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Phnom Penh

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Soundtrack: 'Walking In The Rain' - Scott Walker

Vietnam had wiped me out.  Mentally and emotionally, I was exhausted.  Arriving in Cambodia I didn't want to do anything.  A new country hadn't suddenly given me fresh impetus, I needed to rest and rest good before I could find any enthusiasm to continue with the travelling process.  

On thing I thought I had escaped was the assault of motorbike-taxi riders offering to take you places, but if anything it was even worse here!  As soon as they see you coming from the far end of the street, they begin shouting at you, waving their arms, ignoring any efforts to tell them that you aren't interested.  Unlike in Vietnam, I get the feeling that they are offended if you either ignore them or offer a curt response.  But, if you politely refuse, you can still get bogged into a conversation of further offers.  Perhaps they feel that, taken on an individual basis, it is not asking much for you to have a short chat with them about whether you want to go somewhere.  A reasonable request and they have a right to offer their services to make a living.  But, it really is very difficult to go anywhere in the city and survive as much as two minutes, usually much less, without getting the next offer.  Looking at the ground as you walk can help a little, but as soon as you start looking up to search for something or to view the city that you have travelled so far to see, the crescendo of offers rises again.  

After resisting the efforts of an extremely persistent rider outside the bus (His final angry assessment: "You're fucking crazy!"), I walked to an area in the north of the city which totally exhausted me in the heat.  It is apparently popular with backpackers and full of hotels.  They all shouted and called at me to come and stay at their place.  After a while of walking around these rough-track alleyways, I decided that the whole area was crap.  I found a motorbike rider who wasn't shouting at me and asked him to take me to another place on the south of the city.  I showed him my map but he asked me to speak the name of where I wanted to go because "I am blind".  It struck me that this might be a big problem for someone riding a motorbike for a living, but I trusted that he just meant he was shortsighted or something.  

He was a nice guy and we chatted as he pointed out landmarks on my journey.  I had to go to a bank before I could pay him.  To my surprise, the cashpoint only delivered US dollars, not the local riel.  Subsequently I found that the prices for almost everything are in dollars.  Possibly the more local places use riel, but I haven't really discovered that yet.  The only time I get them are when I need change for half a dollar or a quarter because they only have US notes, not coins.  

Next I had to find my guesthouse.  As always, the Lonely Planet map leaves you with a little bit of work to do.  It's not entirely their fault this time though.  The streets are all numbered in sequence, rather than names, a bit like in some US cities.  This makes navigation a little simpler for a visitor.  The difficult bit is the numbering of the buildings.  Whilst they all have numbers, there is little or no attempt at sequencing.  It really is random and the same number may appear twice at different places on the same street.  You just have to walk up and down until you find what you're after.  As the guidebook says, pity the postman.  

I took a room at Top Banana then went out to buy a proper guidebook for the country, rather than the composite guide for the countries around the Mekong Delta which I had used so far.  Then it was off to dinner at an open restaurant across the road from the guesthouse.  The two establishments are close enough that I could usually get a small wireless internet signal from the restaurant to connect to my laptop in my room or on the balcony.  But, I still received half a dozen invitations to take a motorbike ride every time I walked between the two.  

I spent the next day doing little in the area.  The day after I transferred my laziness to the places on the river front area before returning to the south-central area for hanging around on the day after that.  But, by day five, I actually did something.  

Cambodian history in the second half of the twentieth century is dominated by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge group.  They came to power in April 1975 and immediately set about implementing a brutal regime of extreme communism.  By the time they were finally ousted by the Vietnamese in January 1979, between one and two million people (depending upon whose estimate you believe) had been murdered or starved to death.  Central to this were the famous Killing Fields south of the city, where over 17,000 men, women and children were executed and buried in mass graves.  All of these people had first endured a long stay at the notorious Tuel Sleng S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.  

The prison today looks fairly innocuous and it probably did in its day also as it was only a converted school.  In fact, what really made it look creepy to me was a couple of days later was when I walked past a real school that looked exactly the same.  Inside the complex are many rooms which are empty except for the old bed frames that victims were chained to while they were tortured and interrogated.  A large photo often adorned the wall showing the same bed in the same empty room with a mutilated dead body on it, as it was when the Vietnamese first arrived.  

