where Cambodians that have been blinded by landmines have been trained for many years in the art of massage and some of the proceeds from their practice go towards helping other war blinded Cambodians. Since neither of us was in a particularly agreeable mood, however, we thought it best to spare this for another time. The National Museum is just across the park from our hotel so we decided to go and spend an hour or so admiring some wonderful stone and wooden sculptures, many of which have been taken directly from some of the temples of Angkor Wat. It was just $2 (€1,54) each to get in and for another Dollar we were able to use our camera. It wasn’t until parting with the Dollar, though, that we learned that we could only use the camera within the confines of the inner courtyard. Other than the architecture of the building itself, the only thing we were actually permitted to photograph was the courtyard pond and wildlife. The exhibits within the building itself were interesting enough but a half hour was really all that was needed to get around to seeing everything.

The guidebook tells of another must-see attraction just a stone’s throw from the National Museum. The Silver Pagoda is within sight of it so we undertook to go visit that next. A maimed man and several begging children were manning the entrance to the museum and Sandy, a softie when it comes to these sort of things, changed a Dollar into Riel notes and offered a few around.

We had earlier thought about going to see the killing fields at Choeung Ek but couldn’t decide whether or not to take a taxi or a tuk-tuk. The hotel owner told us that we could order a taxi from him for the fixed price of $15 (€11,54) but I fancied my chances at negotiating a cheaper rate ourselves on the street. On the way to the Silver Pagoda, a tout caught our attention and we somehow managed to enter into negotiations for a tuk-tuk ride over to the killing fields. Since we settled on $10 (€7,70) for a round trip to both the killing fields as well as the Genocide Museum, we decided to take the tuk-tuk after all and he took us over to a waiting driver. After first confirming that driver spoke halfway decent English and that we could successfully communicate with him, we got in and off we trundled. The ride out to the killing fields took us to the edge of town on the paved roads before we turned onto a dirt track for a half hour or so of painfully slow and bumpy rattling to the monument just outside of Choeung Ek. The monument itself is a four metre square building that stands about five or six stories tall. Glass panes stand between the four outer pillars of the structure and reveal rows of neatly stacked skulls and other human remains that were exhumed from this site. Dotted around the monument are the remains of several mass graves where the Khmer Rouge, under the brutal regime of Pol Pot from between nineteen seventy-five and nineteen seventy-nine, systematically tortured and murdered their fellow countrymen. There were a few people walking around the site in respectful silence and the whole area had a very strange and eerie feel to it. Signs and exhibits dotted around the site detailed some of the horrors that occurred here and the whole experience was quite poignant – depressing even. Our tuk-tuk driver had taken off thinking we would spend longer here than we actually did and I was grateful to spend some of the time waiting for him to return trying to entertain a group of children that were hanging around. It helped tremendously to distract me from the dark imagery that was conjured by the site of the mass graves and what they represented.

Perhaps because we were on the other side of the road on the way back into town but it certainly seemed a lot bumpier going back than coming. Our driver somehow skilfully managed to hit every single pothole and mud trench that this poor excuse for a road had to throw at us. He dropped us off at the second destination on our little mini-tour - the Genocide Museum. During those tragic and fateful Pol Pot dictatorship years, this old institutional school complex was converted into a prison and make shift internment and torture camp known as S-21. The buildings have now been converted into this museum and for $2 each (€1,54) we were treated, or perhaps subjected might be a better word, to some truly gruesome photos and other exhibits that depict in quite some graphic detail the sheer horrendousness of how those unfortunate enough Cambodians that managed to find themselves here were slowly and systematically tortured to death. Neither of us spoke very much during our time at the prison turned museum this afternoon and the mood in the tuk-tuk back to our starting point was just as sombre.

Having paid our driver the agreed price, we wandered along the riverfront for a while before heading back to base to shower and freshen up. On the way out the door to visit the Internet café for a spell, I slipped and went tumbling down the hard cement steps leading to the ground floor. They had apparently just recently been cleaned and were still wet and slippery. I think I hurt my ego more than my bones, although I do have some bruising on my arm and my rump, and my irritation flared up as I pointed out to the hotel owner the merits of posting a sign warning people of the wet steps. This fall was quite a serious one that could very easily have resulted in something breaking. Cambodia is simply the last place we want to be in the event of a serious medical problem so I was quite fortuitous this time.

I’ve been going over our budget and I’m a little concerned about a minor miscalculation that I made several weeks ago with regards to how much money we have from all the various sources put together. Since I built in a lot of conservative excess in all areas, however, the net result is that it should not be a problem. The worst-case scenario is that we spend a little less money on, say, diving, additional, luxuries and the like. We’re still otherwise in good shape. With another eight or nine months still left to go for this trip, there’s plenty of time left to catch up and compensate in certain areas. I tend to study our budget quite frequently. Being a control freak, I like to keep things under control. I tend to alternate almost on a daily basis between worry and complacency about our budget but things tend to have a way of working out in the end. I just hope someone will take us in when we finally fall onto their doorstep at the end of it all.

We see young Buddhist monks dressed in their readily identifiable orange robes all the time here in Cambodia and it can sometimes be comical to see them partaking in various vices that you ordinarily wouldn’t expect to see from a monk. We’ve seen monks smoking and talking on cell phones, for example, but I had to quietly chuckle to myself when I stepped into the Internet café just around the corner to find an orange robe sitting behind each and every terminal in the building. Apparently the monks are supposed to eventually give up worldly good and vices but they have their entire life to do so. Indeed they needn’t especially give everything up in this particular lifetime as they can always do so in one of the next ones.

I was able to find an Internet terminal nestled between the monks and when I was through, I went back to the guest-house to collect Sandy and we wandered out into town to find a travel agent. Having come this far down through Cambodia, we are now trying to think about how to get back to Thailand. We could fly but the $25 (€19.23) international departure tax is half as much again as the cost of the ticket and we don’t really want to spend that much money. Since there is no boat directly back to Bangkok as we had originally thought, however, neither of us are too keen on a lengthy bus ride either. We’ve been mulling the options back and forth all day and we are yet to agree on a course of action so we are hoping that some advice from a travel agent will help us decide.

We never did find a travel agent but we did stumble into a restaurant that Sandy had received a recommendation for from somebody she met in Siem Reap. A former Dutch broadcaster by the name of Frits Mulder has apparently set on a Khmer restaurant here called Fritz and after accidentally finding his place, we stopped to eat there in his company. I ventured to try a traditional Khmer dish that I ended up absolutely loving, much to my own astonishment.

After another brief trip to the Internet café on our way back home, we had some more ‘discussion’ about how to get back to Thailand. On the one hand, we don’t want to spend endless hours on a Cambodian bus but on the other, we want to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. It doesn’t look like we are going to be able to have our cake and eat it too but for now, the only thing we can do is sleep on it.