Saturday, August 23, 2014

On being tourists in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh is not as crazy as the map suggests. (You know, the map that's sixty times more complicated than any map we have seen in months.)

it's two whole pages in the book!

But it's definitely a little crazy. Dusty streets buzz with traffic; this plus the heat/humidity combo give the air a kind of electricity. We walked to our Habitat-sponsored hotel from the central market bus station dodging motorbikes, wiping sweat, taking in the sights and sounds... and grinning the whole way. The vibe was a surprisingly welcome change of pace.

It's a big city but the perfectly parallel and perpendicular streets are named by number and the buildings have signs with their street address so it's (nearly) impossible to get lost. Large French-inspired boulevards make it easy to reassess your location if you do lose your way, and of course there's always a tuk-tuk if you need one. However, a $1 ride back to your guesthouse also costs you lots of patience as you negotiate out of an unneeded full-day guided tour from your driver.

Speaking of patience... Traffic is insane here - worse than we've seen anywhere in SE Asia. Not just the sheer number of vehicles and all the weaving and honking, which is all bad enough. But also the sitting. We spent hours sitting in traffic going to and from the Habitat site. Still, it's better than LA, NYC, or the DC area - and the roadside attractions are much more interesting!

after a five minute pinwheel impasse,
someone eventually backed up

and Buddha/Brahma help you if it rains

Phnom Penh has plenty to keep visitors occupied for a few days. Two places were particularly memorable: Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields, toured with the Habitat group) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (visited on our own).

Choeung Ek is 15km outside of town. About 9000 bodies were exhumed in 1980 and bones and clothing scraps continue to surface today during heavy rains. The audio tour included personal narratives of survivor stories as well as one account from a former Khmer Rouge officer. Certain images described are forever burned into our memory.

a peaceful memory of Choeung Ek

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as Security Prison 21, or S-21) is located downtown in a former school. It was a torture and execution center as well as a prison. An estimated 20,000 Khmers were detained there before being sent to Choeung Ek or other killing fields; only a handful survived.

barbed wire is still there

signs of life inside

Over the past sixteen months of our trip we have been to many sites that tested our emotional strength - Native American memorials, the camps at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Saigon's War Remnants Museum, Hanoi's Hoa Lo Prison, Vientiane's COPE Center - all heartbreaking in their own ways.

The Killing Fields (in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham) and Phnom Penh's Genocide Museum were moving on a whole different level though. The horrific acts by the Khmer Rouge were internally targeted and mercilessly carried out. We stood at mass grave sites. We viewed mounds of human skulls with visible hammer and gunshot wounds. We walked through cells where innocent citizens were imprisoned, tortured and eventually massacred for being religious, or for wearing glasses, or for not confessing to crimes they did not commit. Massacred by their own countrymen... There are no words.

As we were leaving the Genocide Museum we passed tables where a few survivors were selling memoirs and talking to visitors. We nodded hello but kept walking... What does one even say to someone who endured something like that? (In hindsight "I'm so sorry" probably would have been appreciated and I wish we hadn't been too shy - or too humbled? - to approach them and say as much. What would you have said to these gentlemen?)

We spent the next few hours wondering how former educators would turn so severely against the educated in their own communities; how this could have happened in our lifetime; why no one externally stepped in to stop it; and in how many other places (besides the ones we know about) it's happening now. The more we learn on this trip, the more we realize how little we know.

That was then, this is now. The country is slowly recovering from this brutal storm. This was particularly evident in Habitat's work, in the eighty bazillion NGOs around the city, and in the numerous investment projects by Japan, Korea and other nearby countries. It was also evident from the countless universities and ESL schools that lined the main streets along our daily route to the construction site. Education - punished 40 years ago - is a priority again.

And now the city is lively, busy, even shiny in parts. A few of the shinier tourist attractions included...

The Royal Palace

the National Museum

incense at Wat Phnom

Independence Monument

the Russian market

We visited these with our Habitat team. We skipped the Central and Night Markets (all "marketed" out at this point) but we hear those are fun too.

Visits to museums and monuments were rewarding; interactions with locals were even moreso. There was all that fun with the Habitat construction crew. There was the time when those awesome ladies bought us lunch. And then there was the time we got to our post-Habitat guesthouse and the little boy drew us pictures. He counted the stick figures in English; we counted them in Khmer and impressed the guesthouse staff with our preschool knowledge of their language.

moi bpee bai...

So many more thoughts, questions, emotions on past/present here in Cambodia. But we'll save some of these for future posts and just transition awkwardly to...

Food notes:
  • with our Habitat crew we tried some of the local specialties...
fish amok at Romdeng (an offshoot of Friends)

tarantula at Romdeng

yes he did...
and no she didn't

banana blossom salad

  • ... and some of the not-so-local food
Vietnamese food in Cambodia -
just not the same

chef salad - after 6 months in SE Asia it just had to be done

  • we did go to Friends - and we really recommend the food as well as the banana cashew shake (no photo, just trust us)

  • we also found the local supermarket for our yogurt-and-corn-flakes breakfasts (or sometimes dinners) and other western atrocities that we did not indulge in
half the country doesn't make $9.20 in a week -

  • and on our own we ate at Vitking House twice because it was close and it was that good
fried rice with apple and raisins - so interesting!

Lodging notes:
  • with Habitat we stayed at the Golden Gate - the room was nicer than our usual spots and the amenities (buffet breakfast? free laundry? an actual bathtub? air conditioning?) spoiled us to death!
we're never leaving

  • after our Habitat gig we stayed at Homeland Guesthouse - friendly owners, interesting neighborhood, great price
(see above photo of hand-drawn stick figures,
what other photos do you need?)

Granted, we only saw a tiny corner of Phnom Penh but we liked that corner a lot. We're glad we stayed a few extra days and hung out in a less-farang-heavy part of town. We already have tons of great memories from Cambodia and we're only halfway through our month.

And now it's time to make more memories in quiet, kitschy, seaside Kep!


  1. i need the one of Patrick with a lampshade on his head, twenty minutes after swallowing that tarantula