Welcome to Phnom Penh

The ritual has begun. Take off the shoes , next comes the socks , and last of all bye-bye pants. The jacket and hoodie have long ago been shed on the airplane. It’s time for the zaijian 再见 China nihao 你好 tropics ritual. Airport strip down! Shorts and sandals are stacked at the top of the big travel backpack, so as soon as the luggage is scooped up off of the conveyor belt (and a bathroom is found) it’s time to prepare for the nice weather! And nice weather it was. Immediately after stepping out of the airport that familiar slightly sticky hot night air hit me and it was good.

(One weird thing is you must have your fingerprints digitally scanned when entering and leaving Cambodia. If you are wanted by Interpol beware!)

“Hello Sir Hello Sir! Official airport tuk-tuk $7”

“My name is Mr.Lak Welcome to Cambodia! Happy Dragon Year!”

The adventure was starting and I couldn’t be happier. 2 weeks traveling in a tropical fun zone , no work , books to read , places to see. Ahhhhh.

As the tuk-tuk pulled out of the tiny airport parking lot that rush of excitement took over as the Khmer language signs came into view and the motorbike traffic zoomed around us. I’m like a kid in a candy store when in a new place. My head is hanging out of the tuk-tuk carriage and I’m looking with big eyes at everything in view.

The ride into town isn’t that long , the airport is only 7 km from the city center (compared with the mid 50s for Shanghai’s Pudong International). After settling into our guesthouse it was pretty late so we only had time to grab a few snacks and beers from the V.I.P mini-mart (seriously named this). Just one trip into this mini-mart was quite revealing about Cambodia. This mini-mart spoke to the sheer importance of tourism in the country.

They had so many imported goods from Europe , the United States , and other Asian countries. We could buy the exact same brand of instant noodles that we buy in China , there were some favorites from the U.S like Goldfish and cranberries , and a bunch of Japanese and Korean products that I can not identify. Going by the counter reveals OCB rolling papers, Drum rolling tobacco , and all sorts of cigars. Hmmm, wonder what those are for? This is especially funny to me as all those various smoking accessories are not readily available in Shanghai , you know a huge and “modern” city. The beer sections speaks to the proximity of neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Amongst the Cambodian beers, BeerLao , Zorok (Vietnamese) Beer Chang (Thailand) , San Miguel (Philippines) , Tiger (Malaysia) , Singha (Thailand) , and Tsingtao (China) , are all represented.

Next let’s move onto the cash register. I’m in Cambodia I’ll use the local Cambodian currency (riel) right? Well not exactly. The country uses a dual currency set-up of United States dollars and the local currency. Whaaa?? Yes that’s right! US dollars are just as common (if not more common) than the local currency. Every item in this particular convenient store was labeled in dollars. Every grocery store and almost all if not all of the convenient stores all have their items tagged in dollars. The ATM’s only shoot out dollars. It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about . In Cambodia I can go use my Chinese bank card (UnionPay) to withdraw US dollars. Weird. At the cash register the display totals up your items in both dollars and riel and I would often use combinations of the two. The riel was pegged to the dollar at a rate of 4,000 riel to $1. Now , US coins are not in circulation so the beer that is labeled $.80 is either payed  for with a $1 bill or with 3200 riel. Your change if one dollar is used will be 800 riel. There are no coins of any sort in Cambodia and the lowest denomination bill is the 100 riel. It was a trip for me using dollars again after nearly 2 years out of the US. The only time I had used dollars was when I converted my RMB to $ in Shanghai and then changed $ to pesos in the Philippines but that wasn’t really using dollars. Here in Cambodia , I was finding myself actually carrying dollars around and purchasing things with my dead presidents.

A little interjection on the shopping front. Cambodia has some good cheap things to buy! Take in the Central and Russian markets in Phnom Penh. If you are going to Siem Reap you can skip Phnom Penh’s night market as the Siem Reap one is much more happening. I got a ton of Calvin Klein boxers in Phnom Penh for $2.50 a pop and at first I thought they were fakes. Later I read ( in Lonely Planet) that many western countries have Cambodian factories to produce their goods at dirt cheap prices and that many of these real goods make their way to Cambodian markets at a fraction of the prices back West. There are also tons of fake goods as well. $10 for a fake Louie V leather belt and $5 for a fake wallet?? Sure , sure , bring it on!

