Monday, July 19, 2010

Phnom Penh

The capital of Cambodia is nothing like what we were expecting. Having been warned that there was a lot of poverty and pollution, we were expecting to find something that was decades behind Vietnam with rats galore. Instead, we found a city with decent roads, blue sky, plenty of nice pubs and restaurants and we only saw one rat.

We were also warned that Cambodia is very corrupt, one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We encountered this within a couple of minutes of stepping off the plane, when we went to apply for our visa (they do a visa-on-arrival here, like in Bali). We had forgot to check the requirements, and so didn't realise that we needed a passport photo. However, when we told the guy at the counter he just said that we could just give him US$2 and it would be no problem! Of course when we got our official receipt it was minus the $2, so I've no doubt that it went straight into his pocket. Still, I think that we could have been out of pocket by even more had we elected to cross overland, as we have heard some pretty crazy stories of people being charged up to $50 for a $20 visa.

The other thing that we noticed within the first few minutes is that everyone here speaks English. I'm not just talking about the old "hello where you from", but proper conversational English. English is so widely spoken that it is easy to get lazy and not bother learning a couple of the local phrases. However, because of that, a simple "hello" or "thank you" seems to be appreciated a lot more than in Japan, China and Vietnam.

Another idiosyncracy is the use of two currencies, the US dollar and the Cambodian Real. Most tourist attractions and restaurants catering to foreigners give prices in US dollars. However, local places and small value purchases are often quoted in real. Also, while a price for an ice-cream might be US$2.50, they do not use anything smaller than the one dollar note, so change is given in real. So, when paying for the ice-cream, you can either give one dollar and six thousand real, or two dollars and two thousand real, or ten thousand real, or three dollars and get two thousand real change and so on and so forth. It was extremely confusing trying to think in two different currencies and it always took me ages to pay for anything. Michael thinks, and I agree, that the widespread use of the US dollar has pushed prices up in Cambodia. After all, who is going to turn down a beer for $1? In fact, $1 for a beer in SE Asia is expensive, but they can get away with it because it sounds so cheap.

From the airport, we were picked up by the hotel's resident tuk-tuk driver. A tuk-tuk, or remorque-moto, is a motorbike with a little 4-seater carriage towed along behind it. In my opinion it is the best way to travel, as you are going slow enough to take in your surroundings while still being perfectly comfortable.

We got our guesthouse, which was called Me Mates Place. The staff were friendly, but we found it relatively pricey given the lack of hot water, windows and internet and the distance from the main drag (a good 10-15 mins walk every night).

We didn't do anything worth mentioning on the day that we arrived, but on the second day we visited the Royal Palace. The buildings are quite recent, only built in the 1800's (although by Aussie standards that would make it ancient!) but they are very beautiful with vibrant colours and plenty of gold plating.

One of the buildings inside is called the Silver Pagoda, as it is supposedly covered in 5,000 silver tiles. This is the official temple of the King (Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy... the king apparently lives in the palace but in a different section. He must not have known that we were coming otherwise I'm sure he would have made an appearance). We didn't see any tiles, but we did see the 17th century Baccarat crystal Buddha and the life-sized gold Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds. The pagoda was filled with all sorts of goodies made from precious gems and metal, it was pretty overwhelming to see so much wealth in one spot. If they had an auction I'm pretty sure that Cambodia wouldn't have to worry about poverty again for a really long time.

The next day we went to Wat Phnom, which is a temple on an artificial hill surrounded by a park. The temple was uninspiring but the park is the real attraction. It has a huge floral clock, bats, a troop of monkeys and even its own elephant. We walked around for a bit, watching Samba the elephant getting a bath, and laughing at the monkeys. We were fascinated by how human they seemed when we saw one using his little hands to rummage through a plastic bag trying to find something edible, nibbling on something and then throwing it over his shoulder in disgust when it was not to his liking.

Afterwards we went down to the main drag to watch a documentary on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, to prepare ourselves for the next day when we would be visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum based in the old S21 prison where they used to torture and kill people suspected of being traitors.

For those who don't know the story, Pol Pot was inspired by Mao's Great Leap Forward to empty all the cities (Phnom Penh was completely empty for about 54 months!) and put the entire population to work in the country to grow rice. No money, no ownership, no religion, no families, no education. The goal was to create the ultimate utopia where everyone was equal. To protect his 'utopia' he also had the Khmer Rouge kill anyone with an education, anyone with glasses, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone whose skin wasn't the right colour, anyone religious, anyone who didn't work hard enough and basically just anyone suspicious, even people from his own party. The result was that around a quarter of the population was wiped out through torture, murder or famine. The most amazing thing was that this all happened less than 40 years ago, between 1975 and 1979 and the rest of the world was oblivious until after it was all over.

