Monday, September 04, 2006

Cambodia.. Phnom Phen our first stop.... a whole new experience!

September 4th. The usual early start (with the usual 2 hour delay!) for all of us heading to Phnom Penh. There was quite a gang of us now - Silas, Matthew, Nadine, Jeremy, Oliver, another new pal Joe and myself! Got a wee river boat across the Mekong to the mainland then on to the proverbial mini-bus to take us to the Cambodian border. Now Lonely Planet does say this particular border crossing is a bit haphazard - hmmn a tad understated. Seriously, no-one seemed to have a clue what they were doing - on either the Lao or Cambodian side. You'd think we were the first people ever to do this crossing! At one point, we were all sitting in this bus on a dodgy dusty road which looked like it was in the middle of nowhere thinking ...."eh, what happens now". There was also a bus with people coming from Cambodia into Laos right next to us, who were saying exactly the same thing.."what does happen now?". Very odd but eventually we were told we would be crossing into Cambodia very soon, so once we were officially over the border, we all jumped in a convoy of Toyota Corollas (met a fab Dutch couple, Herbert and Margaret who were our travel mates on this journey!) to drive the 2 hours to Stung Treng where we took yet another ferry across to the city itself. Phew....

We met this young guy at the ferry point - super nice with the strongest English accent although he was Cambodian. Turns out he had a cancerous tumour in his throat which meant he couldn't breathe that easily, which strangely meant his accent sounded really English. He smoked like a chimney and was quite resigned to the fact he would never get the operation cos he didn't have the money. So depressing that he had given up in a way; i suppose he knew his reality, even though we asked him wasnt there some way he could get treatment .. still, very very sad!

After we said goodbye, it was a quick boat ride over then lunch then into yet another mini-bus for the last leg to Phnom Phen. Learned how to play backgammon and had a great chat with Silas...and everyone actually, even forced folks to play charades at one point. Hey - it was a long, long drive folks!! - and we didn't get into Phnom Phen till after we had been going for about 17 hours! Said goodbye to the boys who were heading to Siem Riep - so sad, as I had such a great and fun time with them.. but hopefully we will cross paths again in Cambodia - if not, back home!

September 5th. Up early today and Joe and I checked out Number 9 guest house that had been recommended to me by my friend Marieke, way back during the New Zealand trip.. we walked all over for ages, only to find it bloomin' right next door! Its a rabbits warren down here by the riverside, I tell ya! So we all moved next door (Nadine and Jeremy made up the foursome) as it was a nicer place, and the people there were so lovely. Everyone in Cambodia speaks such amazing English - its incredible.

So as none of us were sure exactly how long we would stay in PP, except for Joe who had only a day or two, we all decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum together. It is a must on the PP circuit - and we were there for over 4 hours. I really can't put into words how you feel after visiting this place. The hairs stand on the back of your neck as you visit some of the rooms where torture was carried out by the Khmer Rouge on people from all walks of life including their own loyal soldiers, intellectuals, teachers, politicians and so so many women and children. It is so surreal as these buildings used to be a school, and there is a grassy park area and trees ; it could actually be a pretty place apart from the inherent evil and terror that happened here. So many horrific stories of people's lives ruined. Men, women and children were killed here (or at the Killing Fields which we were to visit tomorrow). Over 20,000 prisoners came through Tuol Sleng and only 7 survived. The technical name for the "area" is S-21 and the rules and regulations that Pol Pot and his henchmen set up here made you realise he had to be stark, raving mad. No excuse for this evil but had to have been complete madness. Prisoners were not allowed to look left or right, always straight ahead. Even in chains, they had to ask to move in any shape or form, even when sleeping. They were not allowed to cry when being tortured. Such an awful, awful place.. reminded me in many ways of the Dachau concentration camp I visited in Germany...So many lives shattered and why? We all felt really affected by this place; a necessary visit but an incredibly depressing and horrible time in Cambodian history.

September 6th. Up really early today 'cos Joe and I were going to the giant Russian market - better to go early to see all the action. Of course, I had to wake Joe up - yup, he overslept - how come I'm always the dork who is up early! While waiting for my pal, I chatted to Peter, one of the guys working at the hotel. His story is like so many here in PP and in Cambodia. He lost his father and four other members of his family during Pol Pot's regime. He explained that no-one had a choice - anyone who joined the Khmer Rouge, didnt really have a choice. It was join or be killed. His mother lost their family home when everyone in the city was forced to move to the countryside. When the war was over, and the rush to return to the city was so great, his family didnt get back quickly enough so today him and his mum rent a few rooms, and other people are now living in their house. First come first served.