I watched some Cambodian TV while throwing back a few BeerLao and Angkor and let me tell you Southeast Asian TV is hilarious! You have some standard US stations on the satellite (think NatGeo , History Channel , ETC ) a bunch of Chinese and Hong Kong stations , and some crazy local programming. Drink some brews , have some laughs , and it’s time for sleep.

We woke up early but didn’t have too much time for seeing Phnom Penh seeing as our mad dash for the beach would begin that afternoon but for the sake of flow I will write the pre-beach and the post girlfriend leaving accounts of Phnom Penh all together here in this post.

Phnom Penh doesn’t have too many must see tourist sites and it is not necessary to stay more than a few days but spend some time here and soak up the atmosphere . Phnom Penh is a city I could definitely see myself living in. I’ve become quite accustomed to living in a city and while Shanghai’s 23 million people certainly dwarves Phnom Penh’s 2.2 million it still has enough of the hustle and bustle for those of us who enjoy cities. Phnom Penh has no subway system , no trams , and not even any intercity buses (making it like my suburban hometown of Mentor , OH) but it’s super easy to get around town without owning your own transportation(good luck trying to get around Mentor without a car). I would say much less time spent traveling in Phnom Penh than in Shanghai. Instead of searching for the bus stop and waiting, one merely flags down one of the army of motorcycle or tuk-tuk drivers who are omnipresent. They are speeding around on the roads , they are lounging on the sidewalks in groups of 5 , they are everywhere. If a tuk-tuk driver approaches but you want a motorbike then the tuk-tuk guy will yell down the block for his moto-friend to come over. Average trips (for tourists) start at $1-$3 (definitely cheaper for locals) . It’ll cost you $7 to get to the airport and $15 for some more remote sites like the killing fields (there and back plus waiting time).

As for the sites to see,the insanely beautiful intricate architecture of the Royal Palace and the National Museum are a must. I didn’t go inside I just enjoyed the outside while on a stroll. Other must sees are related to the genocide. Tuol Sleng or S-21 is a former high school converted to mass interrogation , torture , and murder center. You thought your high school was bad! (Sorry awful joke) The rooms are preserved with the rusty bed frames upon which victims were strapped and tortured. Blood stains are still on the floor under the bed and even on the walls. In each room hangs a gruesome photo with the bed frame and its last mutilated victim still strapped on. It is a horribly sick and sobering scene. Not quite as bad as the Buchenwald concentration camp I visited in Germany which left our entire group of 20 or so physically ill. Back to S-21 , the holding cells are well-preserved as well and although not too much information and documentation is available in S-21 the rows of pictures of “inmates” , I use this term quite loosely because quite frankly I don’t consider little children , old ladies , and innocent people inmates, are terribly moving.

After S-21 the next logical place to go would be the infamous Cheoung Ek killing fields. Located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh this is where , if you survived S-21, you were taken by truck and executed. To save on bullets soldiers would murder their victims with blades for cutting open palm trees , pickaxes , and basically whatever they could find. Executed and then dumped into a shallow pit. There is even a tree where the Khmer Rouge would take an infant by its legs and smash the head into the tree. Did I mention that I hate humanity? In the center of the killing fields is a huge stupa in which there are level upon level ( maybe 17 or 18) of different kinds of bones. Right at face level are a sea of skulls staring out with eye sockets. The rest of the fields showcase the excavated pits where bodies where dumped. During every rainy season more scraps of clothes , shattered bones , and teeth wash out of the dirt.

Depressed enough already? The bad is behind us for now. Let’s go and enjoy Phnom Penh!

Nothing I like more than strolling around a new place. Central Phnom Penh isn’t very large and it’s super easy to walk through in an hour or so. The wide avenues ( it was a French town for a while) are lined with old crumbling French style colonial architecture. Tucked in these crumbling buildings are some renovated fancy boutiques and salons. A few garishly lit neon-skycrapers tower above the 4-5 story buildings and there are the shells of skyscrapers in construction hanging in the air above the city like monsters in the sky. A little digging around on the web states that Phnom Penh has 13 highrises and 16 currently being built. It would seem that the tallest is only 26 floors (but ones almost completed will be 42 stories. This is very, very, different from Shanghai. Our tallest building stands at 101 floors (4th tallest in the world!) and we have a new even taller (future #2 tallest in the world) one slowly rising in the Pudong skyline. Hell , I live on the top floor , the 28th!, of my apartment building and I surrounded in all directions by buildings just as tall.

