Phnom Penh Expedition

Friday, June 06, 2008

The trip from Laos to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was a disaster. Oh, it could’ve been worse. Nobody was hurt, arrested, or even in peril. But, for the price we paid, it should’ve been so much better. First of all, let me put into perspective that an overnight trip on a bus with my own bed from Vientiane to Pakse cost about $20. My own bed! The shorter trip from Don Det, on the Laos-Cambodia border to Phnom Penh cost $30, which in Asia is a massive difference. The start of the trip says it all: we were ferried off the island to wait for a minibus on the shore at 8 AM. This start time in spite of the fact that the minibus didn’t arrive until almost 9:30, which meant a one hour and fifteen minute wait. Why not leave at 9? It’s no wonder the trip was (supposed) to take 8 hours. In fact, it would be much longer than that, but by the end we were thankful to have made it at all.

The next stop was the border crossing. The Laos officials wanted a dollar to stamp my passport, which is ludicrous. I already paid over $40 to get my visa and enter the country and these guys are paid to stamp my passport. This $1 was to their beer fund, and while it’s really not much, it’s the principle. And really, I don’t need an exit stamp from them, so I quite unequivocally told them “No”. I was first off the bus to the immigration booth and others likewise refused. We stood there and they had nowhere to be so they held our passports and started blankly. Then the others started cracking and soon we had all paid our bribe to get our passports stamped. Next stop was getting a Cambodian visa, a $30 proposition. Again, these are exorbitant amounts by local standards already. $30 is two days accommodation, food, drink, and transport. In Canadian terms, it would be like paying about $350 to enter the country. And again, after buying my visa, another $1 to have it stamped and actually make it valid. And then to the border crossing, where it was, yup, another $1 to get the stamp to actually enter the country. Bribes, bribes, and bribes. Imagine coming home and the customs official saying that everything seems in order, but you’d better slip him $20 under the table or you weren’t getting anywhere. He’d just hold on to your passport and you’d be stuck in limbo.

On the other side of the border, after a 30 minute wait, we got into another minibus. And we were crammed in. The bus had a double bench and then a fold up third captain’s seat spaced about 20cm from the other two. In these three seats they squeezed four of us. So it was that I sat half on my seat half in the air gap next to an Asian guy (he didn’t pay a cent for the trip, incidentally) who fell asleep on me for the next couple hours. Then a stop, again, in Strung Treng, where we again sat around waiting for another hour. So far we’d spent more time waiting than driving, and it was getting pretty annoying. Finally we left. I tried to sit in the front, thinking that if we were going to suffer because they oversold their seats, then the staff of the company should be the first to get sardined. I had a bit of an argument with the ‘guide?’ that sat there which spilled into the whole van venting their anger at the minivan company. But it was getting us nowhere and we all knew it, so I went to the back and thankfully ended up in the only row with the correct number of people, having traded our extra space for some backpacks.

I don’t remember how many times we stopped, exactly, but one stop around eight at night was at the side of the road in front of a small shop. We all needed a good stretch at this point and piled out while, I presumed, the driver took a leak and his fat copilot some snacks. There was a terrific lightning storm in the distance and I got on the roof to watch it and get some photos. We’d stopped plenty and I definitely didn’t need a snack (though I did sneak off into the bushes). Then I realized the engine hood was up and went to have a look but was soon distracted by the local kids who were wanting photos. So I knew we had a radiator problem, but what exactly they did to fix it, no idea. Apparently, they had no idea either, for we were back at the side of the road with a smoking and smelly engine around 9:30. This time, there were no signs of civilization aside from the road we were on, although the blackness was thick enough to have hidden a city 20m in any direction. The radiator again. We were at the side of the road for almost two hours this time and I was helping as best I could. I managed to diagnose that the radiator was plugged and got a safety pin to clean the pressure valve. And then the driver mashed the end into the radiator block without mercy, then wondered why it didn’t fit. He’d splayed the end horribly. I had just about made it round again when he repeated this gesture. It was completely destroyed and I thought it would be a long night crammed in that minivan. Then someone came by on a bicycle with proper tools and managed to chop the old end and peel back the valve to make a new end. Then, with some saran wrap to improve the seal, some water from the ditch to fill the radiator, we were back on the road again.

It was two minutes to midnight when we arrived, 16 hours after we’d set out on an 8 hour trip. We were grumpy, exhausted, and all settled for the place they dumped us – and never mind the commission they definitely didn’t deserve. One beer to celebrate an end to the journey and we were out like lights. The next morning I discovered just how disgusting my room was. The floor had not been swept in a long time and there were, well, lets just say that evidence of a good time was laying right on the floor by the headboard. As well, the windows didn’t quite lock, and I didn’t feel safe leaving my stuff in there. So I went guesthouse hunting and wound up at the Green Lake guesthouse, which seemed nicer and more social. Certainly the rooms were better, though they were $3/night instead of $2. And if you’re wondering about these prices being in dollars, yes, Cambodia does have a currency (ryet) but it uses it as coins for US currency which is what everyone uses for most transactions. Even the ATMs issue dollars and not ryet. Anyway, both guesthouses were right on a nice lake with the city on the horizon and it seemed like it would be a good place to lay back and read if a person got bored touring around.

