This has been my least favorite city that I've visited during this trip. It's dirty and crowded and smells like garbage since there are always neglected piles of it in the street and on the sidewalks.
I nearly got run over by a stampede of scooters - while walking on the sidewalk. The tuk-tuk drivers are relentless. I get propositioned at least 20 times per day. I can't walk by one without getting yelled at "Lady, hey lady! You need tuk-tuk?" It's like the idea that a Westerner would want to actually walk anywhere is unthinkable to them - that, and they mostly just want my money.
However, my hostel, Aura, was kinda of cute. It had "themed rooms," a rooftop bar at night and decent design. I was in a 6 bed female share dorm with a Lily theme, which means one wall was covered in a huge picture of a flower and there was a vase with two plastic lilies in it on the single table. Could have used a bathmat. It was cute and clean and a bit off the beaten path which made is quieter and made me get a bit more exercise.
Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge Genocide
During my second afternoon, which was a Thursday and happened to be Thanksgiving Day in the States, I visited Pol Pot's infamous killing fields and S21 prison with my Aussie friend Jayme.
We watched a documentary on our air conned bus during the drive to The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and paid $3 upon arrival for the audio tour, which was well worth the cost. I think its much more respectful to listen quietly to narration about the atrocities that took place here, rather than have a tour guide shouting about it to you. This was only one of over 300 killing fields around the country where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered innocent people using farm tools and rather primitive weapons because bullets were too expensive.
The tour started by describing some of the structures that used to be there like the truck stop, the detention hall and a chemical substances storage room. Next to a lake you can stop and listen to a variety of survivor stories, each more gruesome than the next. Then you continue along the path to some mass graves, next to which are glass boxes containing cloth, bones and teeth from victims that surface during heavy rains. There's also the killing tree, where soldiers would execute babies and children by smashing them against the trunk. The tree and the fences surrounding the mass grave sites are covered in bracelets, like a kind of makeshift memorial, to which I added a bracelet of my own.
Being Thanksgiving and all, I was missing friends and family back home but I am incredibly thankful for this journey and all the wonderful people I've met and many lessons I've learned along the way. I'm also thankful for the lifestyle I am able to enjoy at home because I've seen first hand that most people around the world don't enjoy the same freedoms and luxuries that we so often take for granted, like you know, not being murdered by a crazy, genocidal dictator. My next thoughts revolved around the fact that we as humans are slow learners because genocide like this has happened again since then and is still happening today. I wonder if - in 40 years - tourists will be flocking to visit museums and mass graves in Syria, Africa and North Korea.
There is an official memorial as well, a large stupa near the entrance that contains seven levels of skulls and bones from the victims. The skulls on the lower levels are arranged by age and color coded by cause of death thanks to hours of investigation by forensic scientists.
As if that isn't shocking enough, we got back on the bus and headed to town to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum, which was a high school that was converted into the S21 prison where they detained and tortured hundreds of men, women and children. Immediately upon entering, I had a very heavy, eerie feeling staring at those yellow and white checkered floors, gray walls and barbed wire. Pictures of prisoners (mostly when they were alive but some post-mortem) are everywhere. Since pretty much all the people had done nothing to justify their imprisonment, they were often tortured into false confessions to satisfy Pol Pot's paranoia and bloodlust. Only two survivors of the prison are alive today and sometimes talk to visitors, but neither of them present during my visit. I opted to take more artistic photos that more subtly communicate the look and feel of this space:
It's tragic how many people were murdered but even more were worked or starved to death in rice fields in the countryside. All because one deranged dude was able to acquire so much misguided power and influence. And you know how his story ended - he died (albeit questionably) in his 70s after living a long and decent life with children and grandchildren on the border of Thailand after he was driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979. He never even really faced formal charges or punishment.
I suggested watching a happy Disney movie after this, but the next best thing Jayme and I could do was enjoy dinner and some fireworks at the riverfront since it was the last day of the annual Water Festival. We shared Khmer curry and Pad Thai and veggie spring rolls and were interrupted no less than half a dozen times by persistent kids trying to sell us the same braided bracelets that I already got suckered into buying in Battambang. Some tried more than once after we already said no. It's one thing if I'm at a market or a tourist-swarmed temple and I expect to face a barrage of locals trying to sell me stuff but it's not ok to come interrupt me in the middle of a meal, and the restaurants need to realize this.
Sightseeing Around the City
The next day, I met up with Dennis, a German that was at my hostel in Battambang last week. The plan was to catch the big, red hop-on, hop-off bus - not unlike ones that I've enjoyed using in so many other cities - except we found out it wasn't functioning even though it is advertised all over the city. Instead we made one tuk-tuk driver's day and agreed to let him transport us to some of the sights.