The low skyline , somewhat dilapidated buildings , some trash in the streets , do nothing to detract from my enjoyment of the place. Quite the opposite really . I love the grungy , dirty , attitude of the city. The buildings are often brightly colored and palm trees are framed in front of a vibrant blue sky. Walk around the central city and make frequent stops in the abundant cafes of the city for a coffee and a beer. Grab some street food after the beer gives ya the munchies. Soak in the feel of the city. Perhaps because I am so accustomed to Asia ( 2 years straight in a week!) I really enjoy a place like this. The hectic motorcycle traffic and not quite so clean streets may detract from some people’s enjoyment of Phnom Penh but I love it!

The riverfront is a particularly happening area . Tons of guesthouses , restaurants , bars, and other tourist related places abound here. (The palace and museum aren’t too far either.) The skyline on the other side of the Tonle Sap River is non-existent. Hard to believe that only 20 years ago the Pudong side of Shanghai was once like that as well. Girly bars and drug dealers are also to be found in the area adding a seedy side to it. Be careful if sitting by the riverside. In the 20 minutes I first sat out looking at the river after sunset I was approached by many , many, child beggars , crippled beggars , and old beggars. Thieves and drug addicts also work the beat as well. Keep a firm grip on your bag and don’t do anything stupid , also clear out from the riverside promenade by 9:30 and no worries you will be fine.

(Meeting this friend comes after I came back to Phnom Penh from Sihanoukville)

The riverside is where I happened to meet my new Cambodian friend. I was sitting trying to relax by the river (after having 3 or so beggars asking for money) when a guy rambles up carrying a heavy cooler on his back. He roams the riverfront selling cold drinks to people. That’s how he makes his living. The conversation starts out with a

“Hey my friend! Cold beer yea?”

“No thanks. But I will take a water.”

“Water ok , yes water good. But my friend no beer? Beer ok?”

*Ponders* “Ok sure, why not?”

“One beer for you and one beer for me?” *Grins”

Yup and that’s how it all started. 20 minutes later he went to go ditch his stuff and invited me to go clubbin! Haha normally I’m not much of a club person but this was sweet.  We went to a totally Cambodian club with no other foreigners, proceeded to down a couple of pitchers and danced , danced , danced , to an electric mix of Cambodian folk songs with crazy bass and synths overlays , to Snoop Dogg , and back to whatever modern western club music there is. I’m not very knowledgeable about that nonsense. Cambodians would come up on the dance floor and ask how I knew about this place , and if I was having a happy , happy , time. They would then get me to show off my horrible dance moves and everyone would gather around and copy my stupid looking dances hahaha. After we head out Bunthy (my new friend) asks if I want to go see his home village outside of Phnom Penh.

“Sounds great!”

“Ok, friend see you at 7am!”

“Ehhhhhh?????”

It seemed like an early rise was in store. Good thing I drank a bunch of beer!

The morning rise managed to happen and I found myself cruising on the back of a motorbike across the Japanese Friendship bridge. We hopped off and grabbed some baguettes (thank you French!!) and then it was time to experience the Cambodian transit known as the share van aka. sardines in a tin can. Q. How many people can you jam into a breadbox van?  A. Always more! A hot , sweaty, 20 minutes later we disembarked at a gas station and flagged another motorbike to make it to his village. A little while later and then we made our way down a dirt path going down off the side of the road.

Village life is peaceful , slow , a bit dull , and has a lot of people hanging around doing not much of anything. Some people were down by the mighty Mekong bringing in the fish of the day , others were at market selling said fish, and still others were hanging out watching some T.V. Kids were running around like wild kicking old plastic bottles , and we took a little tour of the village. Bunthy would hop into to every house and say hi to his old neighbors , crack some jokes , and then we would be off again. The village was loaded with mango and coconuts and a villager was super kind and a cut down a few mangos for me to eat. I got to witness some wats being woven and then it was time to prepare some food.

In a village loaded with mango trees and near to the mighty Mekong it shouldn’t be hard to guess what might be for lunch. If you guessed stir-fried mango , with fried fish , and a paste made from smashed mango and fish mixed together then ding ding ding you are soo smart! If you guessed hamburgers , leave , just stop reading and go. The cooked mango was a bit weird at first but after a few bites I got acclimated to it and quite enjoyed the dish. I would have this many more times in Cambodia and came to like it a lot!

After the meal Bunthy’s family told us that a huge fish in a nearby temple. A bit got lost in translation and at first I thought that the monks had captured a huge fish and it was on display in the temple but apparently huge fish live in the lake next to the temple and people feed it. We hopped on a motorbike and took a quick ride to find out.

