I had initially planned a month long trip in Cambodia but had to shorten it because I needed to rush back to Vietnam. It had gotten converted into something of an extended visa run. Phnom Penh was my first exposure to Cambodia and I noticed a very striking contrast when comparing this country to Vietnam. The few days spent in Phnom Penh helped me understand the whys of it. I went through a series of moving experiences that have helped me appreciate the country better.
Nationality Issues on a Rainy Day
I had a handful of chores on my first morning in Phnom Penh. The most important was the reason I had rushed here; I needed to check about my Vietnam visa. But before that, I wanted to get a Cambodian SIM card to satisfy my need for connectivity. The rates varied slightly but I finally got a SIM and mobile internet package from SMART for 5 USD. The internet here is horrible though, both WiFi and 3G. It is only slightly better than Myanmar.
I walked up to Cina Travel, one of the recommended travel agencies to get a visa processed by. Half way between explaining the rates to me, the guy asked me my nationality. To the answer that I was an Indian, he exclaimed a quiet “Oh” and removed the rate card. Then he told me that the visa processing rate would be a bit higher for me and it would be on a request basis. This meant that I had to pay more to get the visa and there was no guarantee that the visa would be granted. However, in the case that the visa was declined, I would be refunded the money I paid. I went into my WTF mode. I had just started considering that the entire Indian stigma was within the country and in my head. I sat down to evaluate my options. Applying at the embassy directly was one possible option. But people use travel agents to make the process simpler. If these guys were saying it would be on a request basis, it might actually be a significant task. Also, I doubted that application fees would be refunded in case I applied to the embassy and was declined. Then there was the option of flying into Vietnam and getting another visa on arrival. But this was significantly more expensive. I concluded that I would give it a shot here, and would continue with my original travel plans if the visa was declined. I was not losing out on much since the amount would be refunded to me if the visa was declined. I paid the required 68 USD to put in a visa request for a 3 month single entry visa and hoped for the best. Just for the sake of comparison, it cost 56 USD for Europeans and other “Westerners”.
I thought of going to Wat Phnom to make something of my afternoon. Turned out that I was not to see things my way this afternoon. I had barely walked a hundred meters when it started raining. I sought the shelter of a shed over a closed shop and stood trapped there for more than an hour! The rains were coming down relentlessly and the heavy wind blew the lighter drops on me. I took comfort in the fact that I was not the only one who had got caught unaware. The tuk-tuks stopped to let the sheets down on the side of their carts. The drivers got drenched to keep their passengers dry.
Monsoon showers surprising Phnom Penh
I was shifting around to find a spot where the water splashing off the pavement would not get me. The rains were greeted with mixed emotions by everyone I saw on the road. Those that had been caught without preparation were cursing it and rushing away. Those who were better prepared hurried to get their rain jackets on. A few children went past on cycles, getting drenched in the rains and being ecstatic about it as only they could be. I think they are the only ones who whole heartedly welcome the monsoons showers.
After more than an hour of standing in the same spot, I started walking back to the hostel when the rain slowed down to a drizzle. Even the drizzle stopped by the time I reached the hostel. I moved my poncho from the main bag to the smaller one in preparation for the next time. I met a few of my dorm mates. The French-Moroccan, who had been there for some time, had got some delicious fruits from a mart nearby and insisted that I try them. He told me that they gave away fruits at discounted rates after mid-noon. The German in the bunk below me was playing his guitar beautifully. I tortured myself when I came to know that he had been practicing for just 3-4 months but then I was at ease when I learnt he was a pianist as well. The Moroccan had been travelling for 3 years now. He stayed put in one place for 3-4 months before moving on. He was trying to learn Cambodian so that he could have a conversation with his girlfriend’s parents who had left the country as refugees. The German was in Cambodia for an adventure trip with his brother. This was the end of his trip and his brother had left while he was killing days till his flight was due. He lived in New Zealand before this and did not wear footwear until it was absolutely necessary.
Everyone was going to grab some dinner and I decided to join them. There were three new English people who had come in. There was another girl who looked Indian and had an Indian name (Nisha) but flatly refused a connection when I asked her if she had any. Her second name was Polish and that was the nationality she went by. I dropped the discussion seeing her unwillingness and talked to the English instead. The two guys had just spent a month in India and the girl was going there in December. On the topic of brexit, they thought it to be stupid as well. Well then, I wondered, who did find it a good idea? Anyway, since the rains had stopped I was planning to do something. I paid for my food and left while the German and Polish took their time to eat. The Cambodians seem less given to cheating you out of your money than the Vietnamese. That is one good thing about them despite their poverty.
