For every disappointment like Saigon there’s at least a few pleasant surprises, like Phnom Penh for example. What makes it so different from the former is hard to say, though. If Saigon is a red light safari then Phnom Penh is the depths of the jungle. Hopefully as I write I’ll be able to make some sense out of it.
The journey there was yet another inauspicious start. All was going fairly well in the bus until I stupidly agreed to change money before crossing the border into Cambodia. It seemed that I’d got a fairly good rate until a nagging doubt led me to check the number of zeros and find that they’d left off one, leaving me about 20 quid worse off. As far as travel disasters go it was fairly minor, but it left me in a bad mood which I took out on the pushy tuk-tuk drivers who greeted us at the bus stop.
On the journey I’d met a couple of Americans who I’d seen around in Saigon. Tyler was a surf-style guy from Chicago who lived in Shanghai, Shaun a big guy from Arizona who looked like a wrestler. We shared a ride to the “OK Guesthouse” in the nice area of town which was even better than its name suggested.
The next three days I hung out with these guys and Tyler’s friend Brian who had been in the city for a month. Our first destination was the notorious “Killing Fields” where Pol Pot carried out his slaughter of anyone suspected of being an intellectual or any for other reason. The pits of bodies had mainly been excavated, but there were still scraps of clothing trodden into the ground everywhere and signs that said things like “Children were beaten against this tree and thrown into this pit.” Very depressing indeed, and the thought “what am I doing here?” wouldn’t go away. The answer I suppose is that the alternative would be to ignore it, which would be worse. As I was walking around a little girl directed me down a path, and before I knew it I was halfway around a stagnant lake with about 15 kids surrounding me pleading for money. In the end I managed to get away, a few dollars handed out, but it seems fitting to this miserable place, which I’ve since learned is owned by a Japanese company. Here we all are outside the entrance.
The drive there and back was fairly interesting as we got to see a good amount of the city. The outskirts looked a bit like this…
…and the bit in the middle looked more like this:
The rest of the afternoon we spent at the market, where I bought a much-needed knife and my day’s supply of mangosteens, then at a spa for (legitimate and actually very good) massages, and briefly by the side of the road taking goofy photos.
In the evenings we went out to a few bars – some of them better than others. Prostitutes were absolutely everywhere, but this time it didn’t bother me. They weren’t crack-addled and they weren’t pushy. Sure I had to explain the whole “have a girlfriend and anyway don’t pay for sex” thing a few times, and thinking what these nice girls had to do for a living was a little depressing, but there’s something about the spirit of the Cambodians that makes speaking to any of them fun. It’s amazing with what they’ve been through that they could come out the other side with such a sense of humour. That’s what I liked so much about the city, really, the people. Almost everyone I met was a joy to speak to.
On my last day there I had the option to go and see the school that had been used as a centre for torturing people before they were taken to the killing fields, but instead I went to the palace to see some nice things, and I’m glad I did. Starting to suffer from temple-fatigue as I was it was still well worth seeing, and a little odd too (which is always a plus).