This is after the Americans carpet-bombed the place for 4 years between 1969 and 1973 in an attempt to drive out the Viet Cong. They didn't succeed, but managed to kill about 150,000 Cambodian civilians (Nixon again, nice work moron).

This country has had some serious bad luck, though you wouldn't know it to see it today. The people are among the nicest we've met on our trip and the touristy areas of town are in better condition than some parts of Hanoi. Watching the documentary gave us a huge appreciation for their optimistic outlook and made us really impressed with how far the country has come since then.

However, one thing that we have noticed is the large number of beggars on the streets. We didn't see that many in China or Vietnam, but in Cambodia we encountered a couple everytime we ventured out onto the street, more or less depending on the area. Most of them are missing at least one limb, some with horrific disfigurements and even some people with no arms or legs. What is even worse is that it is the people who are most in need who miss out. If I see a lady with a baby, a blind old man or someone missing arms or legs it is so easy to say 'that's so sad, let's give them something'. However, it is completely different when you see someone groaning on the floor, covered in burns, or a man who follows you to your tour bus and knocks on the windows while staring at you. As horrible as it makes me feel, I can't help but recoil from these people, even though the pity that you feel for them is so bad that makes you want to cry.

That evening we came back to the restaurant to see the football game between Brazil and the Netherlands. We sat next to an English bloke who was saving a table for his mates. He lives in Cambodia, having married one of the local women, and gave us a fascinating insight into daily life in Cambodia. He was telling us that there is a guy who stands on the same corner everyday, who offers the services of young girls (as young as 7) if he happens to walk past without his wife. The child sex industry is obviously a big problem over here, although we have not seen any first-hand evidence of it. Lots of the tuk-tuks have posters on the back giving a hotline for people to call if they witness any suspicious behaviour, and we have heard stories from people who have seen seedy Westerners in tuk-tuks with young local girls and boys.

When the English bloke's friends came they were also Westerners living in Cambodia, having married Cambodian women. We actually saw the same guys the night before and commented on how young their girlfriends were. We just assumed that they were travellers who had picked up some young local girls for a fling, but were surprised to find out that they had actually married them and were providing for them, which just goes to show that you can never judge a book by it's cover.

The next day we went with a tour group to see the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum. It was very depressing to be in these places where so many horrible things have happened. Particularly the Killing Fields, where the evidence is all around you, rather than just in pictures. Due the sheer amount of bodies buried there (tens of thousands), they have not been able to exhume them all. As a result, as we followed the tour guide we were actually walking over visible bone fragments and decomposing scraps of clothing which are exposed by the gradual erosion of the soil. One area of the pathway had been roped off due to the large concentration of remains which had become exposed over the last few months. When a large piece of bone becomes exposed it is pulled out of the soil and placed in a large clear box.

I was horrified when we stopped in the shade of a beautiful old tree and our guide informed us that this was the tree where they attached speakers which blasted out music to drown out the screams, and then he took us to another tree where he calmly told us that this is the tree that the soldiers would use to bash the babies' heads against, since they didn't waste bullets at the Killing Fields due to economical reasons.

Then we went to the Tuol Sleng Museum, an old high school which was converted to Security Prison 21 (S21) by the Khmer Rouge. The photographs of mutilated dead bodies were very confronting and there were several rooms just dedicated to photographs of the thousands of people who passed through the doors. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their activities so there is plenty of evidence showing what went on. The Khmer Rouge leader who was in charge of S21 (Duch) has recently been put on trial for crimes against humanity and severe breaches of the Geneva Convention (the wheels of justice turn very slowly here) and the verdict is supposed to be delivered on July 26. Michael and I are eager to hear the outcome, especially after having seen the evidence first-hand. Apparently Duch is the only one of the Khmer Rouge leaders to show remorse and take responsibility for his crimes. Whether that will have any impact on his sentence remains to be seen, as it the first trial of its kind to be held in Cambodia. We were distressed to hear that Pol Pot was never held accountable for his actions, and died a natural death in 1998, so we hope at least that the rest of the people in charge are finally brought to justice.

After that extremely depressing outing we would like to have gone and seen a Disney movie, but unfortunately there are no cinemas, so we went and read our books before hitting the markets that evening for a spot of shopping. There was a night market which was set up on the main strip, and here we found out that people do not try to rip you off as much as in Vietnam or China. For example, the average price for a souvenir t-shirt is $2, so some shops might try and charge $3 however plenty of places will just tell you $2 straight off. If they tell you a higher price it does not take much to get them to lower it, if you can be bothered haggling over $1, which I usually don't. Michael got a couple of t-shirts, as his are starting to get see-through, and I bought a singlet top.

The next morning we packed our bags and boarded a bus for Siem Reap for our second and final stop in Cambodia.

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