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XXXIII: Phnom-nom-nom (Penh)

Big City Life

all seasons in one day 35 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

It was an interesting night, and we'd discovered that we were sharing a corridor with six or seven Indian sex tourists who were all sharing a room and spent most of the day parading around with different Cambodian women. The free breakfast that we had haggled for was a now predictable buffet of fried carbs, so I dug out the remains of my birthday muesli to supplement the egg and toast. It was laundry time again so we took our giant bags around the corner where they were only charging $1 per kilo and left blushing slightly after being called "very handsome men" - I was back! We collared a tuk-tuk driver and booked the 'City Tour' for $15, which would include the long drive out to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek as well as the S21 Prison and a handful of the sights back in Phnom Penh. I had been warned to expect it, but I was still angry when he asked if we wanted to go to the shooting range to fire some weapons ("great fun, great fun"). Felix was equally shocked at the insensitivity but here was the line where respect for the dead ended and business took priority. Still, the driver was taken aback at our "NO!" chorus and agreed to stick to the tour.

His name was Champine. He wore a Barcelona baseball cap on his head and a stupid grin on his face. He was a nightmare. The roads leading out of the city were insanely busy and the exhaust fumes were visibly mixing with the roadside dust and sand to form clouds of gritty smog which lined the inside of our nostrils. Champine's one and only nice gesture was stopping at the side of the road and offering to buy us each a face mask (big business in SE Asia). We declined purely based on experience of being overcharged later on, and used cupped hands as a makeshift mask instead. I admired his enthusiasm at first, pointing out different buildings and smiling back at us, but he was completely oblivious to anything going on around him on the roads. We hit unseen potholes, ramped over unseen piles of sand and very nearly hit several unseen vehicles and pedestrians. A day of riding in this carriage would be enough to give anyone a six-pack with the amount of muscle clenching we had to perform! Gradually the roads got quieter, which was a relief because Champ had no horn and was trying to attract attention by whistling, and at last the sign for Choeung Ek appeared. We drove straight past the turning, but I suppressed an angry twitch and decided he must know another route. He didn't, we stopped for petrol a couple of kilometres further up the road and he asked me if he could borrow $3 to pay for it! Felix had gone into a meditative silence and steam must have started to appear from my ears because he quickly set off again, but still in the wrong direction. When we turned onto a side street I asked him where we were going and got a laugh and something inaudible above the engine noise. We were following another tourist tuk-tuk so I kept an open mind, right up until he pulled into the shooting range car park. I lost it, I was absolutely furious that he'd so blatantly ignored our earlier conversation and all he could do was laugh his stupid laugh and practically beg us to at least go in for a look (clearly on commission). It didn't help that the four ignorant Brit guys from the other tuk-tuk were running in whooping with excitement, but he eventually said "it's up to you" and reluctantly drove us to the Killing Fields.

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We ignored his comment about him only waiting an hour for us (after all, we'd only given him $3 so far so if he left he'd be doing us a favour) and paid the $5 entry into Choeung Ek, which comes with an introductory video at the museum and a portable audio guide. I won't go into too much detail, but our biggest shock above all of the atrocities was finding out how recently the group responsible - the Khmer Rouge - had been operating. The trails into the crimes were still underway as recently as 2011. The fields themselves are the site of the mass graves where prisoners from the S21 Prison were executed in horrific ways, purely for being suspected of opposition to the communist regime. 20,000 men, women and children were killed here, and many of the graves have been excavated to place all of the remains on display in a huge central memorial monument (7 levels high) where the families can pay their respects. There are some details that I could never bring myself to write, but I will mention that every time it rains it brings more bones and rags to the surface, and these are collected every few months to add to the memorial. Once you pass the sign explaining this, suddenly all you can see beneath your feet on the paths are chalk-white fragments and weathered pieces of material. It is a very difficult thing to experience.