There is nothing like a motorbike ride in a rural tropical country. The sun shines down , the breeze is wonderful , and all worries melt away (not like I had any while being in Cambodia). The view is of green rice fields , tall palm trees, and blue , blue skies. There is barely any traffic on the rural Cambodian roads and when there is it might be a water buffalo pulling a load of watermelons , a massively overloaded truck stuffed with mattresses , or a home-built cargo hauler with fully exposed engine (seriously). We also passed some bike riders who were making their way from Vietnam (the border isn’t too far away from Phnom Penh).

The temple itself was a work of art. While Bunthy went to pray , I hung back and listened to the chimes and drums being played while the people lit incense and prayed. It was an immensely beautiful scene and the beauty of the music , the worship , and the overall atmosphere all combined to leave me deeply moved. I may have even wiped a little tear of joy from the corner of my eye.

Outside of the temple was a completely different story. The inside may have been a moving ode to peace , a perfectly captured scene of serenity but on the outside there was a huge screaming crowd gathered in a circle around two 7-year-old boys sumo wrestling. Seriously.Everyone was yelling and going crazy and when a child lost ,the announcer would hold his megaphone up to the loser’s mouth to capture his losing cry. Seriously. Hahahaha! There was a dude with a fancy video camera capturing the event and he caught me watching for a while. I may be a new superstar spokesman for child sumo wrestling in rural Cambodia.

I’ve almost hit 3000 words now and may be starting to bore some of you. I would just like to wrap things up with a talk about Chinese influence in Phnom Penh and leave you with some photos to gaze at. I will be hitting my alloted upload space soon. Damn. Ok , Chinese influence is everywhere here! Guesthouses will have an English name , Khmer name , and underneath that will be Chinese characters. I saw bars and clubs in Phnom Penh named Shanghai. New bridges , roads, and factories are all being built by the Chinese. Huge signs proclaim (in Chinese) the help and goal of the projects. My girlfriend and I also visited a restaurant in where the boss was yelling as his workers in Khmer and talking with some customers in Chinese. We asked him for the bill in Chinese and he yelled back at me the price in English. I wish I had known the super jumbo king prawn or whatever the heck those were were $15 a pop before ordering. I go to Cambodia to pay $47 for a Chinese restaurant meal?? I’ve never spent that much at a restaurant in Shanghai. Yikes. Another favorite place of mine was the 和平书店 aka the Peace Bookstore. An official store loaded with tons of pirated English books , one floor dedicated to Khmer books , one to English books , and one to Chinese books, yes please! The Lonely Planet Cambodia with a printed price of $27 on the book’s back but a $2 price tag slapped on the plastic? Yes Yes YES! My problem in Southeast Asia is that I buy so many books its crazy and then I cram them all into my bag making it super heavy by the end of the trip. I got a ton of books in the Philippines but they were official prices. Imagine what happens when the books are 1/5 to 1/10 the price. I even have a Kindle now to prevent the overload of books but I still can’t help myself when let loose in a bookstore. One last thing is the French owner of guesthouse , restaurant , near to S-21 told us that in the last few years the Chinese tourist numbers have exploded upwards. He said only a few years ago maybe 10% of guests were Chinese but now his guesthouse was occupied by 70% Chinese.

I probably have even more to write but man this post has gotten long. Time to upload some pics and let this beast loose on the web.

Kunming

Kunming is the provincial capital of Yunnan province and the region’s main transportation, education, and commercial hub. It is the main point of entry for travelers to Yunnan and it boasts bus, train , and airplane connections to all the Southeast Asian countries. It also served as a major hub in WWII and was the terminus of the infamous Burma Road. It’s also a big city with 6.9 million people or so and has some of the typical gray Chinese cityscape but it’s also surrounded by some fantastic nature. It’s been nicknamed the “Spring City” for its fantastic weather. The city is situated in a subtropical zone but is 1800 meters above sea level. This helps temperatures warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Average daily highs in December are around 60F 15C and high temperatures in the peak of summer are an excellent 75F 24C with little humidity. Stepping off the airplane into this weather was incredible after the muggy Beijing.

I got in pretty late at night (due to the cheaper flights leaving either late or way too early) and hopped in a 25 RMB taxi to the incredible Cloudland Hostel. I highly recommend this if you are heading to Kunming. Chill laid back groovy interior , nice muzak , a cool bar on the inside stocked with big bottles of Beer Lao , Dali beer and others (but those were the most important by far don’t worry about the rest). This hostel is also four stories with a nice sundeck on the roof! The other hostel in town , Hump Hostel, was pretty nice too but I really really liked Cloudland , go there!

