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.
“Ok, friend see you at 7am!”
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.