I finally managed to reach Wat Phnom. The sun had set and the rain washed complex was lit up and looked extremely beautiful.
I had to pay a dollar to walk in and was not handed a ticket in receipt. This I did not like but I tried to not let it spoil my mood. I walked around the beautiful complex. There was hardly anyone around. It was a big park preserved in much of it’s natural setting with the pagoda on top of a small rocky mound in the center. The pagoda itself was not much to look at but was brightly lit up. There was a massive watch made on the slanting ground on the southern side which was somewhat ridiculous since one could not see the time in it, either from down below or from the top of the rock. I walked around and climbed up to the wat. There was a modern looking building on the western side which was very oddly not in keeping with the entire nature around. Upon going down I found a sign of “Arts and Crafts Center” on the gate. It was still under construction but I thought they could have blended it much better with the ambience of the pagoda.
Lovely Wat Phnom
I walked out and went to the riverside. I was supposed to meet up with Eitan and Daniel at the night market which was along the river. As I walked towards it, I came upon a dead patch. Apparently the night market is just a weekend thing. I messaged Eitan about the same and we decided to meet at the Kandal Market which was a literal stone throw away from the hostel. I walked back to the hostel to wait for a confirmation from the guys and walked out 20 minutes later supposing that they might be having trouble getting in touch without WiFi. The market was closed but I walked around it to find some interesting food stalls. A bunch of men were sitting and drinking beers and singing songs. One of them was beating a bucket as a makeshift drum. I walked by with a smile. Daniel and Eitan were nowhere to be seen though.
I finally got a message from Eitan telling me there were at some Snack Bar and he sent me the location. It was 1.7 km away on the other side of the tourist area. I was wondering why they did not come to the market as decided and reasoned that maybe they had got lazy. Anyway, I went up to the place but could not find the bar. Turned out that the GPS had messed up! They were right next to the market, maybe a couple of hundred meters, so I walked back to where they were. 😓 Eitan bought me a beer for his fuck up so everything was good. 😆 Snack Bar was a small French owned place. The owner cum bartender was a cool guy by the name of Frank. There were some regulars sitting around and there and there was us. I had no idea how and why Daniel and Eitan had landed here but it did not matter. We joked around, tried learning some Khmer and drank some beers. One of the regulars bought us a round as well! It was really nice.
We left to find something to eat. We had some pork and rice at a street side place that was pretty decent. Then we walked around to find another bar to sit and drink in. Phnom Penh is (in) famous for a lot of reasons and girlie bars are one of them. One of the famous strips was right next to where we were and we walked there to check it out. Curious to know what they were like, we went in one and were hustled by a lot of girls so we rushed out immediately. Daniel felt downright sad for the working girls and Eitan was playing the joker. We decided to try my hostel to see if we could hang out with some travellers but even the hostel was dead. We ended up on the riverside promenade and got a few beers from a bar truck (yes, there is such a thing; think food truck sans the food and with alcohol) and sat by the riverside to drink. The weather was nice and we discussed philosophy, war and politics. These guys were just 24, had been in a war and had experienced things that I could probably never imagine. They told me war was hell but I could not help but feel that a war, irrespective of the scale, should be decisive. I just felt bad for those who had to live day in and day out caught in a war zone with no end to their miseries.
We finished our beers and decided to check out Sharky, which has the reputation of being the longest running rock n' roll bar in Indochina! 🎸 Sharky was a big establishment with only a handful of people. This was not the peak of the tourist season and there are a few bogus reviews online that might have cost Sharky some of it’s prospective customers. I find such obtuse tourists (referring to the review above) insufferable. They have a superiority complex and they have no idea how to deal with issues politely.
Sharky has a slow day
Anyway, we played a few games of pool and drank some beers. The music was turned down but they were playing songs that I had never heard played in bars before; I mean, who the hell plays Green Eyed Lady? 🍺 ✌ I loved the time there and then we walked out, split up, and headed to our respective hostels.
Coffee & Culture
I woke up a little late on the next day, mostly because of laziness. I was still sleepy but got out of bed anyway. The bunk bed was so wobbly that I was always afraid I was going to wake up the person below me if I moved. I freshened up and walked till one of the temples nearby, marked on the map as Wat Ounalom. It was in the middle of a residential complex and since I was approaching it from the wrong side (as usual), I missed the entrance the first time around. The stupas here seemed to be a part of the residential complex. You could see laundry stands sitting between the stupas or rice strewn around for drying.
