Golden Week ’15: Phenom Penh

Starting the third leg of our holiday, the end was insight for our more restful island vacay! But first were the sites and sounds of Cambodia’s Capital – Phnom Penh

So grabbing a quick breakfast in the hostel, we were picked up by a minibus a little after 0745. It didn’t really look like the coach we had signed up for, and between my dicky tummy, and the lack of a toilet, I was little apprehensive.

Thankfully, this minivan was only a shuttle to the main bus park! The coach we were to ride was there, a fair bigger affair, that even included wifi! We were travelling in luxury! Thankfully my tummy settled to the point that I don’t remeber if I there were even facilities to use!

The journey was a good 6 or so hours, but was much helped by the lack of sleep the previous night, and the bus was so kind to stop a couple of times, including a delicious cafe that was clearly in-cohoots with the bus company since their food turnaround time matched the stopping time of the coach. But it was reasonably priced, and as with all the Cambodian food we tried, truely delicious, especially the 8 mango smoothies we ordered!

As we were approached the city, I’d had the foresight to get up the map of the area on my phone, and was able to see that both the hostel and the bus company were pretty centrally located, and upon arriving, we were met by tuk tuk drivers who took us straight to our hostel – a service kindly provided by the Eighty8 hostel.

That was probably the nicest thing they did do however.

After checking into our 8 person dorm, perfect for our group, we headed down to the bar for some points of interest, and drinks, and were met with fairly blunt customer service, and a very bored-seeming, unfriendly English chap, whose stand-offish attitude tainted my whole experience of the bar area.

Shunning the tuk tuks, we set off by foot to head down to the waterfront on the hunt for happy times at a pizzeria, and indulged ourselves in a few pizzas shared and some sides, before kicking back at the hostel for a restful night in the room – let’s call it bonding!

After a right few laughs, Savvy and I discovered one of the more delightful aspects of the hostel – their mix your own milkshake, with such delightful and diverse ingredients of nutella, peanut butter and coconut, to choose from – definitely to become one of my naughty vices whilst staying here.

 

Refreshed and ready, Blazing Trails had kindly sent tuk tuks to pick us up from the hostel, out to near the Killing Fields, where their quad bikes tour departs and where we were to visiting the monument that marks the Killing Fields.

It was a real delight to travel through and outside of the city, and it reminded my considerable of navigating the old Kampala in Uganda, with half finished buildings cropping up every which way, roadworks in the middle of busy streets, with water (or worse) continuously trickling across them. The way the scooters, motorbikes and tuk tuks darted between the bloated torsos of the unable to move cars, nipping onto pavements, and in turn making their own traffic jam of nimbler vehicles in every crannie cars were unable to penetrate; until the building began to thin out, and slowly but surely we were into the countryside and travelling at quite a pace.

Pulling up outside what looked like, to the uninitiated, a car garage, was actually the base of this quad bike empire. We were asked to sign our lives away and split the group into two; one half to visiting the Killing Fields, whilst the others took land via the quads.

Being in the group to take quads first, I donned my police helmet, and straddled the purring machine, and kicked dust into the Cambodian air.

Riding the bikes was fun for a novice like myself, but highly tame for a pro, with us doddling along in single files as we navigated the surrounding areas along tarmaced and dust roads.

I enjoyed seeing buildings in the middle of the wilderness. In modern times it’s so easy to assume the permanence of road networks and towns, and to see nature as this tamed beast in the form of gardens and parks, and to forget that once these towns too were wilderness, untamed, with homes occupying such a tiny fragment in the grand schemes of a landscape. It was a feeling somewhat like when you view old photos of your town, or a familiar area, and roads are missing, or, the buildings are all one story, or theirs countryside in the background of a now urban jungle – only multiplied ten-fold.

Stopping for a drink and snack, our guide began to grow on me, and I quite liked him by the end.

Then we driven by tuk tuk a crazily short distance to visit the Killing Fields.

