The transition from Singapore to Cambodia’s sprawling capital city Phnom Penh feels a bit like Marty McFly travelling from the pristine future to a Biff-ravaged alternate 1985. There’s not as much on fire, and no one calls anyone a “butthead”, but the relative comparison is sound.
First thing’s first – transport form the airport. March straight past the taxis, with their air-con and English-speaking drivers, and head for the marginally cheaper tuk-tuks beyond – you’re a backpacker now, remember? You don’t get taxis.
Mind you, taxis don’t break down on the frantically busy main road into town. You probably won’t have to wait 20 minutes while the poor tuk-tuk chap tries to fix it, before finally flagging down one of his mates to take you the rest of the way. And you won’t be sat in the back when your new tuk-tuk driver stops at every corner in town to ask directions.
The traffic in Phnom Penh is madness; to cross the road your only option is to jaywalk… nay, “jaywalk” is too timid a term. One must openly throw oneself from the precipice, like Indiana Jones taking that leap of faith over the chasm in Last Crusade. You simply must believe you will survive. Swarana was in jaywalking heaven.
Phnom Penh is dusty, polluted, littered, busy and loud. In a word, it’s chaos, which made me feel like we were properly back on the road, after the relative (and appreciated) luxury we’d enjoyed in KL, Melaka and Singapore. Travelling isn’t travelling without a certain level of discomfort.
Our first two nights were in a hotel a block north of the National Museum and maybe two blocks west of the riverfront, where scores of bars offer cheap booze and tasty eats on rooftops or open-air balconies, from which you can watch vessels chugging up the Mekong.
We first dined opposite our hotel in a little restaurant called David’s Noodles. We watched David himself (recognised from newspaper clippings on the wall) create the noodles from a blob of dough – flinging, stretching, thumping and twisting until the mound became mee. Tasted great too.
We soon moved to a hostel in the trendy area of Boeung Keng Kang 1 (BKK1), the Mad Monkey, a recommendation from Fabio. We splurged a little, opting for a family room, because they were otherwise full. It turns out the hostel has expanded into the gorgeous “villa” building opposite, boasting a huge, wide wooden staircase, our own rooftop balcony and beautiful furniture throughout. No television or fridge in our room, but the bathroom was immaculate and the bed was superb. Well worth $30 a night.
The boozing is par for the course with one of these hostels – international drinking competitions, hours of beer pong (I fail to grasp the attraction) and a bar crawl around the area (which was admittedly a proper rollick). It’s mostly kids messing about, hoping to get laid.
One boy we noticed – who we christened “the embryo” – got all excited when Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me got played, and did a sweet, gangly, happy dance. Turns out he was only 18, a German kid travelling on his own. Bless ‘is little cottons!
Alcohol is blessedly cheap here, particularly in comparison to cash-cremating Singapore. A mug of beer can be as cheap as 50 cents, and cocktails around $2.50 are not uncommon.
Unfortunately, with cheap booze comes sex tourists. There is a strong, near-irrefutable correlation between cheap alcohol and filthy western scumbags. Kep, on the coast, is a little pricier than Phnom Penh and its mostly devoid of them. Thankfully in the capital, they mainly prowl around Street 51, which we renamed Area 51 due to the high alien population and probable abundance of anal probes.
If you want to avoid the putrid stench of their soul-crushing guilt, don’t worry; these scumbags have no interest whatsoever in culture or history, which this city is awash with. So you can delve right in without being reminded of the country’s unfortunate relationship with the dregs of western society.
For instance, one place you’ll only find lovely people is on a cooking course. We arranged for a half-day course with Frizz Restaurant, for about $15 apiece – which includes, of course, eating the fruits of your labour. First off, they take you round the food markets, pointing out spices and vegetables, and the guide buys what we’ll need for lunch.
Then it’s back to a kitchen, on the third floor of what must be a cooking school. We made fried spring rolls, filled with shredded carrot and taro, and a most excellent chilli dipping sauce. Finally, we were taught the Khmer classic, fish amok.
To make fish amok you grind turmeric, chillies, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and a bunch of other bits into a paste with a pestle and mortar, before adding the fish and pouring the lot into a banana-leaf bowl to be steamed. I honestly cannot believe the food we made. The fish was succulent and spicy, with citrus taste explosions sending zesty shockwaves around my mouth. Genuinely amazing.
Back on the streets, we swung by some of the historic buildings in town. The National Museum, for one, is a gorgeous mauve building housing hundreds of Angkorian sculptures and artefacts, with a lovely – if scorching – courtyard at its centre.
Or there’s the King’s Palace, a large compound of grand, yellow buildings and stupas, some of which have been converted into museums. Girls have to cover their shoulders, though, so it can get a mite uncomfortable on a hot day wearing a cardigan.
Phnom Penh takes its name from the small hill at its centre, upon which a wat peaks out over the trees.
Phnom just means hill, and Penh was the name of the woman who ordered it be made, upon which a temple would house four golden buddhas she found floating in a tree down the Tonle Sap river. Or so it goes.
It’s a nice little walk round the temple complex; and don’t be surprised if a security guard asks you for a dollar, it seems to be legit.
But it’s the more recent history this city has endured that evokes the most response. Visiting the Killing Fields has become a tourist attraction of sorts – but one I have to say that retains the dignity of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Tour of shame
Any tuk-tuk you hail (or are harried by) will be offering their services for the day to take you to the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison. The latter is an old school that was used during the 1970s communist revolution as a prison and torture camp.
It felt strange visiting these sights, as a tourist, to gape at the atrocities of mankind. But I suppose people visit Auschwitz or the trenches of Normandy, in the guise of education. And here it was certainly educational.
First a school, then a prison, S-21 now bears its third incarnation as a museum. Some of the classrooms have retained their hastily built brick cells, each one less than a square metre in size, while others are filled with the photographs of the prison’s victims. The Khmer Rouge stationed here had an incongruous bureaucratic urge to photograph and document every soul that entered their custody.
But among the thousands of mugshots of ordinary Cambodians who met their end here, there are teems of photographs of men beaten to a pulp, lying on blood-stained beds, or sprawled over concrete. One can only imagine why the torturers took these pictures.
It’s a harrowing experience, reading about the punishments, the life in the prison. But the Killing Fields themselves leave you in a state of stunned reflection.
Situated on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields are peculiarly peaceful. A breeze plays with the leaves of the short yellowing grass, while almost sardonic birdsong chirrups overhead. The land is pocked by dips in the ground – pits that served as mass graves; fragments of cloth, teeth and bone still emerging from the dirt 40 years on.
An audio guide talks you through the site, allowing you to reflect upon what you’re seeing without distraction. You listen to testimony from Khmer Rouge guards, or rare survivors – or the revolutionary music the captors played to obfuscate the screams of the condemned – tied together by a softly-spoken Cambodian narrator.
And there’s the monument to the dead at its centre. You can enter, which I recommend – not to gawp at the carnage, but to glimpse its enormity. Tens of thousands died here. To comprehend millions dead during Khmer Rouge rule seems near-impossible.
Everyone takes something different from their experience here, learning about the revolution, its causes, and the horrible turn it took. For me, it was the question: why does communism always end with brutality?
I struggled to comprehend the apparently inevitable slide from a socialist quest for equality to these acts of unutterable evil. In their frenzied attempt to achieve equality, they ripped away the only common denominator that we all share: our life.
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