I met a fairly nice tuk tuk driver and arranged a trip with two of the girls from the van ride to head out and see the killing fields and S-21, the high school turned detention/interrogation centre for the brutal Khmer Rouge at 2:00 when they reopened. I also arranged with a travel agent to get my Vietnam visa, which meant I would be in Phnom Penh until at least Friday, three days away. Then, off with Mah, our tuk tuk driver, to the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge was something like the Nazis, they imprisoned and killed millions in their efforts to wipe the country of people Cambodians, foreigners, people wearing glassed, and of course so-called ‘enemies of the state’. They were in power from 1975-79 and in that time millions were dead, brought to the countryside and murdered. The lucky ones were shot, but when ammunition became rarer and expensive, they turned to bludgeoning, swords, knives, and anything else that could be lethal. Soon, the executioners were unable to kill enough people per day (300 is a lot of sword swinging) and detention areas were built. The killing fields where they died are now largely exhumed, leaving pits scarring the land and a monument filled with skulls in the middle.

If the Khmer Rouge is the Nazis, then Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) is their Hitler. The atrocities he committed, especially as his manic paranoia set in should never be forgotten, but I find it sad that even though he lived more recently than Hitler, I had never heard the name until reading up on Cambodia for my trip. What’s more, he didn’t find a quiet bunker and a gun, he fled to Thailand where he lived in exile for almost 20 years. 20 years! Imagine Hitler being alive and well twenty years after World War 2. Unthinkable, but the Cambodians had to endure him living next door. He was finally brought to trial in 1998 but died before anything came of it. Not only that, but when the KR was ousted by the Vietnamese military in 1979, the UN granted the Cambodian seat to KR representatives and the US, Thailand, and China supported the Khmer in their guerilla war against the new government. When people ask me why they need to know about what’s where in the world, why that is so important, I am dumbfounded. First of all, why do you want to be ignorant? And secondly, it’s not so much knowing, say, the capital city as trying to understand the country and where it fits into the world that I think is important. How ANYONE, much less an entire government could back a murderous regime like this, so soon in the wake of Hitler especially, testifies either to unmitigated evil or complete ignorance of the country. Perhaps if something was known of these countries and the people that inhabit them, it would be harder not only to dismiss deaths as casualties of war but maybe, just maybe, the US would back a regime that had the good of its people at heart. Instead of people like Saddam, the Taliban, and so forth.

It is coincidental that I was at the killing fields on World Peace Day and a large ceremony with hundreds of monks was underway. If only peace were so easy as walking around a building three times chanting or clasping hands and praying. But I hope they got through all the same. Our next stop was S-21, Security Area 21, a high school converted into a detention and interrogation centre. It is a building of barbed wire and Spartan rooms, many with a single bed, a stained floor, and a somber black and white photo of a prisoner either dead or beaten and tortured severely. I don’t know why people come to see this, I don’t know why I was there, but I guess it’s a bit of a slap in the face. A reminder to be good because look at the horrible things that we are capable of. There were rooms full of faces, people checked in and never checking out. One woman holding a baby in her arms, looking with sad determination straight at the camera, her eyes shining. And then detention cells by the hundreds, private and public. Yes, I hope those monks pull it off alright.

The next day we got an early start and headed off to first to the Royal Palace. It is the royal residence and understandably large parts are unavailable to the public, but the throne room where coronations take place was visible and impressive, as was the silver pagoda. Here’s a place where the entire floor is solid silver, there is a Baccarat crystal Buddha sitting on a small throne of his own, and a life-sized solid gold Buddha studded with over 2000 diamonds, some weighing up to 25 karats. Our next stop, The National Museum of Antiquities, had a hard act to follow and scarcely tried. The antiquities themselves were nothing to write home about: assorted coins, pottery, clothing, and statues from a long ago age. But the building itself was quite beautiful with its red walls and central courtyard, presumably to escape antiquity overload. No, it wasn’t solid gold or adorned in diamonds, but it was beautiful in its way.

It was midday and hot, shirt-drenchingly hot. Back to the guesthouse for lunch in the shade and the cool breeze off the lake, and then I thought I’d escape the heat and maybe catch the new Indiana Jones movie in a theatre. After a lot of driving around, the joke was on me. There is no English theatre in Phnom Penh, nor even theatres showing Hollywood movies. Those are pirated and watched in the guesthouse. If you want to have a cinema experience, you’d better be fluent in Khmer. It turned out I wasn’t, so I wandered around despite the heat, looking at landmarks, making my way up to a modern (air conditioned) shopping centre, then the central market for a pair of aviators that look so cheesy (gold rims) that my last pair look absolutely classy. Sophisticated even. I can’t wait to show you. I continued my 5 km walk back to the guesthouse and stopped for some street food and sugar cane juice, which didn’t look like much but was surprisingly good – especially the sausage! And finally, home again for dinner, internet, and visiting with others travelers. I had my Vietnamese visa the next day and decided I needed to see a beach before doing Angkor Wat properly, so I slipped my bus ticket to Shianouk Ville in between my Vietnamese and Chinese visas and spent my final night happy that my next two months were now set and tomorrow would be spent on the beaches of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Photos

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