This was the annex to the main temple though. The wall that separated it from the main temple had some impressive art of “samudra manthan” and more scenes out of the Hindu mythological stories. There were statues of Vishnu, Shiva and Bramha with the omnipresent Jayavaram VII, the great Khmer king. It was interesting to see how the Hindu gods had changed in appearance out here, in the shape of their bodies, their postures and demeanour.
Statues and murals
I walked around to the front of the temple. The level of detail in all the stone and wood works were mind blowing. I felt that the craftsmanship here was way more evolved than India or Myanmar.
A tuk-tuk driver caught sight of me and came around to joke about. He said that the women of his country would love my beard. He was funny enough, but he pestered me all the same. He wanted to take me around to some wat that had a lot of monkeys and bats. This is a big problem in Cambodia. The tuk-tuk and motodop drivers think that constantly courting a tourist will increase their chances of making a sale. I find it nothing more than irritating and it tends to have the opposite effect on me. Had he just told me about it and let me think over it, I might have considered. Just because he kept at it, I grew obtuse about not even considering his offer. Anyway, I guess this problem will go away as the country’s tourism matures. Currently there are way too many tuk-tuk drivers; combine it with the poverty and you can understand why things are the way they are. I evaded this guy by going around and exiting through the other side. Then I sat in the nearby coffee shop and had some Khmer bread, a pork bun and a glass of cold milk coffee. The coffee here wasn’t half as good as the Vietnamese version!
The Royal Palace was up ahead and I walked up to it. The tuk-tuk drivers were quick to tell me that the palace and the museum were closed till post-lunch. Perhaps I would consider one of the many other options that they were providing. I used the excuse of waiting for friends to shrug them off and went to sit by the riverside.
I sat working on the daily insta update when another tuk-tuk driver came up to me and started telling me about the options I had for sightseeing. I heard him out but I really needed to get back to my work. I finally managed to push the insta post and shrugged off this tuk-tuk guy as well. But there were far too many of them. There was still time for the palace and museum to reopen and I thought I could use the time to work. But where? There was a real dearth of “sit and work” kind of places out here. I eventually decided to go to the Costa Coffee which I had initially skipped because it would be too expensive for my budget. But seeing that I was wasting my time otherwise, I walked up to it.
I ordered a large cappuccino and sat writing. An old friend had pinged and I talked to her about my travels as well. Around half past two, I shut the laptop and walked out, debating whether I wanted to go to the palace or not. I eventually decided against it and thought I would go around the palace to the Independence Monument and then return for the National Museum. I ran into Daniel and Eitan in front of the palace gate. They were going to see the silver pagoda in the palace complex and I told them I was skipping it in favour of the museum.
I walked along the road to the south of the palace. There were official looking buildings on one side and a park under construction on another. The Independence Monument and King’s Statue were in the middle of a vast open space that had a paved surface and some bushes for adornment. There was no tree to break the sun’s glare. There were not many people either, just me sweating buckets in the heat and a few people jogging away merrily. I walked up till the monument and took a few pictures.
Park around King's statue
Iconic Independence Monument
I started walking back towards the museum. It closed at 5 PM and I wanted to get in by 4 so that I had enough time to see it at leisure. The entire area around the palace had beautiful structures which might or might not have been open for public viewing. The walk was quite nice, though the narrow roads and rowdy traffic somewhat limited the enjoyment.
Building near the palace
I went around looking for the entrance of the National Museum and finally found it right next to the palace. I bought a 5 USD ticket to get in. I remembered having read about an audio guide as well but the woman at the counter denied me one and I was unable to figure out whether she meant there wasn’t any guide or they were out of it. Anyway, the reason hardly mattered and I went in. The museum turned out to be really nice. I was glad I chose it over the palace. History and culture is definitely my thing. The museum had some amazing art work from the Angkor period. I got to know a few things about the Khmer empire, its rise and it’s outreach during it’s best period. Khmer empire was heavily influenced by the Hindu culture from the immediate west. There were several statues and busts from that period which were labelled as Hindu gods and goddesses. It was interesting to see how their shapes and sizes had changed in comparison to their Indian counterparts. All the figures were more rotund and the limbs had a softer touch to them. There was always a slight belly and none of the gods, even the warriors, were fierce in their looks. The most imposing creatures were the garuda, naga, vanara and yaksha. The goddesses did not have as heavy breasts as the Indian ones and they wore much more generic adornments that made it difficult to differentiate between the genders at times.
