Seeing the past, present and future in Phnom Penh

After 7+ long hours on the bus (omg the bus WiFi actually worked!), we arrived in Phnom Penh in time for rush hour. Our bus crawled the last 2 miles to the bus station. Happily, our tuk tuk from the hostel was waiting and could tell the descending hordes we were already accounted for. We ended up hiring our driver for the next day to visit some of the outlying sights starting at 8 am (free pick-up with hope that you will hire them for the next day seems pretty standard).

We chose 88 hostel because it wasn’t too crazy but still had a pool and bar. They have a pod room with double beds, so we were able to share a pod for $15 total. Since we booked directly with them, we got $3/each bar credit. We were a bit lazy the first night and just had the incredibly tasty bar food for dinner. Their potato wedges were perfectly battered and fried and their chicken skewers were well-seasoned. Rob went out later for snack with a group and ended up at the same chain if Mexican food we went to in Siam reap.

The next morning, we found two other women to share our tuk tuk headed to the Khmer Rouge historical sites, so we had a full cab.  While waiting on them, our driver mentioned that much of his family perished in the regime’s rule. I couldn’t do anything but try to express my sorrow for his loss. It was a good reminder of how recent the tragedy is to the Cambodians. Our first stop was the Killing Fields outside of town where the Khmer Rouge did their “disposal.” This Killing Field (many have been found) requires a drive outside of the city and through a small village ending in a pleasant seeming garden area with a tower among the trees. Not until you approach the tower can you make out the bones housed in its soaring crypt and the depressions of mass graves surrounding it. As much as it can be, this once terrible place has been transformed into a peaceful, verdant resting place for so many. Watching a video of the man who first stumbled upon the site describe his discovery was particularly heart breaking. Bullets were too expensive to be used so blunt force trauma followed by DTT poisoning was the method of choice.

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Memorial among the mass graves at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Then, we went headed back to town to visit to the Tuol Sleng/S-21 prison museum where people were cataloged, tortured and made to confess their “crimes” before execution. En route, our tuk tuk got a flat tire so we spent some time at a sugar cane stand waiting to get it fixed. We bought the hardest mango from the nice folks who cleared off a sitting spot for us. Here, they serve the green mango with a bowl of salt.

The prison museum looks remarkably non-sinister from the outside. In a neighborhood of shops, the former school is tucked back behind a large wall. You start by visiting the torture cells where dead prisoners were found after the Khmer Rouge abandoned the facility. Many of the original cells were kept intact so you can imagine the deplorable living conditions. One floor contained thousands of mug shots of all the S-21 victims; many were children. The methodical documentation of each person was incredible and included their background as well as their photo and confession. One of the foreigners tortured there and later killed laced his confession with pop culture references, so people would know it was a load of crock. Six people managed to survive imprisonment there by  having useful skills. Two of them have written books and were on hand to talk to visitors.

After the museum, we dropped off the Canadian women at the Russian market and continued on to the Cambodian television network station where the Pradal Serey fights were being filmed. A form of kick boxing, it was pretty brutal but no blood. One of the fighters look pretty woozy after being knocked out. When the competitors have each other in a head lock hug then try to knee each other, it looks pretty silly. We watched four matches with increasingly bigger and older fighters.

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Pradal Serey (kick boxing) at CTN studios 2-~4 pm on Saturday (someone mentioned more at 5 or 6 pm too) and again on Sunday at 2 pm

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CTN films the fights with a live audience so anyone can go watch for free. The fighters ranged from 17 to upper 20s. We saw a couple knockouts and a couple decisions, including one we both incorrectly guessed the winner.

For our second day in the city, we did a walking tour of Phnom Penh along with a visit to the Royal Palace. Since Rob had been up late at the street party, we rose late and had dim sum brunch near the central market. Some of the dim sum plates were the same price as back home, so we just tried a few things, which were all very good, especially the fried bean curd covered in garlic and chilies. Continuing southeast, we munched on some cakes from a street vendor and finally arrived a the Royal Palace just as it was reopening post-siesta.

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Us in front of one of the pavilions on the Palace grounds. To the far right is a building under construction that was a gift from France.

After finishing our tour of the Royal Palace and Temple grounds, we headed to the Golden Triangle for some snack via a number of parks.

 

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The Cambodia-Vietnam friendship monument that also serves as a roller rink and skate park.

 

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Cambodian Independence Monument. One guy was napping in the shaded area at the top.

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Rooftop bar where Rob went to party the night before. 50 cent beers sounded like a good proposition until we realized they were angkor draft beers. Oh well. They did come with some tasty nut mix. We might have made a ice cream stop at Blue Pumpkin before this.

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Finally the south Indian restaurant opened and we could get some dinner #1/late lunch.

Temporarily sated, we headed back to the riverside through all the parks we’d strolled through a couple hours prior. Before they had been nearly deserted, now at dusk, they were a hive of activity. Joggers and walkers looped the first park, an incredibly wide median while badminton, soccer and other games occupied the inside of the loop.

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Park in downtown Phnom Penh at dusk.

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Tons of locals in the riverside park outside the Royal Palace at dusk.

Reaching the hostel after dark, we met up with another American just in from Vietnam and had BBQ at a local place for our last Cambodian dinner (yes, dinner #2). We had whole prawns and beef grilled over charcoal just a few meters from our table. The genial restaurant manager or owner? came over and gave us instructions on how to eat our food using the correct sauces and accouterments to eat our meats and the pile of chilled veggies. It was a nice end to our stay in Cambodia. The next morning we caught a 7 hour bus for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

 

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