Phnom Penh (Cambodia), 27.07.2013
Yesterday got kick started by a phone call from the reception. “Your pickup for the bus is here.” It was 07:00, and I was getting ready to leave half an hour later. “You told me they would pick me up in half an hour, tell them to wait.” Speed shower-packing-checkout. A tuktuk drove me to the bus station, as the pick-up service had not waited. I thought I’d barely make it to the bus, but I was the first to get on board. So much to the timeliness. 45 minutes after the scheduled departure, the Giant Ibis luxury bus with aircon, WiFi (!!), drinks, breakfast and Hollywood movies on a big flatscreen TV in the front (one way ticket for 14 USD) left Siem Reap.
In a few days there are elections scheduled in Cambodia, every couple of km there was a party on the road going on. I could only spot one political party holding these though, the governing Cambodian Peoples Party. I looked for gatherings of people with other colors, banners, logos, but nothing. Truckloads of people in white t-shirts, white caps and white and blue flags kept dancing to loud music, waving and smiling at us as we drove by. The party apparently also had an office in every town. People were distributing bottles of water among demonstrators. In a tuktuk, I saw one guy with a bottle of whiskey instead.
We drove through endless fields, dotted with palms, some covered with water, others in all shades of green. Especially a light, shiny green struck me for its brightness. Houses had ponds in front of them, separating them from the street. Plenty of these were covered with water lilies. In the towns houses stood on poles, probably to save them from flooding. I had seen this in Thailand too. At noon it started to rain suddenly, but just for 20-30 minutes. Then the sun came out again. We stopped for a quick lunch at half way, fried rice with meat and a coke for USD 5.
At around 14:00 we reached the final stop. Driving into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had been nothing spectacular. Many low rise houses, tons of scooters and cars. The first impression was very positive though, a modern, bustling city. Knowing a bit about the country’s history, I had expected a much poorer place, misery, people bearing the scars of war, terror and land mines. I found nothing of all that. Out of the bus, the usual hard selling tuktuk drivers assaulted the passengers. I took my trolley and walked down the riverside promenade to find my hotel. Streets are numbered in this city, making it easy to find your way around. I passed plenty of restaurants and bars with tons of people on the terraces having a good time.
At the hotel, I saw a sign near the counter offering tours to several sights. I chose to take a deep dive into the darkest side of the city, and left soon after in a tuktuk. It took 45 mins through heavy traffic to reach the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial, a former killing field. The site on the outskirts of town is in the middle of a residential area, a place you wouldn’t spot from the street. It was completely silent, none of the visitors spoke. It is frightening to think about how until 34 years ago people were killed here almost daily. And they were not shot, that would have wasted precious bullets. They were slaughtered with all kinds of tools in the most cruel ways, to the tune of communist propaganda music and a diesel generator, so that the neighbours wouldn’t hear anything. There was a tree against which children were smashed to death. Over 9000 bodies were found on this small site alone. The Khmer Rouge communists managed to kill 3m out of an 8m population in just 4 years. And their leader kept on living unharmed after his regime was toppled until he died naturally not too long ago. A stupa has been erected on the site, containing skulls unearthed here. I entered it, and it was frightening because the distance between the glass container of the relics and the glass walls of the building was little. Every time I went around a corner of the rectangular building there were skulls at 10cm distance from my face.
I left silently, and the way back into town led through even worse traffic then before. The tuktuk driver tried to fight his way forward through every possible and impossible space that opened up in front of us. There were mountains of litter on what by now had become part of the street as scooters and tuktuks started to take over the fringes of the road. Trucks blew their diesel fumes right in everybody’s faces. The many big SUVs did the same. As it started to get dark, we suddenly entered a street with a light blue building complex behind a wall and barbed wire: the Tuol Sleng, a former school converted into torture and execution prison by the Khmer Rouge also known as S-21. Many people that were not killed here directly had been driven to the killing field from here. I could imagine the kids sitting in their classrooms as I walked from one room to the next. But then I saw the metal beds to which the prisoners were tied. There were pictures on some rooms’ walls of the last victims they had found on the beds when the complex was freed. People died here, this was a place of suffering, of unimaginable horrors. There were torture rooms and detention rooms, that had cells with brick or wooden walls to subdivide the original classrooms, and rooms for mass detention. In one building pictures of the victims were on display. Hundreds of people stared at me, and they all would have been dead shortly after the pictures had been taken. I wondered if they knew what would have happened to them in the moment the pictures were taken. Many looked very angry. There were also pictures of the dead. It was dark by now, and the only light I had was the flash of my camera. As I walked through the rooms lighting up sporadically, people’s faces appeared in the dark and then vanished again. In another building the torturing tools were on display, and paintings showed how the guards treated the victims. These included not just people of other political ideology, but intellectuals, academics, doctors, business people, and even plenty of members of the Khmer Rouge regime – pretty much the entire skilled class of society. Homo homini lupus.
Back at the hotel I needed a moment to relax, to digest the afternoon. I went to find a restaurant for dinner, strolling down the riverside promenade. The night was busy, but mostly with tourists. I was too tired to venture further into the city to discover something more interesting and after dinner and a couple of cold beers I closed this day full of impressions, many of them quite tough ones actually. The next morning started slow, with a long breakfast at the fancy cafe across the street. The sun was shining outside, the food was good, and the coffee exceptional (the first decent one since the bar in Kathmandu). I spent some time reading and preparing the next days of traveling.
Then I went to check the city, just walking through the streets erratically as I do often when I don’t know a place. The downside is that I might miss great sights not knowing they are there. But the good side is that, as I’m not searching for any specific sight, I see everything around me in a more balanced way and find scenes, places, people that I wouldn’t have appreciated otherwise. And so I found that Phnom Penh is actually not just a busy city, but also a very cool one. Off the riverside, into the area behind the royal palace there are plenty of stylish places. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques, tailors, hotels, spas, even a skate board store and a newspaper stand converted into a t-shirt booth. All nicely designed and furnished, trendy places, in the middle of the traditional shops of the area. I crossed a market, with its colors, chaos, energy, commerce, smells. As so often in Southeast Asia pretty much everything was on sale, from food to household goods to clothes. The day went by discovering this cambodian capital of cool, and I must say it is another of these positive surprises of this journey.
As night fell, the shops slowly closed and the bars and restaurants filled up. Phnom Penh doesn’t loose it’s colors in the dark, nightlife keeps the city vibrant. Traffic goes down though, but maybe that was a one off effect since many places were closed the night before the elections and it was forbidden to sell alcohol. I had found some interesting restaurants, with contemporary Khmer cuisine. I walked to the first one, Romdeng, a couple of blocks from my hotel. Also here the hookers are out on the street, but they are not as straightforward as in Bangkok. Since the restaurant was closed tonight, I took a tuktuk to the next one. The driver got lost and so I took a tour through more areas by night. There are many big cars on the streets here, especially Toyota Landcruisers, big Lexus’, Range Rovers. Our car would not have been noticed too much here. The riverside is more of a touristy area, with booze bars (although tonight was slow due to the alcohol ban) and cheap hotels where tall western guys check in with petite Asian girls. Once off the riverside, also at night the nicer places appear. We finally reached Malis, a fantastic culinary temple around a courtyard pond. It is very tastefully designed, the tables are arranged in a very chic half open air area. I had to drink mineral water, but the food was absolutely fantastic. I started with some delicious scallops with thinly chopped vegetables and fresh pepper corns. Then came some grilled shrimps on an eggplant-basil-peanut tartine. Desert consisted of a mousse of honey and ginger with fresh fruit. What a great finale of the stay in this surprise town!