I walked at an easy pace, reading most of the descriptions and paying attention to individual articles. There was a transition to some modern art and then a short section for the post-Angkor era where the currently prevalent Theravada Buddhism was honoured. I wrapped up the sections and went into the beautiful courtyard and sat for a while till the closing bell announced the time for departure.
National Museum courtyard
While I was ambling in the museum, I had received a message from Cina Travels asking me to come and collect my passport before their closing time of 5:30 PM. I walked there trying to guess whether my visa request had been successful. The suspense was short-lived though as I reached their office in just 10 minutes. I had a Vietnamese visa for 3 months. This meant that I was going forth with my plan to teach in Vietnam for a month (or more). I walked back to the hostel and collected my laundry on the way. I ate another round of Khmer bread and observed how the locals ate it. It was not to be made into a sandwich as I had been doing so far!
Kevin approves of Khmer bread!
I took a bath and sat writing in the hostel. A few new people came in; apparently French and throwing a tantrum about something or the other. I was in no mood for socializing tonight. I had enough work to keep me busy. I stepped out to grab a bite. I ate some rice and “cheese” from a street-side shop with suspect hygiene. The taste was not too great as well so I left half of it, something that I rarely do.
Cambodia Tip #4
Be specially careful about where you get your food from. The street side places are not as hygienic as Vietnam or India. Try not to get cold things from suspect places.
Then I got a bottle of beer and sat by the riverside drinking it.
Riverside by the night
The working women were hunting. I politely declined the ones that approached me. Then a man came and sat next to me and started talking. I am not sure what he wanted or if he even wanted anything, but the many references to him thinking that I had money because I was travelling made me quite uncomfortable. I shook his hand and walked away. I walked along the riverside watching people find themselves companions for the night. I ended up in one of the more public spaces with people jogging and working out on gym machines. Some kids were playing with a chinlone and I sat down to watch.
A few Cambodian youngsters were hanging out in the area and I saw a couple kissing a little distance away. I wondered why it is that Indian society is so against love. I had been struck by a sudden epiphany on the bus from Saigon as well. For a country that is obsessed with romance and love songs, there is not much love to be seen in real life. Love before marriage is frowned upon irrespective of whether it culminates in a marriage or not. The society makes it almost impossible for lovers to be together. As an unmarried couple (for we refuse to acknowledge it’s existence) you cannot get an apartment to move into together. Expressing love in public places, which is the only resort left to many, draws unnecessary attention and gets you beaten up by hooligans in the name of moral policing. What a bunch of hypocrites we are!
I returned to the hostel after a while and sat down to write. I got to learn a bit more of the Polish girl’s story as well. She was actually an American passport holder and had her passport stolen in Siem Reap. She was having a tough time dealing with the embassies and had to bribe policemen to get reports, something that she was clearly not used to. No wonder she was dismissive about her Asian roots because it was what was giving her the most trouble. An American passport of a non-white (yes, that’s racist) is much more dangerous in the hands of miscreants, as per the US Embassy. I wished her luck and returned to my work which I did for a while before falling asleep.
House of Horrors
I woke up in the morning and extended my stay another day. Cambodia has a new train service that I was planning to take. The train ran from Friday to Sunday and I could use the day (being Thursday) to see the Genocide Museum. I asked the hostel owner about the train and he had no idea about it. He had just heard some faint news about a restarting of passenger train services. The service was THAT new! I decided to book a ticket just to be sure. I did not want to miss my chance of experiencing something so novel in the country just because I was lazy. So I walked to the railway station first.
Contrasting buildings in Phnom Penh
I passed the Central Market on the way but did not go in. The entrance of the station was a little difficult to find and I, like I am accustomed to do, walked in through the wrong gate. A guard came running and asked me to go back but I had already spotted what looked like a reservation counter and I did not know I was coming from the wrong way. I thought that this might be some kind of trick of theirs which was aimed at discouraging people to use the railway. I had read all kinds of stories online, mostly outdated but you never know. I insisted that I needed to go to the building but he failed to understand me. I, in turn, refused to go back and then he finally pointed at another exit which was closer to the building. Okay, I would take that.