The market was interesting.. huge with tons of stuff but there was a definite difference in the people here compared to Laos. They were more aggressive and definitely didn't like it if you just looked, "you buy, buy, buy"!!! The guide books say to bargain hard here, no chance - very little budging going on! We took a walk through the food market - always good fun and saw some lovely skinned frogs still alive and jumping around (yuk!).

After lunch, Joe and I headed out to the Killing Fields, another chilling reminder of Cambodia's tragic past. The road there was ridiculous - its technically a main road and also the way to a very well visited tourist and spiritual site - but you couldn't even call it a road. Our tuk tuk was bouncing and sliding all over the place.. as were we and the dust was gross. But to be honest, you really can't complain about any minor issues in this country when you read and visit so many places that harbour such sadness brought about by such evil. The Killing Fields was another such place. There is a building in the middle of the site with over 8,000 skulls, many bodies were exhumed here, many mass grave sites, children were beaten to death on a specific tree with gun butts rather than using bullets, there was a magic tree where loudspeakers played music to hide the screams..just horrific. Didn't think it right to take any pictures here - too too sad.

There was a very surreal aspect to this tho', as lots of poor children lived here and farmers tended their water buffalo through the land where these atrocities happened. I suppose life has to go on.. but it just seemed so strange. We chatted away to some local children for a while; of course they asked for some money but we bought them drinks instead. They had nothing but shared their green beans they were shelling - beautiful kids ....again heartbreaking to know they had little hope to get ahead. And yet their English was fantastic and they could do so well if they only had the opportunity!!

Back into town and we checked out the Central Market - another massive place! How do people manage to make money at all these stalls and markets around Asia - i mean there are millions of stalls, all selling the same things, are there enough people to buy them??? Must be i suppose.
On our way home, we saw a bunch of kids flying kites from their apartment block - we waved and took pics and they were so delighted, shouting "hello, where are you from" .. so lovely although i was a tad worried they were so excited and waving so much they might fall out of their flat balconies!

Another chilled out night watching DVD's and chatting away...talked about the country and how different we all found it from Laos. The people have been through so much, maybe that is why they are more aggressive. Even the landscape is different ,....just outside this city there is nothing, all flat land with no other urban sprawl. Really quite strange. Like this shot of a mosque close by our hostel! The more you read the more you realise how much this country was torn apart by war and Pol Pot's horrific regime.. you look at people in their 40's and think they experienced all of this. I cant even imagine to be honest. 12-15 year old children given huge responsiblities; in many cases the power of life or death over people. Very much a kill or be killed mentality grew here, with paranoia and fear everywhere.

September 7th. Pottered around today - to be honest a tad overwhelmed with all the heavy stuff we had experienced the last few days. That sounds so trite and pathetic but it really has made me think long and hard about what some people have to experience in their lives and how some of us really have it so easy......So just chatted to Nadine (have i mentioned how great Nadine and Jeremy are!). Heard from a few people that Cambodia is a lot more harsh and you should be much more careful here.. didnt really find that at all but so nice to be traveling with yet more fun fab people; again how lucky am i! This sign is everywhere as Cambodia has quite a strong campaign against child exploitation.. not sure how effective it is but it can only help to have the message so clearly out there!!!

Anyway eventually got my act together and walked into town - hmmn a million degrees so not the best move! So hot in Cambodia i have to say! Really feel like im getting to know the city (at least some areas anyway!). And actually really like PP.. off to the Royal Palace but for the first time, i forgot my long sleeved top so couldnt get in. Not that bothered so took a walk along the sea front - very pretty but a big tourist area and so unsettling to see such hip and trendy cafes and restaurants and so much begging by street children and people with amputations and very crude prostetics (if at all) who are obviously very poor! Also so strange to see that there is alot of money in this city - tons of Land Cruisers for example. Apparantly the police are particularly corrupt here...some NGO's too, more so than other parts of Asia.

Back to the guest house - had dinner with Nadine, Jeremy and Oliver (not sure why Jeremy isn't in this shot!) who we bumped into again...It has been an eye opening experience so far in Cambodia. We are off tomorrow to Siem Riep to visit the incredible Angkor Wat!! Can't wait i have to say -very excited so will fill you in on that soon!


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