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By chance we only took an hour, but when we got into the tuk-tuk Champ informed us that we would have to wait as he'd booked an extra fare back into town for two more people. Luckily for him our sombre hour had calmed the morning's rage so the argument was short and concise, but saying "it's up to you" again didn't do him any favours - his tip was long gone anyway. We drove back into town to visit the S21 Prison, previously a high school before it was divided into cells, clad with barbed wire and used to torture innocent Cambodians. It was just $2 to get in and again it was a difficult experience, particularly when you see the photos of all of the inmates - the Khmer Rouge were as thorough as the Nazis with cataloguing their crimes so every prisoner was numbered and photographed. Only seven survived. The original classrooms had been divided into tiny numbered cells with brick walls or wooden slats, and the barbed wire around the balconies was erected to prevent suicide attempts. I was quite upset by a couple of things here, firstly the sign on one of the buildings that said "no laughing" and secondly by the placement of red paint or fake blood in some of the cells. Some people need a good slap.

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Rather poetically it began to rain as we walked through the rooms where the last remaining prisoners had been found by the liberation forces, so we went back to the drenched tuk-tuk and asked him to drop us off on the riverside for some lunch within walking distance of the Royal Palace. On the way we noticed for the first time that in front of Champine's seat was the lid-less fuel tank, which was dangerously slopping around and we realised why he'd been driving so slowly! This sealed the deal for him, and after he'd once again tried to drop us at a friend's restaurant for one last commission we stopped him and paid the remaining $12 - his request for a tip was laughed off.

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We went to a place called Happy Herb Pizza for lunch, purely because it was convenient and had been recommended by The Book. It is the best value food in town - we both ordered burgers and fries for $2 - and has the cheapest beer at $0.50 a pint! I took the opportunity to Skype Dad at the table, and soon had a small crowd of fascinated kids waving at him on the screen. They were surprisingly good with technology, and happily grabbed Felix's phone and flicked through the photos with no instruction. It was only after we left that we understood that "Happy Herb" meant marijuana and wasn't the man's name! Luckily the herbs were only added on special request so our burgers were (presumably) safe! A walk down the Royal Palace found it to be closed, which was actually a relief after an emotionally draining day so I took a few photos of the millions of pigeons and we retreated for an air-con movie back at base.

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The value of our room had a huge boost in the evening as we ventured upstairs to the 8th and 9th floors where we found the pool, a bar and a roof terrace overlooking the city. A few beers were had (of course) with the sunset and then we collected our beautifully pressed and bagged laundry and were invited in for dinner! We had plans so politely declined and walked down the road to the highly recommended Friends Restaurant for some tapas. The restaurant was packed with Westerners which, for the first time, was a good sign - this place was expensive even by Cambodian standards so not just anyone would eat here. We ordered four dishes between us, including roasted pepper, zucchini & rocket spring rolls with basil lemon mayo and chinese veg stir fry. The food was so amazing that we ordered the mango crumble with ice cream for dessert and nearly died of happiness.

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Friends is owned by a company that funds charity projects to help the street kids in Cambodia find work, and most of the staff there have been taken in as part of this scheme. We felt very happy to pay the bill plus a small tip for a good cause and we had a quick look at their charity shop next door before heading back (via the now huge piles of waste on the road outside). Next door to our hotel, Queen Wood (forgot to mention that yesterday I think) is a backpacker hotel called 11 Happy Backpackers and we were intrigued to see what their roof bar and rooms were like in comparison to ours. We had a couple of beers to very loud music (luckily the 80s classic rock had just started) but on our way to check out a room we saw a large cockroach that had made its way up 5 flights of stairs so we quickly left!

We'd had quite enough of Phnom Penh now but the weekend had scuppered all plans to get hold of a visa for Vietnam, even for Felix who had done his online and had to wait the extra 2 days for an authorisation letter. Tomorrow is visa day, and hopefully our last day in Cambodia too.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 11:21 Archived in Cambodia

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