The first full day in town was pretty relaxed. I rented a bicycle for 30 RMB for the day and just cruised around the streets of Kunming. I went up to the pretty nice CuiHu Park , which has a large lake , paddle boat rental , some restaurants , the town water pump museum , and is overall a nice relaxing area. Just north of the park is Yunnan University. I went to campus just to check things out and found a Chinese dreadhead! One day into Yunnan and already I’ve found one! After walking about on campus I rode my bike to the central plaza in Kunming , Jinbi Plaza , and walked around in the area looking at the vendors and restaurants. I stopped in at the Brothers Jiang restaurant to sample the local dish ,过桥米线 Guo Qiao Mi Xian (Over the bridge rice noodles). A pot of steaming chicken broth is brought out and then one proceeds to pour in their raw veggies , meat , egg , and noodles. Let it cook for a little bit and then enjoy! I got the seafood version and it was exquisite. After the meal I went back to the hostel to read a book and as so often happens in China was approached by some Chinese university students who wanted to hang out. We made plans to play some Badminton at their university the next day and then I was off to  drink some BeerLao! ( One of the finest macro-lagers in Asia I’d say) and hit the hay early.

The next day my friend Olivia was due in from Shanghai at 4pm so I just sunned on the rooftop with my book , Tai-Pan – James Clavell , you should definitely check out his Asian series. Great and very very long (mostly weighing in at over 1000 pages in paperback editions) which satisfies my book cravings. My friend Olivia arrived at the hostel and then it was immediately off to rent bicycles and cycle to Dianchi (Lake Dian) with our new found friends. Lake Dian lies at the feet of the Western Mountains and is a nice place to cruise on bikes and take in the scenery. After we went to a local restaurant and ordered a ridiculous amount of food. Olivia and myself are used to Shanghai prices so after seeing 6RMB per plate of veggie dishes we assumed they would be small and ordered a lot of them , much to our surprise each less than $1 USD dish was huge. We sat for a good part of two hours not wanting to waste any of the great food. After gorging and almost entering a food coma , it was back on the bicycles to cycle to Yunnan University Lake Campus to play some badminton. I haven’t played sports in forever and it was quite fun. I was reminded of University soo much , just riding around bicycles through campus , and hanging out at the sports complex , made me quite nostalgic for Kent State.

The next we rose early to take the long and convoluted journey out to the JiuXiang Karst caves. It involved taking city buses to the Eastern bus station , an intercity bus to YiLiang city and then finally one final bus to JiuXiang. The path was quite spectacular and wound through the mountains and we passed over a bridge near a dam and I swear this bridge was 200 meters tall. At point through we passed near a factory settlement that was belching noxious gases and the town was just dirty and smelled horrible , I felt terrible for the people I saw walking around without masks and the children playing outside , children who probably have never lived without that awful smell. I think after around 4 or 5 hours we arrived to the 20 square kilometer park area.

The first attraction after arrival was a quite journey in a small boat with rowers going down a river through a tight rift in the stone with towering rock walls on both sides. After this we descended down into the caves with the roaring river right beside. The caves themselves are lit up in Chinese fashion , think multi-colored lights everywhere. This effect in the cave was great and one of the best attractions was the area titled Fairy Goddess Palace. Once you arrive in the area you will see why it’s called that. Another great site was the naturally formed “Rice Paddy” stone formation. It really looks like a paddy with its series of pools that descend down the rock wall. After emerging from the caves you took a quick little cable car ride back to the main area. We had a bunch of spicy fried stinky tofu. This version of stinky tofu wasn’t bad but I do admit it takes some getting used too and I prefer the non-smelly version. After dinner it was time for the long and arduous bus rides back to Kunming.

Our last day in Kunming , July 2nd , we again headed for Lake Dian and from there took a city bus to the Western Mountains (XiShan 西山)。 This area has a walk through the forested sides of the mountain (although it’s just a road with beeping , smoke emitting cars for a while until you the ticket area). We choose to foot power our way through this. On the way up you can opt to check out a view temples that are probably worth visiting but after a year and a half in China I’ve felt I’ve seen enough temples,  after a while they all become the same. The hike up offers some gorgeous views of Lake Dian and the urban area sprawling out after that. These mountains aren’t too tall thankfully and we made it up and down successfully after a few hours. After hopping a bus back to town we grabbed our things and went out to the train station for our overnight sleeper train to Dali!!