Moving into the next building, there were large murals of mugshots taken by the captors of all the inmates.  It struck me that they were quite interesting in an almost artistic way and I read a few weeks later in a newspaper that there is a controversy that some foreign collectors are buy them for that very reason.  I tried to take the time to look each person in the eyes.  Perhaps the most interesting ones were those who, deliberately or otherwise, wore an expression of defiance.  There was also a picture of an Australian man included, although his was a personal picture rather than an official file photo.  Consequently, with his over-sized seventies hair and his ridiculous disco-sized collar, it almost looked rather comical.  

Next was a building of solitary confinement cells and then a section of blurbs outlining the history of the place and the regime itself.  Perhaps most shocking was to learn how long the Khmer Rouge survived after their downfall and the international support they received, including the fact that they continued to hold Cambodia's seat at the United Nations for over another eleven years!  (Although, I think they chose to boycott it - I'm still reading about the history).  China had always been their biggest supporter, mainly due to a falling out with the Vienamese Communist faction at the time.  The US were naturally looking to do everything possible to undermine the Vietnam-backed government that took over.  The British even helpfully sent the SAS in during the eighties to show the Khmer Rouge how to plant landmines.  

I watched an hour-long documentary while I was there, built around a married couple who were separated by the government rules and then, unbeknown to each other, were both held at S-21 for a few months at the same time before their respective executions.  The film used this as a basis to explore more general aspects of what went on there.  

One section showed a former prisoner meeting a former guard many years later.  The prisoner was one of only seven people to survive, because they had been artists.  Afterwards, he had produced several paintings depicting the atrocities that took place and prints of these paintings are today on display at the prison.  The film had the two men walking around this display talking about it.  It was fascinating to watch the interplay between the them.  The prisoner, clearly the much bigger personality of the two, didn't want to blame anyone for what had taken place.  What was in the past was in the past and he didn't want to soak his future life in the upset that blame brings.  The guard looked extremely nervous and couldn't stop smiling and nervously laughing in that way that so many people in this area of the world do when they are unsure of themselves.  The prisoner was keen to prove that his paintings were not lies and would repeatedly ask "This is true, yes?  This really happened?  I did not make this picture up?", to which the guard kept nervously replying "Err, yes".  

Afterwards I went to a nearby restaurant called Del Gusto, which had been recommended to me and was indeed excellent.  Try the crispy polenta or the gourmet sandwich if you're ever there.  As I type this now, back there a month later, I have taken my own advice and just ordered the former.  At the end of the evening, they let me stay on and use the wifi while they tidied up and while I waited for the rain storm to die down.  In the end I was sitting out on the balcony waiting but when it looked like it would never end I figured that I had no choice but to brave the elements while the downpour was merely heavy.  Walking downstairs though, I found that the staff hadn't realised I was still there and had locked up and gone home.  That is to say, I was locked inside!  I weighed up the possibilities of going back upstairs, through the open door and sleeping on their comfy chairs for the night, but decided to first have a go at climbing over the gate.  It was eight-foot tall, spiked and perilously slippy in the torrential rain, but I just about managed to get over it without impaling myself.  

The twenty minute walk home still took another hour though, as I had to stop to take shelter under things when the heavy rain became really heavy.  I was pretty much soaked when I got back.  The main door of the guesthouse was locked but the motorbike riders were able to direct me to the back-door fire-exit which was open.  I was able to get in, but the water pouring off the guttering soaked me completely such that I needn't have bothered wasting time sheltering as I walked back in the first place.  

The guesthouse was run by a Cambodian family.  They had a little girl who was always hanging around trying to amuse herself.  She looked about four years old to me, but someone told me that she was actually seven.  She was partially deaf and so couldn't go to school but she never left the guesthouse so never seemed to meet any other children to play with and often got ignored by her family who were too busy doing other things.  She was always running over to try to play and I tried to teach her to go cross-eyed by holding up one finger in front of her eyes and moving it closer.  She couldn't do it but every time she saw me she demonstrated her latest efforts, which were just holding the finger against her nose while looking upwards and left as hard as she could.  