The first involved taking a ferry across the river to Mekong Island. This island was very basic and it felt like we were peeking into Cambodia's pre-urban past. Our driver took us to Silk Island where we got to meet and witness women traditionally weaving silk scarves on giant, wooden looms. Of course there was a shop at the end of the tour where I may or may not have bought a scarf or two. They had a lot of cool spaces that are free for the community to enjoy including wooden pavilions, parks with sculptures, wooden swings and cute little huts on stilts. We drove around and enjoyed the island scenery a bit longer before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
We stopped for lunch where I ordered pineapple fried rice which arrived sans pineapple before heading to the National Museum. This was quite a let down as the architecture and landscape of the museum itself is far more interesting than anything inside. It was mostly just statues or pieces of statues with little to no English information. I found one interesting series of paintings describing the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.
Since the museum was so "meh," we decided to skip the palace as well because it was $6 each to get in and then $10 for a tour guide. Our last stop was the Wat Phnom temple, which was probably the biggest disappointment of all, because it seemed to have lost all of its religious significance and was packed with people trying to make a buck off tourists. There was a stall selling offerings of lotus flowers and incense, a generic Cambodian souvenir tent and worst of all, a woman with little wooden cages full of birds who was charging $2 each if you wanted to free the poor creatures. I later heard that this was a scam and the birds are trained to return to the cage. Either way, Dennis and I were both appalled.
We spent some rest time at our respective hostels then met up for dinner. I was craving Western food so I had french fries and pizza and he ordered Mexican chili - which turned out to be a not-good idea. Pretty much all the menus for the main restaurants have 20 pages or more and hundreds of different beverages, breakfast, western, khmer, asian, thai, indian and apparently mexican dishes. However, I know for a fact they don't stock everything to make all of these offerings as I've ordered a few things that the server had to come back and tell me they couldn't make at the moment. You can order almost anything you can think of at a tourist-targeted restaurant in Phnom Penh.
But I digress. We met up with two girls that Dennis had met in Siem Reap. One was English and one was Aussie but both were living in Cambodia as teachers for International schools. I only had a couple ciders before parting ways because I'm basically an old lady now.
The next day I finally did some yoga, had breakfast and decided to see a movie. An old guy on a motorcycle offered to take me to the mall/cineplex for $2 then once I was on board, he raised the price to $3. I refused and told him the most I would give him was $2.50 because the distance was maybe 2 km - I just wouldn't make my 11:40 viewing time for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II if I had walked. The movie cost $5 for 3D and there might have been a total of three other people in the theater. The movie was in English with Khmer subtitles and was ok. From what I remember from the book, it still generally followed the original plot.
During the walk back to my hostel, I stopped at a Blind Massage business for a foot massage. My masseuse was a young woman named Phka (meaning Flower in Khmer) who seemed excited to practice her English because she was very chatty. She has 7 brothers and sisters, a husband and a daughter. So basically, she lives like most everyone else except she's blind.
Dining in the Dark
Continuing the spontaneous theme of the evening, I made a reservation at Dine in the Dark - which offers a three course meal served in pitch black darkness for $18. When I came back at 7 PM, my phone was confiscated and locked away until the end of my meal, ensuring I couldn't cheat and use it as a light source. My server, Honey, was blind and led me up the stairs to the beyond dark dining room. I was dining alone, not to mention the only patron in the restaurant at that time, and I was pleasantly surprised when she sat down and started chatting with me. She was somewhat petite, very smart and spoke very well. I found out she was currently studying at University and eventually wants to teach English. I also learned that she was born blind and that she is an orphan. (I can't even fathom what her childhood must have been like.)
As for the meal, it was amazing - definitely the best I had in Phnom Penh. The first course was a breaded, fried egg on top of a bed of shredded veggies - kind of like a salad. I tried just using my fork but it was impossible to eat blindly without using my left hand. The second course was a familiar taste of veggie Amok, or a mild coconut curry and rice. I tried to guess all of the vegetables that were in the dish: carrot, potato, zucchini, mushroom and squash. The last course was a fruity mousse topped with fruit. I guessed passion fruit or lime flavor for the mousse but it turned out to be mango/ginger topped with pieces of dragon fruit. (The host shows you pictures of your food after you finish eating.) Guess my palate isn't quite as refined as I thought!
I tipped Honey generously and thanked her for her wonderful service and pleasant company. It's seriously inspiring to see all that she is achieving. I asked if she had an email address and she brightly said "Yes and I have Facebook too!" My first thought was What? Blind people use Facebook? But after a moment I thought Yeah, why wouldn't they? They just have to interact with it slightly differently I guess. I found her account later and it turns out she has way more Facebook friends than I do.
The next afternoon, I was on a plane bound of Ho Chi Minh CIty (aka Saigon) in Vietnam.