Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia

We travelled by bus for an uneventful, but uncomfortable seven-hour journey from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The lady sat in front of me fully reclined her chair and kept dangling her hands over the back. No concept of personal space, argh! During the journey we realised that the majority of Cambodia really isn't that beautiful or well kept. There's rubbish piled up just about everywhere, on country roads and in cities and the country is generally pretty dirty. This is a world about from Thailand, which is very pretty and feels very well looked after as a whole. The drive from the outskirts of Phnom Penh took ages in the heavy traffic, so we thought we were really close to our destination for well over an hour before we eventually pulled up at a tiny bus station.

We arranged a tuk tuk ride at the bus station, with the driver giving us a low price of 3 USD for what was quite a long distance. We told the driver we'd like to head to the 'Street 172' area of the city, as the Lonely Planet guide book suggests this is a good place to start if you don't have a booking. He took us straight to a pleasant guest house called Golden Boat 2, which had a lovely looking swimming pool and a pool table in the large lobby area. I thought this would cost more than we are used to, but we were amazed when they offered us a double room with a fan for 10 USD a night [around 6 GBP]! We later rebooked for two more nights and there seemed to be some confusion from the staff about the low price, so perhaps we got lucky somehow when we arrived on the first night. Whatever happened, the room was small, but nice, the bed was comfy and we enjoyed the extra facilities!

It was clear that the low tuk tuk journey fee from the bus station was so that we would book a tour with the driver the next day. This worked out fine, as his price was good, he was very friendly and spoke exceptionally good English. We arranged for him to pick us up from our guest house at 10am the next day, to take us first to the Tuol Sleng S-21 prison, followed by Choeung Ek aka The Killing Fields. This was to be a day of learning about the brutal history of Cambodia, which I have to admit I knew fairly little about. An estimated three-million Cambodian people died during the horrendous Pol Pot era, which is hard to believe happened in such recent history, in the late 1970s. Well worth reading up on.

The S-21 prison was formerly a school, before being hastily converted into a place of enprisonment and torture by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Most of the people were taken from here to Choeng Ek, a few miles away, where they were savagely beaten to death in what is now most commonly known at the Killing Fields,

The S-21 prison is a very sad place to visit, but it is also very interesting. The Killing Fields are also very sad, but a very beautiful memorial to the millions of people killed during this awful period of history. Both are definitely worth a visit if you can. I only took the one photo of the Killing Fields that you can see below, which is of a tree covered in friendship bracelets. I won't write about the specific history of this tree, but it was particularly harrowing. I didn't want to take or share any more photos of the Killing Fields, so that you can choose to look them up yourself if you would like, or perhaps visit here yourself one day, if you haven't already.

As with much of the rest of Cambodia, we found the centre of Phnom Penh to be chaotic and dirty and didn't particularly enjoy it. We ventured out a bit, but many of the places to eat were very samey and practically every restaurant or bar was heavily branded with giant, brighly lit Angkor Beer signs. which seemed to dominate the city.

After a sombre day of history, we headed to the Friends International Restaurant, which was only a short walk from our hotel. Or at least we discovered it was only a short walk away after spending hours trying to find it and ending up practically where we had started! This was recommended by our friend Jess and also by good old Lonely Planet. It's a tapas restaurant which trains disadvantaged youth, giving them a headstart in the local hospitality industry. The food was incredible and very reasonable priced too. An essential place to eat for any visitor to this city. The Friends shop next door sells great handmade stuff too, which also helps good causes.

The following day we explored the city a bit more and walked to the Royal Palace. After getting a bit lost, we finally found it, only to discover it was closed until 2pm! While we waited for the Royal Palace to open, we spent an hour or so enjoying Costa Coffee. Don't judge us - it was delicious and oh so air conditioned!

The Royal Palace had many similarities to the extravagant Royal Thai Palace in Bangkok. It was nice to walk around, but nowhere near as grand as the Thai one and quite a bit smaller. Some areas are closed to the public as the King still resides here permanently. A nice place to spend a couple of hours.

We did a bit of window shopping, before heading back out for dinner later in the evening. Emily was absolutely delighted to ride in a tuk tuk that looked like a jelly bean! We planned to go to the night market, but only discovered when asking for directions that it was shut, as it only opens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We checked ourselves, as often people say this for an alterior sales motive, but alas our market browsing plans were scuppered by our bad timing.

Phnom Penh was a good place to visit for the history aspect, but we could have squeezed everything we did and wanted to do into one day, which I would recommend.

We booked a bus through our guest house to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which cost 13 USD each. We already had visas for Vietnam, which you are required to arrange in advance. For this reason. we hoped this would make our border crossing much easier than the Thailand to Cambodia border crossing at Poi Pet, which you can read about here.

My next blog post will be about Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] in Vietnam.

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