The father struck me as being a particular arsehole.  He lacked the patience to tell her anything properly and she often ignored his barked instructions, either because she couldn't hear them properly or because she was just too much of a lively handful, so he often resorted to chasing after her and hitting her.  I think he was embarrassed when I stared at him frowning intently after this, but I doubt it changed his behaviour any in the future.  I noticed that a lot of her playing with me would involve hitting, which was probably a case of monkey-see, monkey-do.  Normally I would have joined in but in this instance I thought it best not to encourage her.  I considered moving to another guesthouse, but I was the only one who played with her so it probably wouldn't have helped her and besides, any business I am taking away is taking bread off her table as much as it is his.  

A couple of days later I went down to the Killing Fields themselves.  They are twelve kilometres south of the city centre so I had to get a ride there.  I tried to ask the guy who ran the guesthouse what a good price for a motorbike would be, but all he would do was point at his friend waiting outside and tell me it was ten dollars.  I walked the first kilometre, partly to stretch my legs and partly because I wanted to find a bike with a rider who wasn't shouting at me to hire him.  The rider I found was a nice guy and I explained exactly why I had chosen him, hoping it would give encouragement to keep quiet in the future.  He assured me that he never did the shouting anyway.   He had been a monk for twenty years but nowadays worked four days of the week as a policeman and the other three days as a motorbike taxi rider "because I have two children".  

The ride went first through the busy city streets, at one point pausing while we crawled our way though a dense crowd of cars all trying to make their own way over a five-way junction whilst a brave traffic policeman stood in the middle with a whistle, having absolutely no effect whatsoever on the motionless chaos around him.  

The congestion soon gave way to increasingly open fields.  The site itself is unassuming and surprisingly small.  There is a mid-sized tower you can walk around which is filled with skulls in a glass cabinet rising high up to the top.  The skulls are arranged in marked sections depending upon age and sex.  There is also a small museum but this was still being built so I couldn't go inside.  A guide gave a group of people a ten minute talk and then you are free to spend twenty minutes or so walking around until you decide to go home.  

What took place here is no less shocking than the prison.  Truckloads of blindfolded prisoners were brought in and taken off one by one to the edge of a grave to be executed.  To save on expensive bullets, they were usually beaten to death with iron bars or bamboo sticks to the head.  Small children would be picked up by their feet and have their heads swung against a tree, killing them with a single blow.  During this, load music was played so the other prisoners, unknowingly waiting their turn, wouldn't realise what was happening.  I had chatted and joked with the motorbike rider on the way out there, but said little on the way back.  

The other must-see site in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace site, including the Silver Pagoda.  It's a beautiful city but the collection of grand buildings here is truly remarkable.  Some of it was sadly closed for access, but you can still see it all from the other end and run off some pictures of them.  

As the days ticked by I also walked up to Wat Phnom, a wat sitting atop the only hill in the city.  It's full of beggars who are naturally attracted to westerners.  As a rule, I refuse to give anything to beggars, telling myself that when I get home I will sit down on the internet one night and find a number of charities operating in the countries I have visited and make donations to them instead.  Most beggars in Cambodia have been victims of landmines so you do feel particularly bad refusing to give to someone with missing limbs and/or obviously blind.  

Walking around afterwards I went to the train station.  Although no trains run from here any more, I was able to walk through the gate and spend some time trying, with little success, to take interesting photographs of the old trains sitting abandoned on the overgrown tracks.  The strong Cambodian sun doesn't help any either.  It's a very colourful country, particularly the greenery after the rain, but the sun bleaches so much of it out and I guess I'm just too lazy to get up very early in the morning before it's got too bright.  

Twelve days had gone by in Phnom Penh. I had done little, like I planned, to try and relax after Vietnam but I didn't feel relaxed.  So, I put myself on a bus to the beach city of Sihanoukville, on the south coast to see if I could chill out any more there.  


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Phnom Penh + Sihanoukville, Cambodia