The wrong side of railway station
I approached the reservation building from the correct side this time. It was obvious now that I had been coming from the wrong side but how was I to know! Plus a “wrong way” into a railway station is something unknown to me. The reservation process itself was pretty simple. I handed 6 USD and was given a hand written ticket that was even less official looking than Myanmar’s. But I knew about the recency of the service and just confirmed the date and time before leaving. I walked back to the market and sat in a cafe to kill time till after the lunch hours.
The coffee was expensive but they had WiFi and I needed to work. I sat there for two hours or so and then left for the S21 Genocide Museum. I walked all the way, some 40 minutes or so. The sun was out and it was a little hot. I reached the museum which was bang in the middle of the residential area. I knew very little about this place, just that it used to be a high school that was converted into a torture center. The entrance fee was 3 USD and it was another 3 for the audio tour. I opted for it; this was to be my first audio tour.
I spent 3-4 hours in that horror house. The audio tour was very well done, probably a bit too well. I was moved to tears more than once. It was a sad thing that had happened and so unjust! The Khmer Rouge had ousted a supposedly American backed government in Cambodia, the Khmer Republic. Khmer Rouge was socialist in their philosophy and the people welcomed them initially. Then they started ruling by the iron fist that is typical of such forms of government. International communications were cut off and people were forced into the countryside to do agricultural work, something on which the Polpot government had based itself. A series of secret security offices were established across the country. S21 was the biggest of them and it was here that the head of prisons, Duch, operated from. The supposed “offenders” were brought to S21 to be tortured till they admitted to whatever crimes they were charged with, mostly of being American or Russian spies and for leaking information outside the country. Angkar, the secret police, became a paranoia driven organisation which kept feeding such prisons with people who had no idea what they were being brought in for. There were mass marriages organised in order for women to give birth to babies that Angkar could mould into future workforce. The women were worked immediately before and after delivery, and the babies usually died of malnutrition. There were pictures of prisoners that the security guards could not get rid of in the hurry that they fled. There was anguish in some eyes, horror in others, sadness in others still, shock in some and some showed their resilience by smiling. It was utterly horrifying; an entire generation scarred by the madness of a few. I wondered what justice would be in such a case and if there is a justice at all for such situations. If not, then is justice simply an illusion?
Scenes from the Genocide Museum
The audio tour had many interviews from survivors and there were exhibitions in the museum highlighting certain aspects of the Polpot regime and how it affected the society still.
Phnom Penh Tip #1
Do take the audio tour when you go to the S21 Genocide Museum. You will learn so much more about a history that needs to be remembered.
I was probably the last tourist to leave the place. I listened to all the stories in the audio guide. I had gone through all the cells and looked at most of the exhibitions. There were a few children playing football with a chinlone in the complex. I saw it as a representation of how the people were getting over their horrible past. Now it was just a memory for them, something that the world needed to see.
A fresh start
I walked back to the city and ate some fruits and fried noodles on the way. I spent the rest of the evening in the bed sorting some pictures. The German is a funny guy and it would have been nice to know him better but I was utterly bogged down by my backlog and wanted to get done with it. I watched France defeat Germany in the semifinals and cursed Euro’s quality of football once again before going to bed.
I woke up and checked out. The owner joked that he thought I’d never leave, but he got quite interested when I told him that I was taking the train. I walked back to the cafe I had sat in the previous day and sat working on my blog. I got up to leave at 2:00 PM and walked the rest of the way till the station. The skies were overclouded but I was hopeful of making it to the station in time. The rains came down when I was just a hundred meters away. I ran the distance but still got a little soaked in the sudden heavy downpour.
I had to wait till 2:30 PM for the boarding to start. The train was a really short one. Just two coaches of which just one was partially full.
I was one of the two foreigners who were taking the train. I settled down on a seat and had it to myself. I stretched out on the seat opposite to mine since that was empty as well. The train started 3 minutes to 3 PM and went a little ahead and turned back on another track to pick a luggage carriage. Then it went ahead again.
The AC was a Panasonic cooler that was installed over the door and the attendants came in with remotes to adjust temperatures when required. There was WiFi as well though the router gave trouble and it seemed to be simply running on dongles. They were still figuring out stuff but the entire effort that they were putting into the re-instantiation of the passenger rail service was commendable.
Ever since the S21 tour I had started seeing Cambodia as a country that was rebuilding itself instead of one that was in shambles. Phnom Penh had it’s share of construction going on. There were high rises slowly and steadily making there mark in the city’s skyline. They will come of age if the world lets them be. Everything takes care of itself in the long run.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Phnom Penh leg of the trip.