So during the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge came to power in the area now known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, and set out creating a self-supporting, communist regime. It forced people out of urban areas, and into the countryside in order to fulfill the self-reliant plan.

During their reign from 1975-79, anybody disagreeing with the regime, from intellectuals, to disgruntled workers, were transported to the killing fields, and killed – later being labelled as a genocide. Between the Killing Fields, and their policies, it’s estimated that a quarter of the 8 million population died. One of their ideas included killing the children of those killed by the government to ensure there was nobody to seek revenge.

The area hasn’t been over commercialised. The ticket office offers an audio guide, which I would recommend, since the signs have limited information, and much of what’s left is empty space, since much was torn down to use reuse as material to rebuild people’s’ lives. The audio guide also offers first hand interviews/reread descriptions of people experiences, and offers an insightful listen during the tour.

As you walk around the area, the filled in pits are perhaps to most disturbing part, as teeth, bones and clothes continue to come to the surface during the rainy season each year; a yearly reminder of the atrocities.

Coming out of the museum, we were driven back by tuk tuk to the hostel, and took a leisurely afternoon by the pool, playing volleyball and splashing the neighbours for a few hours, and met up with Busu’s British friend Tom, who happened to be in the area for a holiday with his parents. As the day passed between play, cocktails and happy hour, we called in an early night.

Our final day in Phnom Penh!

When we finally got our washing back from reception, we threw our bags into the luggage cage and set about exploring the city – first stop? The Irish Pub for breakfast!

Whilst I think it noble to solely eat the food of the country you’re in, there were two main reasons I chose not to. Firstly, a pub serves ‘British food’ but you probably wouldn’t want to eat off that everyday – it’s classic British food, but not a true reflection of what we eay every day, and visiting these tourist hotspots, I doubt we were eating culturally, rather than as Cambodian people.

Secondly, living abroad means I have not eaten ‘home’ food for a long time, and after my holiday, I do not go back to eating British food, but continue living abroad and eating what Japan has to offer me – which is very few of my home dishes, and even then, they have imaginative leaps, or aren”t very good! So forgive me dear reading for indulging in a full English breakfast here and there, but rest assure I sample the cuisine of every country I visit!

Unfortunately for us, the Royal Palace was closed for visitors (whether it always is, I don’t know…) so we circled around it, then made our way towards the central market place…

Which just so happened to be conveniently placed near a mall which contained a cinema that was showing the latest Avengers film – in English! A full two month and half months before the Japanese release!

The central market was a cool piece of architecture, utilising a great dome structure to provide a vast open space, and coolness from the heat, but did sell the same stuff we saw everywhere – sunglasses, jewellery and elephanty harem pants.

By now the day was passing and the moment had finally come… Time to watch Avengers, in 3D, in an air-conditioned cinema, 2 days after release, for only $4 – bargin! As was the giant drink and popcorn! Sometimes it’s nice to do something not cultural, but part of your own culture that you can’t do at home.

With the bus not departing until 2230, we had a few hours to spare. Traversing the mean streets of Phnom Penh, we stopped randomly for a fine, last Cambodian meal, picked up the bags, and took tuk tuks to the bus.

The night bus was a wonderful affair! When I saw options where a top or bottom bed, which two separate floor plans, I was expecting a double decker bus. And though I heard the 2 seats next to each other were friendly, and not recommend for a solo female traveller, I was not expecting what we saw.

The bus did indeed offer fully reclined beds. All seating had been stripped out of the bus, and bunk beds built, in continuous lines from front to back. So whereas I thought I’d been clever to get us the bottom floor, away from the toilet, some of the boys did end up back there!

Also, the two seats together were by no means seperated. They were just a flat area, twice the size of the single seat, slightly padded, with two blankets – thankfully everybody on our group was on friendly terms with each other! And the bunks were exactly 6’ foot, so sleeping diagonally was required!

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By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.