Phnom Penh, Cambodia – We got to watch the last four minutes of the Super Bowl as we ate breakfast our first morning in Phnom Penh. And after getting to watch Talladega Nights while eating dinner the previous night, I knew this guesthouse was gonna be alright. But then I saw they charged for toilet paper I was a little dismayed. And they had a weird accounting system: each room had a notebook where you wrote down what you ordered or if you took a drink from the coolers. Then you had to get an employee to put a check mark net to it as some kind of approval. It was kind of a waste of time.
The first mission of the day was to get more pages added to Tina’s passport. On the way to the US embassy, we stopped off at Wat Ounalom for a visual introduction to classic Khmer architecture – tiered temples topped with pointy towers in a courtyard flanked by smaller towers. From our hotel we can see towers spread across town but this was the first time we got to see one up close.
Getting pages added was pretty easy, altho time consuming. In Beijing it took me about 15 minutes, but it took us over an hour to get pages for Tina – partially because all services for US citizens were handled by one window. While Tina was in line, I filled my time eavesdropping on the window where a steady stream of paunchy balding white guys were trying to get paperwork for their soon-to-be Cambodia brides.
After lunch by the riverfront, we took a tuk-tuk to the Laos embassy to get the process started for our visa. For some unknown reason, they needed THREE photos of each of us. Planning ahead, based on past experience, I had brought only one set. At this point it was more cost effective to use the service our hotel offered instead of taking a tuk-tuk back to the embassy. Apparently, we weren’t the only people with frustrating visits to the embassy – on papers tacked next to the service window people had scribbled comments about how lazy and stupid Laotian people were. I guess they can’t read English either.
Since my fancy – and expensive – Patagonia socks were already falling apart after only four months of use, we headed to the Psar Tuol Tom Pong, or Russian Market, which is filled with stalls selling clothes made by factories of companies like Gap, Banana Republic, Billabong, etc. These weren’t knockoffs, these were the real things. I found some Adidas sport socks that hopefully will last the next five months. One section of the market was jammed with people hunched over sowing machines altering clothes for customers.
Always on the hunt for Mexican, we ate at Cantina which is down by the riverfront. There was a guy working the bar with people crowded around him who seemed like he owned the place. He said that the restaurant used to have outdoor seating but the city decided that it was bad for tourists, and banned restaurants from having sidewalk tables. Tina thought it was funny that the city seems to think it’s ok for tourists to have people parking and driving motorbikes on the sidewalk instead.
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This time of year, SE Asia gets hot around 11 am. So, taking a cue from the locals, we had started getting up early, seeing some sites then retired back to the room or a cafe for a couple hours in the afternoon before continuing the day’s activities. Instead of going back to their houses, tho, most locals just lounge in hammocks or play cards.
We spent the morning visiting the National Museum which mainly houses a large collection of Khmer sculpture in open-air pavilions around a breezy courtyard. Then after a tasty lunch at Friend’s – a tapas cafe that trains street kids for work in the hospitality business – we wandered over to an air-conditioned mall to cool off.
The mall was kinda junky with lame stores. But we kept taking the escalators up hoping to find something interesting. I saw a store selling huge Sony tv’s so I went over to pick out one I wanted to buy. It was nice to play “typical American consumer post economic meltdown” after slumming it for the past five months. Plus I might have convinced Tina that 46” is not too big for a tv.
One floor in the mall had shops selling black market cds and dvds and various electronic devices. In an area behind the shops, there were people sitting around little plastic tables with shrink wrapping equipment. If you bought an electronic device and opened the shrink wrapping or the case, these people could put it all back together so it looked like you never opened the package! Their equipment was rather shoddy, too. Some people were using lighters to seal things. One person was putting an iPhone back in its casing.
At the top of the mall was a huge rollerblading rink and bad music. But the views of the city were fantastic. There was even a restaurant with a balcony that we could walk around. After we got hot being out in the sun, we went down the the ground floor and had Swensen’s ice cream shop – a company that I thought went out of business years ago back in the States.
Across the way from the mall was the Psar Thmei, a huge art deco market with a unique construction that created a natural ventilation system that kept it pretty cool inside. Two of the four wings were closed for renovations, so there wasn’t that much to see. In the produce section we got some mangosteens – a sweet fruit that comes in a hard purple shell that you cut open and eat the fleshy insides.
We then headed over to Wat Phnom, set up on a hill next to the US embassy. The park was pretty nice and lots of people were hanging out – mostly begging for money. Some playful kids (“Those were some fun kids” Tina would later say) came up to Tina and they played for a while as I watched all the monkeys climb the phone polls and cross the busy streets on the power lines to the hotel across the street.
Most budget travelers stay in the backpacker area on Boeng Kak , a lake to the west of town. Curious what it was like, we decided to spend the evening exploring the area. We had some drinks at a restaurant overlooking the sunset on the lake, then ate at a hole in the wall Indian place before taking a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
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We spent the last day exploring the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in the morning, then the Killing Fields in the afternoon. The architecture of the Palace was pretty interesting as was a to-scale model of Angkor Wat The Silver Pagoda had lots of interesting Buddha statues inside, but the silver floor – inspiring the pagoda’s name – was covered with a carpet with only a little bit showing through were the guards stood.
That afternoon we visied the Killing Fields which was an interesting experience. The first thing you see is a memorial stupa – more like a tall case – of stone and glass filled with more then 8000 skulls and bones found in the excavated mass graves (over a hundred graves remain untouched), which are now deep impressions in the ground. As we walked around, we stopped to listen to a tour guide explain how the Khmer Rouge killed babies and children by slinging them against trees or tossing them in the air then spearing them.
This was made even more surreal because we could hear kids laughing and playing nearby. We walked along a path on the edge of the site where kids would line up on the outside of the fence and beg for money. Then a little later, a bar across the road started playing loud dance music. It was almost like no one remembered the atrocities that happened here – or maybe it’s a sign of a people wanting to move on. But the saddest part was learning that the Killing Fields is now owned by a foreign investment firm.