After three days in Siam Reap, I decided to head down to the capital city of Phnom Phen where I was supposed to meet up with Megan again. I booked a ticket on a speed boat that would take me from Siam Reap down the Tonle Sap river to PP. The dock area in Siam Reap was at the end of a little fishing village..the main road was really just mud leading to the lake itself. Walking thru it was not the most pleasant experience, with dead fish and garbage floating by. The ride down was a blast but it was a little odd to see the driver putting on a motorcycle crash helmet before we started off! It took about four hours to get to PP, and I spent the time just relaxing, reading and chatting to some of the other passengers. I had a closer encounter with the “ugly American” type of tourist when one guy kept wanting to tell me about his photography gear and how many of the locals he could buy for the price of one camera.
Phnom Phen itself is a great city. It’s got a very French feel to it from the colonial days with a few Asian touches like elephants occasionally causing traffic jams in the street. I hooked up with Meg and another friend of hers, and we spent the first evening wandering around the markets and then drinking at a place called “The Mex”. I don’t know how they decided to serve Mexican food there, but they’ve got a LOT to learn. The next day we hired a local to drive us around to see some of the local sights. One thing that’s not a lot of fun but seems to be on everyone’s itinerary is the genocide museum and the Chong Ek killing fields. These are the visible reminders of the Khmer Rogue’s reign of terror in the 70s and 80s. Talking to the Cambodians, everyone it seems has a relative or friend who was somehow affected, usually by being murdered. The killing fields are a place where the KR used to carry out mass executions. Now it’s a field with depressions all over the ground where they have unearthed the mass graves. After heavy rains its not at all uncommon for more graves to be uncovered, and human bones to float to the surface. The most visible reminder of the massacres here is a huge stupa with thousands of human skulls inside. While visiting this place, I’d never felt anything like it, except for Dachau in Germany. Following the killing fields we went to the genocide museum which was a former school turned into a torture and prison camp. Here they have preserved the cells, torture devices, and photographs of thousands of victims. One of the most stunning displays was a mural of modern day Cambodians who took part in these crimes. They are living free now, and their reasoning was very similar to Nazis at war crime trials…they were just following orders. Cambodia seems to have forgiven, and really wants to concentrate on the future instead of the past.
After this kind of grim morning we were glad to do something else for the afternoon. Our driver took us to a tiny little street vendor where we ate some of the best food I’ve had on the trip. I don’t think the bill for the four of us came to more than 3 dollars. Of course we bought our driver’s lunch…it was the least we could do for showing us this bit of the local culture. After lunch we toured the national museum where we got to see lots of carvings and statutes that had been removed from Angkor Wat and other historic sites for preservation and protection.
The next day after sleeping in late, I decided to wander around town by myself, and check out the waterfront and arts district. I ended up having lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club which probably has one of the best views in the city. This was first world luxury at its best! The food and decor were fantastic, the views were amazing, and there were even Frank Sinatra tunes playing on the sound system. After lunch I wandered down to the arts district I’d read about in the Lonely Planet, and watched some people at work. Most of the paintings were absolute crap…the kind of mass produced stuff you see in flea markets back home. Some of the people carving statues were quite talented, and I really enjoyed watching the artists at work.
I decided to stop at a cafe for a pineapple shake on the way back, and ended up chatting with a lovely American lawyer from Philly. We ended up hanging out for the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and people watching for a while. At 5ish, the local traffic jam started, including a guy riding an elephant down the street! We decided to break for a while and then meet up again later to try the local delicacy of “happy pizza”. I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out what makes the pizzas so happy, but suffice it to say there was no false advertising involved! Unfortunately I had to leave Patty early so that Meg and I could catch an early morning train down to the towns of Kep and Kampot.