The intensity of the Asian sub-continent is something that draws me back…time and again.
The minute I step into any country, the intensity pf everything just screams and jolts me to the core of my senses; the heat and humidity, the peppery spicy food and the shrieks of hawkers touting their wares, whether it be hotel rooms, tuk-tuk rides, articles of clothing or even massages. This is quite evident in Cambodia.
From the air as the plane edged towards Phnom Penh, I observed alot of constructions taking place, like there is a rebuilding of some sort. On ground, once I landed, the sticky sweat engulfed me in an uncomfortable embrace. Just outside the airport, was a sign post pointing out where one could get a tuk tuk ride, and naming the price as 7 dollars. (The U.S dollar is the de-facto currency in Cambodia, which means…you run through money very fast). I identified a driver, and offered him the payment upfront, in a crisp ten dollar bill. He counted out the change, while mumbling that he had taken one dollar extra as a tip leaving me wondering whether that was compulsory for a service not yet rendered. As he stuffed my baggage and handbag on the floor of the tuk tuk, he examined the print out of the hotel I had chosen and was aware of the location. However, he looked at the price closely.
“36 dollar? No, no…too expensive, I can take you to a cheaper hotel and it is right beside the Mekong River,” he quickly added, wary that I may not accept the offer, as the hostel I have chosen promises nice views of the Mekong. I am appreciative of his desire to take me to a cheaper place (possibly for a commission to himself) but I had already booked and possibly pre-paid for the room through Booking.com, I wouldn’t want to be penalized for a no-show and pay double. Some hotels do that, so I firmly insisted he takes me to the hostel of my choice.
Cambodians seemed overly friendly, warm and willing to engage in conversation. I put in a mental note to take a crash course in Khmer next time I pass through the country, as I barely understand their heavily accented English and keep on asking them to repeat what they are saying. I as well discover that any time I disembark from a tuk tuk, stop to buy something or even bargain, I am immediately swarmed by children, teenagers or even someone lame sticking out a hand, “Wan dolla?” they ask almost melodiously, “Give me wan dolla?”
I strolled outside my hostel, in search of a place I can eat a meal. I ruled out street food…after all, before this trip, I had to have a few vaccinations on my doctor’s advice as well as a couple of malaria-prevention tablets. My research has as well come up with the advice that it would be a bad idea to get ill here. So I think, prevention is better than cure. I walk into a clean looking restaurant. It is an english restaurant along the banks of the Mekong. I’m pleasantly surprised by the meal I have. Some french fries, a cold glass of coca-cola and minced meat onion pies with sauce.
As I walk past after having had my meal, a lady I have just bought a book from, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, quickly signals to her caramel-skinned five-year old to follow me.
I have just bought a book, and while buying the book at the stand, gave a dollar to an older child who had an outstretched hand and pitiful large brown eyes that gazed straight into mine. It gets you to wonder, about the kids begging on the streets and the adults encouraging them. More shocking is the fact that over the years, the Kingdom has become a sending, recieving and transit country for human trafficking, many underage girls being sold by their own families into prostitution.
You sense that things were not always this way in Cambodia. Adults tell of a time of normalcy; sitting as children under coconut trees, reading stories about amazing places, singing songs, swimming in the river and growing up happily with dreams of a great future. Pol Pot’s name is connected to the disconnect that is Cambodia. He is remembered as one of the most brutal and radical dictators the 20th century has witnessed. He declared “Year Zero” when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and immediately embarked on a ruthless program designed to ‘purify Cambodian society of capitalism, western culture, religion and all foreign influences.’ He wanted to create Cambodia into an isolated and totally self-sufficient Maoist agrarian state. Anyone who opposed him was killed in the most horrific of ways. Markets, schools, newspapers, religious practices and private property were forbidden. Members of the Lon Nol government, public servants, police, military officers, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, clergy, the middle class and the educated were identified and executed. Cities were emptied out, families broken up, and everyone forced to work in rural labor camps. At the end of this dark period, an estimated 2 million Cambodians or 30% of the country’s population had died by starvation, torture or execution.
The road to the genocide museum is quite dusty and dry, you weave through the twists and turns at the back of a tuk-tuk while noticing the many small pieces of nylon paper strewn all over, giving the illusion that there is no organized city cleaning department. Perhaps people just toss the nylons after they have drunk the popular sugar cane juice served with a straw by most stalls on the road side. The law enforcement is quite weak and it seems that whole families live in poverty, on the streets. Very often a bad smell comes about, and you get to see the source; a lake of green sewage with frothy white bubbles. You are grateful for the nose masks.
Your hotel/hostel will most likely arrange tours for you via a friendly tuk-tuk if you have no prior arrangements made. He may charge between 10-15 dollars for a day tour where he can take you to the killing fields (choeung ek), the Independence monument, Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, Royal palace, central market, Silver Pagoda etc.
The hotel/hostel is as well useful for transportation to Siem Reap. I bought a 15 dollar ticket from the hostel reception for a bus to pick me up at the hostel to Siem Reap. The bus arranged for us was from Giant Ibis Transport. The bus was very comfortable, and they provided a snack and water enroute plus one stop for lunch along the way.